Austin Brothers Valley Farm

Published in CISA’s April 2010 Enewsletter.

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Transitions can be tricky, particularly when you have 130 years of a family business hanging in the balance. Doubly so when that business is dairy farming.

“I was always interested in the cattle as a kid. Growing up on the farm was fun for me; I liked what I did and I like being around the animals” says Michael Austin about the Belchertown dairy farm his family has operated for generations. Michael’s great grandfather and great grandmother bought the land and established the dairy farm in 1889, and Michael learned the family business from his parents, Bill and Roxanne.

Milk production was the farm’s mainstay until 2006, when the economy began to take its toll. As energy costs skyrocketed and milk prices fell to an historic low, the family began to consider doing something else with the farm. Michael recalls, “Everybody was tired. It’s very physical work. We kept looking at our books, and each month the bills got higher and the milk checks lower.” They had been raising their own beef and giving it as gifts to friends and family. “People always enjoyed it and commented on it, so we decided to give it a try.”

In October 2009, the family started a meat CSA, a community supported agriculture venture. Like a typical vegetable CSA, individuals purchase annual “shares” in the farm up front, and receive meat throughout the year. “We sell everything from the nose to the tail. We sell every cut of streak, T-bone, tenderloin, chuck, ground beef, beef sausage, prime rib roast, pork, ribs, and much more. We have a great product, high quality” says Roxanne.

Their animals are raised on 130 acres of green pasture and the farm does not use hormones or feed additives. Twenty four members enrolled in the first few months the CSA was open. But, admits Roxanne, “Getting the word out has been a challenge.” She has used her membership in CISA’s Local Hero program to help expand her promotion skills and has taken part in workshops on business communications, pricing, reaching wholesale markets, and working with the media. “A recent survey revealed that 92% of our Local Hero members believe participating in the program has a positive impact on their farm businesses” says Devon Whitney-Deal, CISA’s Local Hero membership coordinator. In addition, 66% of the membership reported increased sales over last year.

The family admits they still have much to learn about the complexities of market demand. “Everybody wants grass-fed. I’ve learned a fair amount about it, and I’m always trying to learn more” says Michael. And how does it feel to have made the transition from a dairy farm to raising animals for beef and pork? Michael’s father, Bill, sums it up: “Meat is just as challenging as the dairy business was, although I’m finding it to be more rewarding. I do miss the girls out there in the pasture, though.”

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