It took quite a journey for Jim Austin’s forefathers to reach their family farm. His great great-grandfather was shipwrecked as he immigrated to America. His great-grandfather was born on the high seas. The family landed in Mississippi, joined a Gold Rush wagon train to California, and then rerouted to the Northwest.
Finally in 1878 they reached Oakville, Washington, a timber town that became a center for dairies and cheesemakers, where they founded Austin Farm. Ever since, the Austins have stayed put on what is now a 160-acre spread of land with about 130 heifers.
Jim said he always had it in his mind that he would work on the land even during college, when he studied computer programming. After all, the farm was in his blood. “From the time I could hardly walk,” he said, he would sit on a little stool in the milking parlor. By age 6, he was driving a tractor.
His college years brought something indispensable back to the farm: On a blind date, he met Janie. The occasion was her senior prom – her best friend knew a friend of his – and “we’ve been together ever since,” Jim said. When they married, 45 years ago, he talked to his father about going into partnership. Eventually, the couple bought him and his brothers and sisters out. They’ve never regretted it.
“We made up our minds a long time ago, we weren’t ever going to get rich, we just wanted to make a nice looking place we could be proud of,” Jim said.
They raised three children, who grew up with daily farm chores and “a good work ethic.” It sounds stern, but the property had a fun environment that made town kids hang out at the Austin home, instead of the other way around. Janie worked as a registered nurse, while helping out with whatever needed doing at home.
Visitors to the property these days will see clean fence rows, with weeds under control and “a nice big red barn,” built in 1920 and brightly painted. Cows are in the pasture at least six months out of the year, then in freestyle barns when the Northwest rains hit their peak. But the Austins’ commitment goes beyond the bucolic surface.
“A long time ago… my grandfather said, you have to leave the land better than you got it when you received it,” Jim said. “That’s kind of been my philosophy all along: Make the ground better, more productive, make the rivers cleaner and the farm better looking. That’s the philosophy I live by.”
That philosophy helped make a smooth transition to Organic Valley. About five years ago, after a heart attack, Jim started looking at cutting back on his workload. One person came by and put in a bid on his heifers. Then Organic Valley representatives reached out. Going organic and joining Organic Valley seemed like a potential solution.
“Because we hadn’t used pesticides and herbicides, we could transition to organics right away,” he said. Cows that had been treated with antibiotics were sold, and he kept only the heifers who met organic standards. Since then, he has won top awards for milk.
“We try to produce the best quality milk we can. We just try to do a good job, and that’s part of the pride in the farm,” Jim said. “When you’re fourth generation on the farm, you don’t want to be the one that loses the farm or has to give it up.”
Not likely. Jim and Janie’s older son is now their partner, just as they partnered with Jim’s father.
“It’s been a good life. It’s not that it hasn’t been hard at times, and trying at times, but… to have a family raised with the beautiful land, and the opportunities for growth… it’s hard to put into words, but it really just has been very worthwhile,” said Janie.
“We love it, the accomplishments of seeing the crops put up and the animals growing.”
What will the future bring?
“Hopefully, him slowing down,” said Janie, speaking after the light workday they had expected was complicated by a broken round baler. They were also taking time to celebrate family achievements: Jim had told his youngest granddaughter years ago that he would take her to Paris if she maintained perfect grades in high school. She just graduated with her 4.0, and seven family members are headed for France together.
And after that, they know where they want to go: Right back home.
“We consider ourselves to be successful because we’ve made a good living, we’ve raised good kids,” said Janie. “When we get together, they all want to come back to the farm.”