Meet ArizonaAgriculture’s Augustine Family

By Julie Murphree and Lauren Scott, Arizona Farm Bureau: This former Vietnam helicopter pilot takes nothing for granted including how he runs his agriculture businesses. In fact, he insists diversity is the name-of-the-game if you’re going to survive various recessions in your lifetime.

And, known for always treating employees as family, John Augustine believes you really don’t have a business unless you recognize and value your employees.

Today, he sees opportunity and challenges for beginner farmers. He also sees agriculture as the finest profession around.

An interview with John Augustine, Phoenix, Arizona.

An ongoing series of Arizona’s Farmers and Ranchers.

Tell us about your agricultural operations: In any business, agriculture specifically, I try to be diverse. We have farms in Iowa, a Ranch in Young, Arizona called JA Ranch and a plant nursery business in Phoenix, Desert Tree Farm.

This is my fifth recession since I’ve started in business and this is the worst one because of the length of it.

Standing before some of their nursery plants, Christine and John Augustine have a lifetime of stories about their agriculture adventures. 

In Iowa we farm corn, beans and alfalfa. That's where the Augustine's started farming. One of the farms we have the title to, started in 1855. My great-great grandfather bought it from the United States government and somehow we managed to hang on to it all this time. Now we have other farms that aren't nearly as old as that but that's where we started. It's in Grand River Township, section17.

When we moved to Arizona my dad farmed cotton in the Arrowhead Ranch area and there used to be a farm in Paradise Valley called The Seventeen Ranch where they farmed for Arnold’s Pickles, growing cucumbers and chilies.

After that we kind of got out of farming in Arizona, but I got back into it when I came back from Vietnam. I saw that my father was buying trees from California so I thought that was kind of interesting and decided, ‘maybe I’ll try this tree thing’ because they were going to be building these freeways. This was in 1971, and I thought, ‘gosh, I’ll sell these trees to the freeways’. So I went to California to observe nurseries there and I bought a book called Nursery Management. I read the book and I got into the tree business and then I grew the nursery, but I always tried to do a little bit more, such as do research on new plants. Desert Tree Farm, along with other local nurseries, introduced plants that do very well in the Arizona climate, the type of soil, the type of water, the heat, the cool, so we've developed what's called a southerwestern palette of trees and shrubs, and that's what we grow. Plants that are very well adapted. 

How are you managing all your different locations? I have a manager at the ranch although I do travel back and forth a lot. I’m here in Phoenix for the nurseries, which there are three of; and I go to Iowa often. For some of the operations, like herein Phoenix,  I’m the owner and manager. On the ranch I’m the owner and manager. In Iowa, most of the ground is leased out. I keep some of it so I can write off my tractor and my trucks. I do the farming at a long-range perspective and if I can’t get there I call up one of the fellows that farms my ground and I’ll say ‘hey, can you do this for me?’ I used to farm the land in Iowa with my neighbor, but quite a few years ago I decided to lease it. I’m still active in what they plant, how much they plant, where they plant it, and how they farm.

The ranch is in Young, Arizona and I look forward to the times I travel up there. I run on private ground, and I stay away from the bureaucracy of the federal government and leases, so I can run around 75 head of cattle.

What generation of farmer are you? I’m a fifth-generation farmer, and my kids are the sixth generation. My daughters have more interest and are actively involved in the nursery. Our propagation facility is one of the larger facilities in Arizona. We have a tissue culture lab that we use in California. Here we propogate from seeds and all kinds of cuttings. When people ask me what I do I say I manufacture trees.

Tell us a little bit about your plant patents: We have a patent on a plant called the Mexican Yellow Bird; we have a couple patents on trees; and with the patent process you have to prove what you have is unique and that you can replicate it again and again. Sometimes people have a plant but they can’t make it again. There are patent attorneys that you can hire, and it’s quite a process; it takes a while. There are patented alfalfas, patented wheats, and oranges; there are all kinds of patents.  

What changes have you seen in your lifetime as it relates to agriculture? The changes are so huge that I could talk about this all day. As an example, when I was very small, my grandfather farmed with horses. I used to ride with him and help him farm with the horses. Today you can get in a tractor and the tractor will plant the field because it’s been programmed to. People not in agriculture have no clue.

