The line “the cattle are lowing” from the Christmas song, “Away in a Manger,” comes to mind while listening to the cattle serenade their owner, Michael Austin, during feeding time at Austin Brothers Valley Farm in Belchertown, MA.
The friendly mix of purebred Simmentals, Black Angus, Limousins and Herefords are grass-fed on 50 acres of pasture and several hundred farm-harvested round bales in winter, plus corn and silage grown on another 35 acres. The farm has five barns, a storage shed and garage.
But the cattle do have to share. During October through Halloween, three and half acres of their cornfield becomes a family-friendly corn maze, which has delighted more than 1,000 adventurers for four years. Some people do get lost, Austin admits, but they find their way out. “I haven’t run anybody over in the field,” he joked.
“I just have a great time, watching kids play. I take them out on a haywagon, take a bale of hay with me, and they get to feed a handful to the cows. The kids just light up. We do have fun around here.” Employees from Home Depot enjoy themselves as well — they celebrated their employee appreciation day there this fall.
Austin’s mother and aunt even conjured up a pumpkin slingshot so folks can sling goblin gourds during visits to the maze or their 2-acre pumpkin patch.
Having the maze has amplified his appreciation for the farm, which was started by his grandfather, Joseph Austin, and his brothers, Paul, Louis and Frances (best known as Doc), 130 years ago. The fifth generation, Michael manages the cattle side, while he and his father, Bill Austin, manage the crops.
“I never dreamed, never knew, how much fun we actually had on the farm when I was a kid. I have a wonderful wife, and four wonderful kids, everybody having a good time, and it means a lot to me,” said Michael, now age 38.
He lived near the farm growing up, and lives there now with his wife Kathy and their children. Everyone helps out, including some of his own kids, and two aunts, Maureen and Eileen Austin, who live a stone’s throw away.
The Austins doubled the pasture and cropland of the farm’s 150 acres by renting 150 more acres. They grow 15,000 square bales, selling 12,000 of them for horses. Customers pick up or they deliver. The other bales are saved for an assortment of 10 horses that his daughters ride.
They sell USDA-inspected beef aged 14 to 21 days to increase tenderness and flavor, and offer custom-cut orders of beef from their farmstore — sides of beef or whole.
They supply Sutter’s Meat, and restaurants Sierra Grille and Green Bean in Northampton. They just finished selling outside at a farmers market on the Northampton Common, and moved indoors to the middle school with the South Hadley farmers market on Thursdays.
“Eight years ago we were milking cows,” said Michael. The Austins gave that up due to the economy. They realigned their product, from milk, profitable in his grandfather’s day, to beef, to fit the times.
The farm is a magnet for his sister, Megan Austin, DVM. Megan is a DVM regulatory vet for New York Racing Association (NYRA) at Belmont Park in Elmont, NY. She visits the farm on weekends with her golden retriever puppy Cory. While Doc, who was also a veterinarian, remains a local legend for being the first area vet to use penicillin, (while treating a nearby Guernsey bull), Megan didn’t become a vet because of him. She became a vet because of the animals.
The animals are also a magnet for Austin’s son Jim, who has worked with oxen since he was two. Now 15, he competes in fairs with his oxen Mickey and Goofy, and was the youngest out of 15 competing teamsters — most in their 20s and 30s — competing this year at the Association of New England Ox Teamsters Pull, gaining his own legendary status.