Farm, food and family
In southwestern Minnesota, Audrey Arner and Richard Handeen are securing a future for their farm by "perennializing" the landscape.

By Deborah A. Hyk
Posted September 1, 2005

Nestled in a grove of enormous elm trees, Richard Handeen’s grandparents home always seemed to him to be a magical jungle hideaway. As a boy, he imagined himself living there one day. Today Moonstone Farm is his home, and he and his wife, Audrey Arner, recognize that they’ve been blessed.

Yet it’s no accident that these blessings came to them. The couple's approach to farming their 240 acres near Montevideo, Minn., is rooted in stewardship. This stewardship is multifaceted: The couple deliberatively stewards the land, the community and their family life. One of the more recent efforts at stewardship involved "perennializing" their landscape. In Arner’s mind, this move would maximize all their stewardship efforts by turning the land into a highly productive food producing area.

The couple first considered leaving behind their focus on organic row crops to put at least a portion of their acreage in grass 14 years ago. But when Dennis Johnson, a professor of dairy production systems at the University of Minnesota’s West Central Research and Outreach Center in Morris, Minn., suggested they plant their entire farm to grass, “It seemed a bit extreme,” Arner remembers.

Stewardship of the land

Nevertheless, the idea took root in their minds. Eventually, the couple came to embrace the concept, and to decide that perennializing their farm was the best stewardship decision they could make for their farm, their family, and the wider environment. To get started, they connected with the Minnesota Institute for Sustainable Agriculture and the Land Stewardship Project. These organizations helped Arner and Handeen develop their life and farming goals, which are intricately interdependent.

“We knew we didn’t want our working environment to be one where we had to protect ourselves from poisons,” says Arner. Instead, she says, the goal was to work with Mother Nature. The couple recognized that spraying fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides threatened the integrity of the farm and its community.

Conversion from row cropping to pasture management allowed for a more harmonious relationship with the natural rhythms of the land. “Rye and vetch cover crops help provide the basis for creating perennial pastures,” says Arner. These plants also help control weeds. Even better, the conversion to this type of system helped reduce the need for off-farm inputs, another of the Arner and Handeen's objectives.

“We wanted the system to be self-sufficient,” says Handeen. The couple understood that converting to grass and having cattle to harvest that crop directly completed the cycle. But planting a "salad bar" for the cattle was only the first step. The land needed shrubs, trees, and other grasses to stabilize stream banks and provide shelter for wildlife. These permanent crops would round out an ecosystem, improving the health of the farm and the diversity of the larger landscape.

The cattle are primarily Saler/Hereford crosses. During the course of a year, Moonstone Farm will have about 100 head, with roughly 30 bound for market. One of the female adults in the herd is the matriarch. She keeps watch over the mothers and calves while they enjoy the grass and legume mix. The most common pasture combination is orchardgrass and alfalfa; other species include brome, timothy, bird’s foot trefoil and various types of clover.

Ultimately, several factors influence pasture plant choices for the salad bar. One factor is the hardiness of the grass or legume from year to year. Another is how well the cattle graze the plant.

Beyond the grassy rolling hills of the pasture, more perennial vines, trees and shrubs add to the diversity of the plant life. Some of these acres are enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program, and will provide timber, fruits and nuts in future years. Although technically out of production, the land supports “all kinds of productivity,” says Handeen. The farm also has a young vineyard, comprised primarily of Frontenac grapes, that within a few years could supply what Arner calls “the embryonic wine-making culture in the upper Minnesota River valley."

“We have elderberry and Nanking cherry bushes, apple and plum trees, hazelnut, walnut and butternut trees, and white pine,” says Handeen. From the first moment the sun breaks the grip of winter, says Arner, the landscape is replete with plants that can capture that energy and convert it to food for animals and humans. Row cropping cannot do this, she says, because the soil needs to be prepared in a time- and energy-consuming, weather-dependent manner. Thus, a conventional system ultimately fails to exploit these months of priceless, life-giving sunshine.

When pastureland needs to be renovated, Handeen uses a no-till drill to interseed, usually orchardgrass into alfalfa. Currently, gopher activity in one paddock has Handeen considering more aggressive action with a Lely Rotera. This tool rotates horizontally rather than vertically in the soil, thereby disrupting fewer layers, and the couple hopes it will serve to discourage the gophers. “Unfortunately, the gophers really clear the grazing lands of forage,” says Handeen.