Why did you choose to go into agriculture? I like to be outside, and I like to be my own boss. People ask me what I enjoy more, the ranch, the farm or the nursery? I tell them that depending on the type of year I enjoy all three of them. I can talk about the cows, but then I can talk about wanting to make sure I have all the little trees ready to plant, and then I can go back to the farm and talk about how early they’re planting corn and when they’re going to plant the beans. After all these years I still have enthusiasm for it. I think sometimes people retire and they say, ‘I don’t want to see my business anymore’. I say, ‘How’s the ranch doing,’ ‘How’s the nursery doing?’ ‘How’s the farm doing?’ I’m manufacturing things, I’m feeding people and I’m exporting things. The nursery exports to different states; the ranch exports its meat and the farm exports beans and corn sometimes. I think that agriculture is one of the things that the United States can export because everyone needs to eat. There isn't any more soil being made, you can't make new soil, so I feel that agriculture plays an important part in the GDP, the gross domestic product. I never wanted to be at a desk and push paper around. 

What are some community outreach programs you participate in? Junior Achievement is one I’ve supported for many, many years. We sponsor a school to their Biztown. I think the one we’re supporting now is out in New River. Junior Achievement has a large facility in Tempe. The kids go there and they learn about business.  A lot of kids say, ‘When I grow up this is what kind of business I'm going to run,’ We need more people that are going to grow up to own their own business, invent their own business, figure out how to do something better and employ people.  

Are you encouraged by the way the economy is going? I think so. One of the things we have to do is we have to get our relationship with Mexico straightened out. A lot of people write off Mexico, but if you’re a farmer you have to be some kind of an optimist. Canada and Mexico have huge, huge natural resources. Mexico has labor; they have oil, and tropical agriculture. Don’t write off Mexico. Canada has timber, it has wheat and barley, it has the sea coast, and it goes on and on. We need to take more advantage of that, and we can’t run around being scared-y cats. Some people suggest we should build a fence and isolate ourselves. That’s a terrible idea. We need fewer walls. We need to think of it in a smarter way than ‘let’s build a castle and live inside the walls.’

What is one fact, experience or achievement no one knows about you? Besides agriculture, history is my hobby. I’m writing two books. I’m having help from somebody who’s very good, but I’m writing two books. One is the history of Paradise Valley. No history of Paradise Valley has ever been written. Paradise Valley was going to be an agricultural area. They were going to take the water off the Verde and they had a canal and everything, but my father moved to Paradise Valley in 1950 and there wasn’t much out there. I’m also writing a book of the little town where the Augustine’s came from in Iowa, and that’s Hebron, Iowa. Strange enough, Hebron has some very historical things that have happened around it. So I’m writing this book about that. I collect books, I am very interested in the history of the Southwest, archeologically, the Spaniards, the Mexicans, the Americans, and as it changes today. I was a helicopter pilot in Vietnam; I spent 20 months in Vietnam flying helicopters. It wasn’t like everybody was not going to come back, but you can definitely appreciate walking away from certain situations, let me put it that way. I was incredibly luck many times. I was the aircraft commander, which in the army is more than the pilot. I tell people, not very often, because my wife says ‘don’t mention this’, I broke horses, broke mules, and I can farm with a team of horses.

What is something you think you do very well? I seem to have cultivated loyalty. A lot of my employees here in Phoenix, in Iowa, and the people that I lease to, have been with me for a long time. To tell you the truth, sometimes I don’t know why they stay with me because sometimes I go ‘why wasn’t this done that way?’ or ‘what about this?’ or ‘what about that?’ I have a habit of questioning everything. I have a lot of employees that have been with me for over 30 years. I have some lifelong friends that I went to grade school with that I still talk to. Whatever that is, I have loyal employees and friends and I appreciate them very much. I try to tell them and I try to show them.

Why are you a farm bureau member? My grandmother said, ‘You need to be a farm bureau member.’ She had her little sign out there that said she was with the farm bureau. What’s more important than food? Only water. That is the only thing more important than food. Farm bureau promotes agriculture, all agriculture. It also promotes families, and working together. There’s always been wonderful people. All the people are very nice. They are concerned about the weather, concerned about feeding people, concerned about how are we going to have a better day? And not just for them, for other people too. 

What is the key for beginning farmers? Cash flow. If you lease land, you have to start out with leases, you have to. In Iowa there’s a guy I know, he got out of the Navy and went to work for John Deere. He worked for them for a couple of years. He had an uncle who had some land, so he came out of John Deere and he leased the land from his uncle. He seems to be doing very well. He is a very hard worker. Now he’s had some animals, and he started out as a mechanic in the Navy, but he had a desire to farm. There’s land out there, you know, if you were a kid in town and wanted to grow specialty melons, or specialty crops to sell to the farmers market or to sell to the restaurants, you’d probably have to have another job. In a lot of farm families the wife has another job. One problem with agriculture is that it doesn’t create the cash flow we typically need. You’re waiting for the crop all the time.

I had a friend who quit farming and opened a liquor store. He said it was amazing because he purchased the liquor at 10 o’clock and had all sold by 2 o’clock. He thought it was unbelievable. Normally he would have had to wait from spring to fall before he had any cash from his crops.

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