by Sabine Rhyne
It was exactly 35 years ago this October that Jack and Anne Lazor officially began Butterworks Farm, home of organic yogurt made from the milk of Jersey cows. Butterworks has become such a staple in the dairy cooler, we might forget the pioneering nature of this product, this farm, this family. Ten miles from the Canadian border, and long before local was “cool,” Jack and Anne began making yogurt on their stove, with their baby daughter Christine nearby, and selling it first to neighbors, then to retailers and wholesalers across Vermont and New England.
But Jack wasn’t just thinking about yogurt. “It’s about building soil fertility, taking carbon out of the sky and putting it back into the earth.” He began growing grain, wheat, and barley as well as corn, spelt, and oats, and thinking about sustainable practices, a biodiverse cycle of livestock, organic yogurt production, grains, beans, and oil seeds, and doing things “the hard way.” They wanted to grow as much of their own food as possible, for themselves and their community. He had spent quite a bit of time reading, researching, and even had some experience milking cows by hand at Sturbridge Village as a lad. His lifetime of education and experience has led most recently to his teaching a spring course at UVM on grain production, as well as authoring a book, The Organic Grain Grower: Small Scale Holistic Grain Production for the Home and Market Producer.
This brings up the role of Jack as mentor and community sage. For decades now, many individuals have learned from and drawn on the practices and philosophy of this farm, whether they are lone bicyclists spending several weeks working and talking things over before getting back on the road, or young farmers beginning their own businesses. “Vermont is a beacon!” he exclaims. Supported by more and more alignment in agricultural and social pursuits, Butterworks has enjoyed a steadily increasing following, while growing its sales to well over $1 million. You will find Butterworks products in the dairy cooler, but also in the bulk department, where the cornmeal and flours reside. Now Jack is beginning to focus more on the hay and forage crops for the future, rather than the grain. Ultimately they will be able to harvest more energy from these crops, producing a higher percentage of fat while promoting more photosynthesis without needing to supplement them with grain, and avoiding quite so much tilling and plowing.
Jack fully admits to being the dreamer and visionary of the family, while Anne has the practical, even-keeled outlook that, even in her generosity, pulls Jack back into reality from time to time. “I call it the giddy-up and whoa syndrome,” he chuckles.
If Jack ever wondered just how much sharing he has done, he found out first hand when he suffered a serious illness over a year ago. He ended up in a Burlington hospital suffering from kidney failure and, by his count, he must have had over 100 visitors during his stay, with multiple fundraising efforts around the state supporting his recovery since he did not have health insurance. His life has now changed quite a bit, as has Anne’s: five days a week, they start their day by getting Jack set up for dialysis, from 5:30 to 11:00am each time. “I’ve gotten used to it,” he said. “It’s like everything: you can’t let the BS get you down, you’ve got to keep going, figure out how to operate, in spite of things.” Surely, this has been one of the ways that the Lazors have continued to persevere in their endeavor, while regulation and requirements have become more and more challenging. “The next generation won’t be able to do what Anne and I did,” he said. “They’ll need more partners.” His daughter and son-in-law, Christine and Collin, work alongside twelve staff members to keep things moving along. Innovations continue to improve things, like a three-year-old production facility with an efficient wood-fired boiler, and a not-so-new but still impressive (and tall) granary, timber-framed with a dizzying array of elevators and pulleys, able to channel grain into the appropriate bins.
Although the regulatory landscape has changed, making life more challenging for relatively small producers, Jack continues to sound upbeat. “There’s plenty of hope out there,” he said. “I know better now than ever before: it’s all about community, and we feel really good about what we’ve done.”
A neighbor drove up to the building to help herself to several containers of yogurt from the walk-in cooler. “How are you?” Jack calls. “It’s all in there… you know where it is.” Just like in the old days…