Lessons Learned from 40 Years on the Same Farm

Spring 2016
Jack and Anne Lazor talked about the successes and challenges of their Butterworks Farm at MOFGA’s Farmer to Farmer Conference. English photo

Jack and Anne Lazor of Butterworks Farm in Westfield, Vermont, gave a moving keynote speech at MOFGA’s 2015 Farmer to Farmer Conference. They talked about the 40-year history of their farm, building soil health with a grass-fed dairy herd and with fewer tilled row crops, marketing, the increasing expenses resulting from insurance and regulations, and about passing their business on to the next generation. 

The Lazors started Butterworks Farm with 60 acres in 1976, and they began processing milk in 1979. In 2005 they installed a 35 kW wind turbine, which supplies 40 percent of the electricity on the farm. They now have 400 acres, half in hay and half in grain; and their 100-head Jersey herd supplies the Butterworks Farm yogurt business. Butterworks was the 1999 Vermont Sustainable Farm of the Year, and Jack received the 2010 NOFA Person of the Year award as a national leader in the organic movement.

Back to the Land

Jack said that when he went to Tufts University in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, he got the alternative lifestyle bug. He had grown up near Springfield, Mass., and his father had worked as a chemist for Monsanto – a plastics company then. His father was also an avid gardener and made bread, sauerkraut, pickled pigs feet and pickled herring.

“I would go up and down the street with my wagon, which was his wagon when he was a kid, and sell the extra vegetables,” said Jack.

At Tufts Jack created his own major in the history of agriculture and the farming practices of the early colonists. That led to a job at Old Sturbridge Village in Sturbridge, Mass., where he met Anne, a University of Wisconsin Madison anthropology and animal science student. Together they moved to Wisconsin, where local farmer John Ace mentored them – during the end of the mixed farm era in the Midwest.

“Corn and soybeans had not become a rampant disease yet,” said Jack.

They moved to their Vermont homestead in 1975 and soon bought a cow. Then they got a calf to raise for beef, and they accumulated equipment. Anne delivered dairy supplies to farmers during this prosperous time for dairy farms. They built their house, Jack got a job teaching special ed at the local high school, and Anne worked at the mental health center. Their daughter, Christine, was born in 1979.

They had a garden and a work horse and “made so many mistakes,” said Jack – who soon found out he was allergic to horses and switched to old tractors.

They wanted to grow grain for bread, having seen how the Amish did that in Wisconsin. “Everything I wanted to do, we had to do the old-fashioned way first,” said Jack. “Once we tried it, we’d do it for a few years but eventually got more modern. It was almost as though we had to go through the progression of agricultural mechanical history ourselves just to experience it.”

Old timers in the area had stopped growing grains after a couple of wet summers in the ‘60s, when they couldn’t harvest their oats and started cutting oats for hay rather than grain. But the Lazors saw that Quebec farmers nearby were still growing and combining grains for their cows, so they bought a grain binder and a threshing machine, grew a good crop of wheat, reaped it and stooked it.

“It gave us credibility with the locals,” said Jack. “People came from miles around to see it. They told us you get the best grain this way, letting it cure in the field; you get really nice color. They were right.” They stored it then in burlap bags.

They started with 6 acres of grain, then grew 10, 15 and 20 as they got better machinery and stopped relying on others’ castoffs – “a recipe for breakdowns.”

They built a small barn with wooden stanchions, raised calves, and, once their calves were weaned, found themselves with a quadrupled milk supply. They had both left their jobs by then and had been making yogurt in glass jars and selling it to a couple of neighbors. They started making more yogurt in double-boiler enamel pots on the kitchen stove. They also made farmers’ cheese and butter. Jack recommended “Making Your Own Cheese and Yogurt” by Max Alth – “the greatest little book for people without a science background,” he said.

One day Jack got in the car, filled with eggs, butter, cottage cheese, farmer’s cheese, raw milk in Tropicana juice jars, yogurt and maple yogurt. He went out and knocked on doors in the community, and sold everything within five hours. “That was the beginning of our dairy route, in 1979.” They did that for a couple of years, until a friend started trucking their yogurt to co-ops and health food stores in Burlington and Montpelier, covering it with a blanket to keep it cool.

“Was it 1981 when the state came by?” Jack asked Anne.

“Stan Baker [the state inspector] knocked on our door,” Jack continued. “He said, ‘You know, you need a license to do this.'” The state helped them with what seemed a daunting task at the time.

From 1982 to 1984 they built a barn and put up a silo. They hired a neighbor to harvest their hay with his chopper and fill the silo, saving a few days of labor and making better silage in the process.

Their herd grew, and their soils improved thanks to composted straw and manure. Jack started learning about soils from local soils guru Fred Franklin and from Acres USA.

Building Markets and the Farm Organism

They were out of the yogurt market while they built their barn, and during that time Stonyfield Farm had entered the market. Still, the Lazors’ markets picked up around January 1985, when Butterworks’ skimmed milk yogurt was popular for post-holiday diets.