The grasses and plants also further stewardship by reducing erosion into Moon Creek, a tributary of the Minnesota River, which has recently been identified as seriously contaminated by pollutants. “We like to think of our farm as a water catchment area rather than a watershed,” says Audrey. The farmers have discovered by testing that the perennial plantings and grasses have reduced runoff of the loamy soil. A grass-based farm like Moonstone benefits from dense root system that hold nutrients and soil firmly in place, protecting the farm’s ground water from nitrates that otherwise might leach through the soil into the water table. Furthermore, the water that runs into Moon Creek and ultimately into the Minnesota is free of chemicals that could be harmful to wildlife, prairie flora and humans alike.

Stewardship of the community

Preparing their farm for grazing helped Arner and Handeen realize another of their farm goals-- to raise healthy food for their local community. The Moonstone Farm website, www.prairiefare.com/moonstone, cites research showing that grass-fed cattle are higher in omega 3s and conjugated linoleic acid, which in turn are linked to lower rates of heart disease and other health problems.

Arner and Handeen knew that the food raised on their farm could benefit not only people within their family, but individuals and businesses in the area as well. Today, Moonstone beef is served at a café in Montevideo called Java River and at Café Barbette (www.barbette.com) in the Twin Cities. The Java River menu includes details about Moonstone's organic, grass-based management methods. Another Minneapolis business, a bowling alley/theater/eatery called Bryant Lake Bowl (www.bryantlakebowl.com,) reports that their top-selling menu items are Moonstone burgers.

Moonstone also sells to individuals and natural foods stores around the Montevideo area. For Arner and Handeen, the people who enjoy their beef are co-creators or co-producers, not consumers. “The food does something for them; it helps them to be healthy,” says Handeen.

Arner and Handeen embrace the philosophy of Slow Food (www.slowfood.com) and consider it to be central to their own lives. Slow food starts with raising food in a manner that is in harmony with nature, and continues with eating and enjoying that food with generosity, good will and good fellowship. The slow food movement seeks to preserve the cultural diversity of food and the biodiversity of the landscapes that produce it.

There was another aspect of the magical homestead that was now enriching Arner and Handeen’s lives: Hospitality. “We’re social people,” says Arner. So they took action to make their farm a place where good food is not only produced and eaten, but enjoyed by as many members of the local and wider community as possible.

Four years ago, Arner and Handeen moved an old brooder house onto a concrete slab that once supported a granary. They renovated the interior, installed electricity, and added some artistic country charm. Paintings by the couple’s daughter, Malena Handeen, adorn the walls. They christened the unique, simple guesthouse the "Broodio"—a combination of brooder house and studio.

Visitors are invited to soak up the culture of the farm. Inside the Broodio, you can hear songbirds singing from the fruit trees that dot the edges of the pasture. The lowing of cows filters in with the sunshine. If you prefer, you can camp out under the jungle canopy that first enchanted Handeen as a child.

Broodio accommodation is marketed as "bed and bagel"—a night’s rest along with organic coffee and bagels for breakfast. Guests can use the outhouse or come up to the family home for bathing. Arner and Handeen also offer the Broodio to visiting artists participating in an "artist in residence" program run within the local school district.

Another converted outbuilding on the farm serves as housing for interns--this summer, a student from Costa Rica is interning.

Stewardship of the family

Family goals factor in every major decision on the farm—from perennializing to hosting gatherings. “We have things we want to do other than tending livestock,” says Arner. Sometimes, reducing off-farm inputs increases on-farm labor requirements. But emphasizing perennial crops translates into fewer hours operating and maintaining equipment.

Time spent away from farm chores is valuable to the family at Moonstone. Children, grandchildren, friends and community are nourished not only by food, but by shared moments. When farm practices gobble up those moments, the family is not sustained.

Financial sustainability is another critical consideration. Arner and Handeen want to make sure that they, like their farm, will be self-sustaining into their retirement years. Reduced inputs mean increased profit margins, better quality products, and strong customer loyalty—helping to secure the future strength of the farm. But that future is also made possible by being receptive to the needs of the family.

The couple is intentional about improving family life and the space that supports it. Their son, Daniel Handeen, a graduate student in architecture, is currently helping them design and build an outdoor living space, incorporating the principles of permaculture, to further improve the time they spend together.

“We’re about food,” says Arner. Food is how their family comes together; it's the source of their income and the basis of their connection with customers. The family's goals are grounded in the values of the Slow Food movement. Arner and Handeen are preserving a way of raising beef and, in doing so, sustaining their farm, their family and their community. Moonstone Farm demonstrates daily that sustaining each part of this circle is the best way to sustain the whole.

Deborah A. Hyk is a freelance writer based in central Minnesota.