Family, community and produce: Looking inside Paonia’s Austin Family Farm
Special to the Vail Daily
When you visit the Austin Family Farm in Paonia, it is immediately apparent that it’s an operation rooted in strong values of family, community and environmental stewardship.
The Austin family has always believed in supporting their community through food education, which is why it was an easy decision for them to begin partnering with the Community Market, a local hunger-relief project, to improve access to local produce for low-income individuals in Eagle County.
A family legacy
Patriarch and owner Glenn Austin started the farm as a small orchard in 1993, but farming has been part of his family history dating back to the 1700s.
“My ancestor fought in the Revolutionary War and got a land grant in Tennessee, where I grew up,” Austin said. “My family has been farming ever since and my brother still farms that property in Tennessee.”
While much of his farming equipment dates back to the late 1800s and early 1900s, Austin’s dedication to crafting new seed varieties and growing high-quality, nutritious produce at altitude that keeps customers asking for his product by name.
“There’s kind of a science to it, and there’s an art to it, and the art is what you strive for,” Austin said. “You give me paper and a paintbrush, I’m not an artist at all. But with seeds and soil, I like to think I am.”
This juxtaposition of experimentation and tradition is illustrated in the row of brand-new hazelnut trees, planted right alongside a row of green bean plants whose seed variety has been in the Austin family for generations.
“My grandmother got this variety of green beans for her wedding,” he said. “Her aunt gave her a little handkerchief with a few green bean seeds in it for a wedding present — that’s how poor they were.”
Austin never forgot his humble beginnings, which he said taught him the value of hard work at a young age. He went to school and earned a degree in agriculture, later going on to earn a master’s as well.
After working for four years with Monsanto Chemical Co., Austin decided that he was going to run his farm differently by using less chemicals and, instead, rely on more natural methods to keep his soil and his plants healthy.
The value of eating local
“When we use cover crops, we’re improving the soil in a natural way. You see, here, we’re using legumes,” Austin said as he pointed to the unruly plants growing at the base of his apricot trees. “They’re producing the nitrogen and nutrients for the trees to use, so we’re basically growing our own soil health instead of having to buy chemical fertilizers.”
Down to the squirming earwigs, Austin respects every part of the biological cycle that has supported farming in the North Fork Valley for generations.
“We don’t just go kill something because at some point or other it could be harmful, because it may be a very beneficial thing,” Austin said. “The conventional farmers are convinced that if they didn’t use all the fertilizers and chemicals, that you’d starve because they couldn’t grow enough food. But there’s something called nutrient-dense food which goes a lot further.”
According to an article by the Bionutrient Food Association, “Nutrient Density is the end product of a highly functioning biological system, where the crop harvested has a measurably larger quantity of a broad spectrum of different minerals, vitamins, phytonutrients, and antioxidants than its counterparts.”
“That’s what I like to help people understand: You don’t have to have the perfect-looking stuff from the grocery stores that tastes like cardboard,” Austin said. “You can have something that really has great flavor and great nutritional value but may have some defects on it.”
Austin pointed out that the produce we typically see in the grocery store, which has been shipped from large growers across the country, has less flavor because farmers are forced to harvest produce early so it lasts longer. For this reason, large growing companies often use chemical flavor additives to ensure that produce still tastes good to the consumer.
“So to keep it cheap, the average piece of food that you buy in the store has traveled about 1,200 miles to get to that store,” Austin said. “What we try to do is very simple. We don’t pick fruit before it’s ready — we harvest it when it’s ripe, when it should be picked.”
Kelly Liken, food systems director for the Community Market, understands the value of eating local from her experience as a professional chef. However, buying local produce at the Eagle County farmers markets can be financially challenging for low-income families.
For this reason, Liken made it a priority to ensure that customers coming to shop at the Community Market have access to local, nutrient-dense produce.
“Local produce means something,” Liken said. “We are bringing together a community and keeping it sustainable when we are eating locally. We are eating food that is intended to be eaten in that season and therefore we’re a part of creating and nurturing an authentic and real community food system.”
Family and community
Austin helps the Community Market by aggregating produce from his farm and his neighbors’ farms and selling it to them at a reduced rate of $1 per pound. The Community Market is currently sourcing between 750 and 1,000 pounds of North Fork Valley produce every week with the help of Austin Family Farm.
“Austin Family Farm has become the perfect partner for us at the Community Market,” Liken said. “The Austin family truly believes in what we are doing, and we’ve been so lucky to have them working with us all summer to close the loop on such a great distribution challenge.”
Family and community are important to the Austins. The farm is run entirely by the Austin family, except for harvest time, when they hire local high school kids to help out.
In addition to their partnership with the Community Market, Austin and his wife, Tony, open their home to around 30 to 60 students every week to show them the farm and teach them about agriculture.
“Well part of the reason why we’re here in Colorado is because we enjoy helping others,” Austin said. “I’m glad that I can make a difference in people’s health while also making a living for myself and for my family.”
For Austin, farming has always been about much more than making a living. It has been about connecting with the land to create something valuable, a legacy to leave to his grandchildren.
“I have four generations on this farm right now,” Austin said. “I’m the first, then there’s my daughter, three grandsons and two great-grandkids, and they’re 5 and 3. But you see, that makes a difference. You’ve got a lot invested. When you’ve got life invested, money doesn’t matter.”
Kelli Duncan is a marketing and volunteer coordinator with the Community Market, a project of Eagle Valley Community Foundation.