When they got enough money, they bought part of a railcar load of rock phosphate. “As soon as we started applying minerals to our land, the legumes started increasing, yields started increasing, and the cows started getting healthier,” said Jack. “You can’t grow good crops without minerals. The economic system we live in forces people to not put anything back. Farms get run down, acid, unproductive; hay doesn’t nurture animals.” They started planting alfalfa, which thrived. “Minerals make some nice feed for you,” Jack said, adding, “The biodiversity of plants in our pastures started increasing.”

In the late ‘80s, University of Vermont professor Bill Murphy, author of “Greener Pastures on Your Side of the Fence: Better Farming with Voisin Management-Intensive Grazing,” started a rotational grazing program in the state, telling farmers how to lay out pastures. That stimulated the organic dairy movement, said Jack.

Anne noted that no certification program existed for organic dairy when they started. “We just chose not to use antibiotics. We used a colostrum-whey byproduct.” She began learning about homeopathy from Pennsylvania veterinarian Edgar Sheaffer and continued with regular study groups. “I found over the years,” said Anne, “that it has great potential” when supplemented with good nutrition, vitamins, minerals, probiotics and herbal products.

That was “the beginning of building our farm organism,” Jack continued. “The early days were so much fun – when you’re just getting started and you haven’t learned about all the regulations that are going to restrict you.” They directed their farm income back into the farm, buying more and better equipment and building soil fertility. They grew more kinds of crops. In 1990 they added corn to their oat-wheat-barley rotation, and then they added soybeans. They started working with more alluvial soils along the river, where corn and soy could be grown for grain pretty reliably.

“Wherever we used a lot of compost, we got really nice crops,” said Jack. They started growing grain crops with legume hay under them as well as row crops and dry beans.

They first grew hybrid corn but wanted open-pollinated. Eventually North Dakota plant breeder Frank Kutka put five or six breeders’ lines from Guelph, Ontario, together to develop ‘Early Riser’, which is not quite as high yielding as a hybrid but has a dark orange color and a hard texture that makes good corn meal and animal feed. The Lazors have been growing that and saving its seed for about 10 years. They also grow sunflowers for oil.

Their cows were in a tie stall barn and went out “for recess” every day. In 2001 the Lazors put up a hoop barn and started keeping cows on a bedded pack there in winter, feeding them round bales and using the bedding pack for compost. They got a used compost turner, invested in a windmill, and built a granary with a grain elevator, overhead bins and an oat huller.

More recently, Vermont native Heather Darby returned to the state as a UVM agronomist. With her the Lazors wrote a USDA SARE (Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education) grant to learn how to breed wheat, bring some heirloom varieties back into production and cross some heirlooms with more modern varieties.

“I think,” said Jack, “we’ve learned that generosity in every way of life – soil, employees, whatever – doesn’t cost you, it pays you. If you are good to the land, it’s going to be good to you, and it’s going to get you through, especially the hard times. So when you have cows and they’re reproducing well and your older cows are still productive, it brings you wealth, because you’re going to build your herd or sell some animals.” They now have 100 cows and milk 45 to 50 – their upper limit.

Regulated to One Product

When Butterworks became legal in 1984, the Lazors had to start playing by others’ rules – established to protect public health, said Jack, but forcing them to concentrate on one product – yogurt.

Through the ‘80s and ‘90s, they were one of the only farmstead yogurt producers. Now with others’ yogurt on shelves, their sales have contracted somewhat, so they are trying to get into more Vermont supermarkets.

“It backs you into a corner,” said Jack. “Once you get to the million-dollar-a-year market, you’re in the same club as the 10-million-dollar people, and they’ve all got CPAs and lawyers, and you don’t. You’re a minor league player playing in the major leagues … and you’d rather be out in the field moving cows or making hay or combining wheat. The more money you make or the bigger you get, the more you come under the scrutiny of the powers that be. The Labor Department says you need workman’s comp for employees – that’s 20 percent of what you’re paying the person. We have 10 or 12 people working for us, and we try to pay good wages, but the cost of insurance … The insurance company is a for-profit business, and you’re mandated by the government to buy their services, and if you use their services they’re going to charge you more.”

So be careful what you create, Jack said, because if it gets too big, “all the money you used to put into rock phosphate now goes for something you can’t even hold in your hand. It’s a nebulous concept, like ‘protection.'”

The Amish have the right idea, he commented. “If you have a disaster, the community gets together and helps you build a new barn.

“You can get really discouraged,” said Jack, “but the one thing we have to remember is that we have a community of people who want to make the earth better, who love farming.” We need to support each other, share our knowledge and our mistakes, proceed into the future “and try to change the world one microbe at a time.”

More Organic Matter

By building organic matter, sequestering carbon in the soil and being good farmers, we’ll get through the dry times and the wet times, said Jack.

The Lazors have been keeping their 125-acre home farm in grass rather than plowing it, and that soil now has 8 or 9 percent organic matter. Where they’ve been growing grains with cover crops and rotations and a small amount of forage, the organic matter has remained around 2 percent.

“It’s time for me to tone down the grain growing and concentrate on … [growing] really high quality forages that are really mineralized, that can photosynthesize really efficiently and take CO2 out of the air and put it down here as humus, as root exudation. That’s the future. That’s where we’re going. We hope it works for everybody.”

That future also includes daughter Christine, her husband and their two daughters, who will be taking over the farm.

– Jean English

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