MONTEVIDEO, MINN. -- Even in mid-October, the little farm near the Minnesota River Valley is a stark oasis of lush green surrounded by a landscape of black plowed fields or tawny corn ready for harvesting.

"This is what our land used to look like,'' said Audrey Arner, pointing to a jet-black plowed field of harvested soybeans that borders her property.

The difference is night and day. And that's the difference in how Arner and her husband Richard Handeen farm compared to their neighbors. They don't plow their 240 acres, or plant row crops such as soybeans and corn. They long ago converted their land to perennial grasses, where they raise and sell grass-fed beef cattle. Some 7,000 trees and 42 species of shrubs have been planted in a matrix of treelines, sheltering the land and animals from wind, snow and erosion, and providing wildlife with habitat and food.

"The habitat on the farm provides us with an income, but it also benefits wildlife,'' said Handeen, whose parents and grandparents worked the farm.

Deer, pheasants, songbirds, and yes, even coyotes, are attracted to the habitat. The couple has tallied 90 different bird species. And friends and family bagged six pheasants on opening weekend of the hunting season.

"We saw a lot,'' said Arner, including 30 hens and juvenile birds on Saturday.

"If you were a pheasant, where would you rather be?'' she asked, standing between her neighbor's empty plowed field and her green pastures, segmented by thousands of trees and shrubs.

The couple is among a small but growing number of farmers who use methods to restore and protect the land, improve habitat for domestic and wild animals, while also providing income. The methods reduce soil erosion and water pollution, lesson the use of chemicals and improve the soil. It harkens back to simpler times, when small farms dotted the landscape and farmers put their cattle out in pastures instead of planting all their land in corn and soybeans.

Farms practicing "sustainable agriculture'' can offer far more wildlife habitat than conventional farms, said Terry VanDerPol of the Minnesota Land Stewardship Project, a non-profit group that promotes sustainable agriculture. The group has about 2,800 members, including 700 farms.

"A couple of rough winters has hurt the pheasant population, but I would argue that a larger proportion would have made it through [the winter] if we had more farms like Audrey's and Richard's with good cover,'' VanDerPol said.

Earning a living

For a farm to be sustainable, it obviously needs to provide an income for the owners. Arner and Handeen grow most of their own food at their Moonstone Farm, and take in enough income to live modestly, but comfortably, Arner said. They have about 80 head of cattle and sell their grass-fed beef to restaurants, local residents and people from the Twin Cities. Demand outstrips supply.

"We have a waiting list,'' she said.

Could they make more money if they raised corn and beans?

"Of course we could,'' she said. "We could take advantage of federal price supports and crop insurance programs that guarantees profits.''

Arner said federal farm policy over the years has created the current landscape.

"This is what the federal farm program pays us to do,'' she said, looking out over the plowed field. "That's why we have a monoculture of corn and soybeans.''

The plowed fields will be exposed to wind and rain erosion from October until crops are fully established in June.

"Our land is still covered in green,'' she said Saturday. "There's still photosynthesis going on.''

However, some federal farm policies have encouraged sustainable agriculture.

Some of Arner's and Handeen's land has been enrolled in the federal Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), which pays landowners to take farmland out of production. And the Conservation Stewardship Program also pays landowners to practice conservation on working lands.

Arner, Hardeen and others are concerned that federal budget cutbacks could gut some of those programs.

They also say beneficial changes to the landscape can be made without wholesale changes to agriculture. A project in the Chippewa River watershed in western Minnesota aims to change 10 percent of the landscape, enough, supporters say, to have a major impact on the environment.

Consumer support?

Ultimately, Arner said, public demand could help change the Minnesota landscape. The demand for organic and locally-grown food has increased. Even supermarkets have separate organic food departments.

"It takes consumers to help support a kind of agriculture that keeps the water clean, fosters wildlife habitat and that can support humans,'' she said.

Doug Smith •