Woman Land Owner Audrey Arner
When you ask Audrey Arner to tell you the history of her farm, she begins by mentioning the glaciers that passed through the area 14,000 years ago, carving out the Minnesota River Valley. “The glacier is what created our soils,” she says. Audrey and her husband Richard Handeen own and operate Moonstone Farm near Montevideo, MN, in the southwest corner of the state. The farm was settled in 1872 by Richard’s grandparents, who emigrated from Sweden. They bought 240 acres of prairie and began growing wheat. A century later, Audrey and Richard began their turn as stewards of the family farm.
“At that time, this farm was all in corn one year, all in soy the next,” Audrey recalls. “We began to diversify this landscape with perennial plants. Now the entire 240 acres is pasture, hay fields and trees.” Moonstone Farm produces grass-fed beef, and offers farm stays in their guest cottage to people who want to relax in a beautiful natural setting.
Conservation and healthy food and farming methods have been important to Audrey and Richard since they met in the Twin Cities as young people involved in the development of the early food cooperatives there. When they began farming, they wanted to use their land to contribute to the healthy food system they envisioned. They began transitioning their land to organic in the early 1990s, and adopted holistic management practices (see www.holisticmanagement.org for more information on this system). Raising livestock to graze and fertilize the landscape is a crucial part of the management of the farm. Taking a cue from its prairie history, the entire 240 acre-farm is now planted in continuous living cover, including hay and grass, and 40 acres of woody species including trees and shrubs.
"The way we manage our farms can create habitat and improve water quality,” Audrey says. Keeping soil covered with perennial plants prevents erosion, and keeps nutrients in place rather than letting them run into nearby streams or ponds. At Moonstone Farm, a small pond is the focus of summer activities. Because the surrounding landscape is primarily grasses, the water remains clear throughout the summer. Southwest Minnesota residents recently learned that none of the lakes in their area are considered safe for swimming, due to nutrient runoff from farm fields.
“A lot of black dirt was exposed around us all winter,” Audrey says. “The soil blew out of those unprotected fields, filling the ditches. It was sickening.” As a female landowner, Audrey encourages other women to tell their tenants they want to keep the soil and nutrients in place on their land. “Review your rental agreement. Express your conservation values, and suggest using cover crops and extended crop rotations. If the renter balks, shop around for another one.” Many young farmers are eager to access farmland, and will understand and support your conservation values.
Audrey and Richard at age 64 are down-sizing their farming operation and looking ahead to passing on their farm to a beginner whose values will make the farm even more healthy and resilient. “As we move into a time of uncertainty about our economy and the climate, we want to be able to build in resilience.”
As a farmer and a member of the staff of the Land Stewardship Project, a conservation non-profit based in Minnesota, Audrey has worked with many female landowners and finds them excellent conservation partners. “Women are making generational decisions, and realizing they don’t want to leave it to chance or the highest bidder. They can have some control over what happens to their farm, and make sure the soil is taken care of well in addition to maintaining productivity.”
Audrey recommends contacting non-profit organizations in your area for information and support. Go to conferences, take online classes, and contact staff. Some of the upper Midwest non-profits she recommends include the Land Stewardship Project (www.landstewardshipproject.org), Sustainable Farming Association (www.sfa-mn.org), Practical Farmers of Iowa (www.practicalfarmers.org) and the Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service, or MOSES (www.mosesorganic.org).
To learn more about Moonstone Farm, or to contact Audrey, visit www.moonstonefarm.net.