by Anne Queenan
The move for Audrey Arner from eastern Pennsylvania to Southwest Minnesota meant a passage from a landscape filled with mountains, forests, slate quarries and coal mines to a terrain of wide open prairies, fields and glacial remains in the Upper Minnesota River Valley. Acres of crops lined the horizon near Montevideo where Audrey and her husband, Richard Handeen, settled after graduating from Macalester College. Still in their twenties, Audrey learned to love the land, using the words of Minnesota author Bill Holm who called it – “ the cultivation of the prairie eye” – an appreciation for the subtlety in the landscape with its gradual changes in color and contour. And along with that came a deep respect for its rich history. Here, on an old family farmstead passed down through four generations from Richard’s Swedish ancestors, Johanna and Johan Handeen, they began to care for their domain.
From her earliest days on the farm, Audrey focused intently on its native plants, making plans with Richard and other sustainable farmers to transform their own way of farming 240 acres of what is now Moonstone Farm. And transform the land they did – from a past culture that raised corn or soybeans, to rich pastures with thirteen carefully chosen species of grasses and hay supporting a new herd of cattle. Wooded land designated for conservation hosts 42 species of newly planted trees.
This transformation to biodiversity through the use of innovative grazing methods and perennials provides many benefits to nearby ecosystems. Improvements to soil quality, the local food system, energy use and the retention of groundwater under the earth… all of these have a positive impact on the Minnesota River.
Relationships continue to thrive through Audrey and Richard’s efforts. The community is wide. Farmstay visitors come for recreation, birdwatching, meeting local people, and touring the countryside. International interns come to learn about organic farming.
Members of the local community work together on sustainable land use and water quality efforts. All enjoy the rich art and culture from the region’s artists annually showcased during the popular art crawl called The Meander.
Through the years, Audrey has played an instrumental role in galvanizing local efforts as a community organizer for the Land Stewardship Project. Here she collaborated with other farmers in new developments in grazing, wetlands and sustainability. She has helped shape and facilitate the quarterly meetings of the Minnesota River Watershed Alliance which continues to play a key role in building citizen’s awareness of and involvement in the condition of the Minnesota River. Audrey and Richard actively participate in many efforts of Clean Up the River Environment (CURE). Recently, Arner joined in with the efforts of an Iowa program to meet with with older female farmers or landowners who are widows exploring new stewardship methods on their land.
Moving forward, the work is all about passing it on. Richard and Audrey’s daughter, Malena, continues to work her own land, with her husband, Michael, through a Community Supported Agricultural farm called Easy Bean. Audrey continues to believe in the potential of young farmers which is reflected in her current focus. All of this, in an interconnected effort for a quality lifestyle gently touching the ecosystems and the surrounding prairie waters in the watershed of the Minnesota River.
To learn more, read the transcript of this interview.