Tuesday, April 20, was a special day for Jim Austin of Harmony. He not only celebrated his 82nd birthday, but also marked the end of a 57-year career with Harmony Agri-Services. As he reflected on his time spent working at the agricultural center, Austin noted many changes as well as expressed gratitude for the opportunity to work with so many excellent customers and fellow employees.
Austin was hired at Harmony Agri-Services on April 18, 1964, as a general laborer. That meant he did “a little bit of it all,” Austin said.
At that time, the railroad still ran through Harmony, hauling grain in and out of the community. Austin helped unload the railroad cars as well as other various tasks around the plant. There was shelling corn, bagging feed, loading bins and helping wherever he might be needed. “The list goes on and on,” he added.
In 1974, Austin moved to the drying plant on the east side of Harmony, where he has spent the remainder of his career. Again, he said there were many different things he did every day, but very seldom did he do the same things two days in a row.
“It’s been a lot of hard work,” Austin said. “But I’ve worked with a lot of good people and learned a lot of things.”
His family always joked that Austin needed to clean out his pockets when he came home every night to leave the corn, dust or other grains behind.
Because a lot of the work at the plant was seasonal, Austin was quite used to long, 52-hour, seven-day weeks in the fall when the crops came in.
One of the biggest changes Austin has seen over the years is the number of family farms decreasing with fewer farms each getting bigger with added land. With larger farms came larger equipment and larger yields from each customer.
At the plant itself, new bins were added and changes were made to how the grain was transported – from railroad cars to tractors and wagons to semi-trucks.
When Austin started his job at the Agri-Services, he was hired by Rod Wolstad, the son of Joel Wolstad, who started the company in 1895. Since that time, he’s worked with Jeff Soma, Rod’s son-in-law, and now Blaine Gatzke, Soma’s son-in-law. Austin said he almost feels like part of the family as he and his family have been included in many of the Wolstad and Soma family functions.
Austin’s own family was a part of the Harmony business community for nearly 20 years when he and his wife Ada operated Austin’s Mohair and Gifts on their acreage east of Harmony. They raised around 100 goats and used the fiber to create wonderful socks and gift items that were sold in an on-site shop. Many visitors also came to the farm to see and interact with the lively goats, including a special visit from the King and Queen of Jordan. When Ada died in 2012, and the shop closed, her daughter and husband, Konya and Joe Bloomquist, decided to continue the business, selling the popular mohair socks online.
As Austin celebrates his retirement, he also celebrates a life spent building a family, a home, his community and his country.
Austin was born in York Township, west of Harmony. After he graduated from Wykoff High School, Austin enlisted in the Marine Corps. When he came home, in 1960, he took a job at a service station and LeRoy, until he began hauling canned milk to the Harmony dairy about a year later. These routes included a stop for coffee at the Harmony House, where he met his future wife, Ada, who was working as a waitress.
The two married in 1962 and raised four children, Scott, Mike, Tori and Konya, during their 50-year marriage. Each of their children followed in Jim’s footsteps and served in the military. Between his children, their spouses and himself, the Austin family has marked over 100 years of service to the United States.
While he lost his wife to cancer in 2012, his family has continued to grow to include eight grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren. His plans for retirement include road trips to visit all branches of his family. “I’ll have a room in every state,” he joked.
Dancing has been a long-time activity for Austin and he looks forward to getting back out on the dance floor once venues open up again. He said it’s been a while since he’s been able to dance, sidelined at first by an illness and then COVID. “I used to go dancing three or four nights a week,” he said. “I hope to get back at it by mid to late summer.”
Austin also hopes to stay connected to agriculture and to continue learning about the industry as he visits the farms of some of his customers. “I’d like to go see my farmers and see progress in action,” he explained. “I’d like to go see how some of that big machinery actually works.”
When asked why he stayed nearly 20 years beyond the time most people choose to retire, Austin simply said, “It was a good job and I was content.”
Then, with a grin, he added, “I figured they couldn’t find any good help or they would have gotten rid of me.”
In truth, and with a bit more seriousness, Austin said, “I was able to do it it all and I promised myself when I got to the point where I couldn’t do it the way I’d like to see it done, I’d retire.”
As he leaves the drying plant, Austin knows his customers and the plant will be in good hands with his co-workers, Mark Lenz and Randy Mohs.
A special celebration was held at Harmony Agri-Services on Tuesday, on his 82nd birthday, to honor Austin on his retirement. Because of COVID restrictions, the gathering was small, limited to a few family members and his coworkers, but Austin said it was special to have his “gang” all there.
While he is a bit sad about leaving the company where he spent so much of his life, Austin said he is proud of the work he did there and the relationships he built. He is also ready to look forward towards his next great adventure – which will likely include a great bit of travel, some family time and kicking up his heels on the dance floor.