Frank Austin’s agricultural philosophy is tied to the oath he took when joining the U.S. Air Force.
“My basic drive comes from ‘We the people,’” he said, referring to the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution that he promised to support and defend, which, among other things, charges people to “promote the general welfare.”
For Austin, winner of this year’s Franklin County Conservation District’s Bankers Award for water quality, promoting the general welfare is done through water conservation.
“I feel it is required by the American Constitution,” he said. “The opportunity presents itself through these cost-sharing projects … with the help of federal money, we put in earth dams to form ponds.”
Austin’s land — about 900 acres — sits north of John Brown Road near the Franklin/Miami county line. About 160 acres are in Miami County; the remainder lies in Franklin County.
Pond building and clearing have been opportunities for him to turn relatively unproductive areas into ones that maximize water productivity.
“I am a steward of the land,” he said, as he talked about what little control farmers have over resources like rainfall.
All water recycles itself, Austin said, whether it’s through consumption by cattle or crops, evaporation or draining into other bodies of water and eventually the Gulf of Mexico.
“The underlying purpose is to slow down the drainage of water,” he said of his ponds, which also supply water to his longhorn cattle.
Though his numbers vary with the market, Austin has about 50 or 60 head of longhorn, plus crops like soybeans and corn. Which crops he produces also depends on the market, but Austin does all dryland farming, meaning he doesn’t irrigate his land.
Austin participated in the Environmental Quality Incentives Program through the U.S. Department of Agriculture and National Resources Conservation Service, Keri Harris, district manager of the Franklin County Conservation District, said.
The program gives producers financial and technical assistance to put conservation practices into place that will optimize environmental benefits on working agricultural land, Harris said.
Cost sharing varies, but federal money totals about 30 percent, with the remainder coming from a farmer’s pockets, Austin said.
Though the 84-year-old lives in Ottawa, he still spends a few hours each day on his farm. Doyle Morgan, Ottawa, and Randy Kitchen, Osawatomie, help Austin with the day-to-day cattle/hay and farming operations, and he said his grandson, Cole Oberg, helps too.
Austin has four children, Barbara Garrison, Susan Michael, Sallie Swanson and Frank Austin IV.
Farming in Austin’s family all started when his aunt gave his sister a horse. To feed the horse, Austin’s father had to bale hay. To do that, he needed equipment. And in order to buy equipment, he decided to start farming and purchased 40 acres.
“The cycle kept getting bigger and bigger,” he said, noting that those original 40 acres remain part of his farm today.
Austin said conservation practices started with his parents. His mother won a Bankers Award for soil conservation in 1986.
Austin graduated from the University of Kansas in the 1950s with a degree in civil engineering. He recalled a hydrology class in which his professor said war in the 21st century would be over water.
After graduation, Austin joined the U.S. Air Force and became a pilot. He retired as an officer in the middle 1970s, returned to the area and turned his attention to farming.
In reflecting on the life of a farmer, Austin described the phases of cattle and crop cycles. For crops, it’s turning the land over, preparing the surface, putting in rows, watching seeds come up, harvesting the crop, taking the truck to market and using money earned to do it all over again.
“It’s hidden benefits that the farmer gets to see,” he said. “A farmer is a continual piece of the cycle.”
Jodie is the Ottawa Herald's reader engagement editor.