Jack Lazor and the Graining of Vermont
Written onMarch 01 , 2009
Jack Lazor is the first to admit he’s got his fingers in a lot of pies. He says so with a chuckle, his gentle eyes sparkling like the bright mid–afternoon sun reflecting off newly fallen snow. Among his “pies” are grain–growing experiments to find varieties that thrive in Vermont, infrastructure development for the processing and storage of staple foods like beans and cooking oils, and a plethora of workshops in which he shares what he’s learned in his 30 years of farming.
Jack and his wife Anne own and operate Butterworks Farm in Westfield. Best known for organic yogurt sold in dozens of stores throughout Vermont, Butterworks also produces a variety of grains and staple foods. Yogurt, from a herd of about 100 Jerseys, is the main source of income for the Lazors, but Jack and Anne readily admit that the yogurt business supports Jack’s “grain habit.” This “habit” is borne from a love of experimentation, as well as a fierce tenacity that has made him one of the few Vermont farmers producing such hard–to–find local staples as flint corn, dry beans, and sunflower seed oil in quantity.
“You really have to want to be a grain grower to do this, because there’s a disaster around every corner,” he said recently, his sanguine tone reflecting a lifelong understanding that a farmer can’t take the weather or equipment failures personally. “It’s going to require the types of individuals who really want to do the work, who want to experience the disappointments when it doesn’t work out the way they want it to, and who’ve got enough wherewithal to get up and try it again.”
Like all farmers, Jack is exceedingly busy, but he never loses sight of the day’s reward: a leisurely, delicious lunch of food grown on the farm. He and Anne often take advantage of winter days to enjoy slow meals at the wooden table overlooking Anne’s greenhouse. On a recent winter day, Anne moved with purpose around the kitchen, frying corn tortillas and assembling a salad, while Jack answered the phones—home and cell—responding to questions about a cow in the herd and arranging transportation for a barn hand whose car wouldn’t start in the subzero cold.
Bookshelves overflowed with almanacs and atlases, an old hardcover copy of Rural Arithmetic, and a worn paperback edition of The Family Cow. A shelf mounted above the kitchen window sagged under the weight of plants straining toward sunlight. Rosie, the family Corgi, sprawled over the heater vent. Orange calendula blossoms dried on a screen hung over the old Monarch stove. Anne stopped preparing lunch long enough to feed the stove another log and ?keep the teakettle whistling; Jack decided to turn off both phones.
As the table became crowded with bowls of their own beans, cheese, and salsa (accompanied by “local avocado,” as Jack joked), they explained how their love for the earth and a desire to live close to it prompted them to buy the original 60 acres that have since expanded to more than 200. They were both suburban kids, “alienated by modern civilization” and inspired by books like Catherine Lerza’s 1975 Food for People, Not for Profit. They met through working together on the farm at Old Sturbridge Village, a living history museum in Massachusetts, where they discovered their mutual interest in exploring the process of food production.
“Whatever we do, whatever we eat, we want to know how it was done, where it came from, who did it, and how they did it,” Jack explained. Most of the time, though, they just want to try it for themselves.
They began in 1977 with one cow and enough wheat to make their own bread. But as they established their yogurt business and the herd grew under Anne’s loving care—to this day, her eyes light up when discussing the barn and its inhabitants—so did the need for feed. Jack began looking for the right varieties of grain for the cows and for themselves. The variable nature of the land—flat, hilly, rocky, and wet, in unequal and unpredictable parts—lent itself to an unending series of experiments. An acre of spelt here, two types of corn there, a new variety of wheat in a far field—each summer brought, and continues to bring, a new rotation of crops and a new lesson to learn.
Asked to reflect on why he continues to grow all these crops—a challenging endeavor in this climate, and not nearly as lucrative as making yogurt—Jack quipped that he’s “got the bug.” But his inspiration flows from a much deeper appreciation of the earth’s systems: the grain he grows feeds both people and cows, the straw that’s left over makes great bedding for his animals, and the bedding can then be composted with manure to build rich humus in the soil. It all works together.
