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Farmers will attend Italy's 'Terra Madre' slow food conference

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Farmers will attend Italy's 'Terra Madre' slow food conference
Willmar Minnesota 2208 Trott Ave. SW / P.O. Box 839 56201

MONTEVIDEO -- Recently married and just out of college, Richard Handeen and Audrey Arner settled in 1972 on the land his great-grandparents first tilled exactly 100 years earlier.

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They came with aspirations to defy the conventional wisdom: They intended to keep the farm small, and work toward the day when they could raise a variety of healthy foods for local consumption instead of corn and soybeans to be shipped away as commodities.

Today, the 240-acre Moonstone Farm is an island of green amid the brown fields of corn and soybeans that surround it in Chippewa County's Sparta Township. Cattle graze on prairie grass lands bounded by fields of alfalfa. Inter-mixed are 40 acres of woodlands holding 42 varieties of perennial species.

Two college interns are currently helping the couple harvest hazel nuts. They work amidst apple trees holding softball-sized Honey Crisps there for the taking.

The vineyard is heavily laden with grapes waiting to become wine.

Two sisters from the East Coast are staying in the Broodio, a cozy cabin holding a wood burning stove. They have come to explore their family's roots in Minnesota, but are having nearly as much fun exploring the farm around them.

Just a short distance from their lodging, a carpenter is working on the small store where visitors purchase Moonstone beef and everything from cheese and honey to organic flour provided by other, local food producers.

Arner and Handeen are seeing their early dreams come to fruition, but as they point out, "it is no accident.'' Building the markets and consumer demand for local foods that makes this all possible has taken years of hard struggle by many, they said.

There is much work yet to be done. It is why the couple along with Jim and LeeAnn VanDerPol of the Pastures A Plenty farm near Kerkhoven is headed in late October to Turin, Italy. They are among eight Minnesota farmers invited to attend the international slow food conference known as "Terra Madre", or Mother Earth.

An expected 6,000 farmers from around the world will join to discuss how they can promote small scale and sustainable food systems.

On one level, it's all about economics, according to Handeen. Local food production benefits local economies by keeping people on the land and the money in the local economy, he explained.

It's also about preserving a way of life. The slow food movement is seen by many as a way to preserve the food cultures of various regions, as well as the heritage breeds and seeds that could otherwise be lost.

It's very much like saving an indigenous language, said Arner. It has to be made part of daily life and kept in use if it is to survive.

Arner and Handeen attended the conference in 2004 and found themselves amazed at the diversity of people striving to do the same things. They met Norwegian shepherds tending to the wild sheep that once provided the wool for Viking sails. They chatted with Brazilian men who harvest wild nuts in the Amazon forest and Somali women who cultivate hibiscus and had never walked on concrete until they made the trip to Turin.

Minnesota is seeing a growing local foods movement, but Arner and Handeen said the biggest challenge of all is ahead. Now that the demand for local foods is growing, ways have to be found to supply it.

In this part of the state, it comes down to one basic question: "Who is going to farm?'' asked Arner. She said it is becoming increasingly critical to make it possible for young people to start farming with the same aspirations as she and her husband brought to the land: To raise food instead of commodities in ways that benefit the local environment and economy.

The Land Stewardship Project in Montevideo is hosting a fund raising event in Memorial Park in Granite Falls from 3 to 7 p.m. today to help the two couples with the expenses to attend the concert. It will feature live music, a silent auction, local foods and Minnesota beer and wines.

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