“I’ve met a lot of farmers and he’s one of the most conscientious,” said Elizabeth Tigan, who spent four years with the Lazors as a paid intern, and now has her own farm in Wisconsin. “He really cares about the tilth of the soil.”
Recent localvore initiatives and energy concerns have fueled demand for the crops Jack and Anne have been growing and eating for years. Jack credits localvores with creating demand for local staple foods—demand that is drawing attention to Vermont’s missing infrastructure as well as regulatory barriers to sourcing food locally. Building on the evident demand for Butterworks’ cornmeal, beans, and oils, Jack is in the process of applying for a foundation grant to establish a hulling and flaking facility to roll oats and to hull spelt—both his own and others.
Developing infrastructure is vital to a truly local food system, Jack explained, and very little commercial infrastructure exists in Vermont. Significantly more infrastructure exists in Quebec, where there is a long tradition of grain growing and processing. “But it’s such a pain in the butt to get yourself back and forth across the border,” he noted, not to mention bureaucratically challenging and resource–heavy.
The closest oilseed press to the Lazors is in Canada, so their seeds are shipped about 130 miles to the other side of Montreal. Jack and/or Anne then drive up to retrieve the oil, paying $5 a bottle to have it pressed, and sell it for upwards of $12 a bottle. “That’s not very sustainable,” Jack acknowledged, but an oilseed press costs around $15,000, an investment he’s not prepared to make. He noted that Highgate farmer Louis Rainville has plans to install a press, and hopes that next year, Rainville can press his seeds, so that local sunflower oil will be truly that.
Jack’s knowledge about which grains and beans grow well in the Northeast, and how to harvest and store them, is benefiting farmers from all over New England and Quebec who call him daily for information and advice. For the past five years, this knowledge has grown, thanks to the research support of Heather Darby, field crops & nutrient management specialist with UVM Extension. Together, the two have been breeding wheat, crossing different varieties to develop plants that can thrive in the Northeast, and have formed the Northern Grain Growers Association, a group of farmers exploring regionally appropriate grains and grain processing methods and facilities.
Virtually all of what Jack has learned, he’s learned through his own two hands. When he realized that grains need to dry to a certain moisture content before they can be stored without threat of mold or fungus, he built drying equipment and installed outdoor storage bins. He bought a grinder to grind wheat into flour and corn into cornmeal. The equipment needed to harvest, shell, and sort beans took more than five minutes to explain at lunch, prompting Anne to exclaim, “Can you believe the number of machines he’s described?!”
As Jack loves the fields, Anne loves the animals. She’s milking the great–great–great–granddaughters of the animals they began with, sometimes with the help of summer interns, and more recently with the help of five–year–old granddaughter Ginny, who keeps Anne company in the barn and provides plenty of artwork to adorn the kitchen. Anne readily admitted to being the quiet one, content to stay close to home and nurture her creative interests like spinning, weaving, gardening, and putting food by—the earth–focused activities that drew her to the farm 30 years ago.
Meanwhile, Jack shows no sign of slowing down—even granddaughter Ginny notices that “Grampy’s always out and about,” according to his daughter, Christine. Modestly, he explained, “I’ve got this reputation as a master grain grower and people are always calling me.”
“That’s why you have to write a book, Jack!” Anne suggested, to which Jack noted that a Northern Grain Growers Association website is in the works, so that farmers with questions can consult the website before picking up the phone. Still, it seems that his personal touch is what has encouraged many farmers to try grains, or try again, and that a website can’t possibly convey what his gentle voice imparts.
He said the quiet moments make it all worthwhile.
“Sometimes in the fall, when the leaves have just fallen, I’ll go down to the bottom pasture, a really nice, sheltered part of the farm, and there’ll be this enormous flock of robins, and they’ve come to my farm because there’s more worms here than anywhere else and I just feel this sense of ‘God, isn’t this great?’ I feel like we’ve created a little paradise right now on our farm.”