The Azurs — the people behind the pellet plant

by Bethany M. Dunbar, February 19, 2010

Fran and Melanie Azur have some of the most photogenic cattle I have ever seen.  And I’ve seen a lot of cattle.

The big story in the Chronicle this week is the Island Pond airport, which the Azurs want to buy in order to make a log yard for chipping up wood to make into pellets at the former Ethan Allen furniture plant.

The story has generated a lot of controversy among those who don’t want to lose the airport.  In truth it is not used much and would be a perfect place for the wood chipping part of their operation because the land is basically all prepped for the site.  The pellet plant promises to bring desperately needed jobs to Essex County.  But taking the airport out of play means losing the potential of developing it more and bringing in more business in the future.

Personally it seems to me a fair trade off.  The Azurs are the kind of people who do what they say they are going to do, which makes me think the risk of losing the airport is worth it in trade for jobs that are more definite.

Paul Lefebvre is covering this story, and as he was working on it, we found ourselves looking up the profile of the Azurs I had written in 2008 as owners of the Vermont Highland Cattle Company — for background.  So it seemed like a good week to post that story.

I also wrote about them in a post about standardbred horses.  (look in the horses category on the right side of this blog).  They helped the Orleans County Fair promote harness racing last summer and plan to do it again this coming year.

The Azurs are cow people and horse people.  They can’t be all bad, right?

Meanwhile on the Chronicle’s web site, while you are watching the Olympics you can check out my profile of Susan Dunklee of Barton who is on the U.S. Biathlon Team and almost made it to the Olympic team.  She introduced some of the other athletes to sugar on snow, and you can read about that on her blog here at word press:  susandunklee.wordpress.com.

My neighbors have started putting up pipeline and tapping the maple trees, which is easier to do this year with such a small amount of snow.  Maple sugaring season means it’s almost spring.  How about that?

Heifers. Photo by Bethany M. Dunbar

Vermont Highland Cattle is serious about beef

by Bethany M. Dunbar, the Chronicle, October 8, 2008

NEWPORT CENTER — Vermont Highland Cattle owners Melanie and Francis Azur have recently bought their sixth farm, a refrigerated truck, and the former Comstock plant in Orleans where they will be able to butcher beef.  The plan is to set that up sometime next year.

At this point the company has 14 employees in Vermont and 500 head of cattle.

“Our goal is to get up to 1,000 or 2,000,” Ms. Azur said.

The company was started in 2005, and in 2006, as Ms. Azur puts it, “we got serious.”

Vermont Highland Cattle is planning to get even more serious, and part of its plan is to be a good neighbor.  The company is donating a ton of beef to local schools.

Mr. Azur was born in Newport and met his wife, Melanie, in Pennsylvania.  The two were working together in support services for real estate transactions.  Eventually they started a company together, called ATM Corporation of America, which does appraisals, titles, and closing services.  The two owned that company from 1993 until August of last year.

Although they have spent a lot of their time in Pennsylvania, they are regularly in Vermont as well, and six years ago they built a house in Newport Center.  They still have a place in Pennsylvania and divide their time between the two places.

The Azurs have always had animals.  In Pennsylvania they have 30 Paso Fino horses that they show, plus standardbred racehorses they raise and race, plus a couple of Icelandic horses they bought during a trip to Iceland.

The Scottish Highland beef cattle breed appealed to the Azurs for a lot of reasons.  The animals are hardy, their meat is low in fat, they do well in the Vermont climate, they are smart and have a nice temperament, and they are quite beautiful.  At first the Azurs bought ten show animals.

Those animals seemed to do very well, and the Azurs decided to make their interest into something more than a hobby.  They started raising meat animals and found selling the beef was easy.  They still sell halves and mixed quarters from the farm, and some goes to area stores and restaurants, including the Craftsbury General Store.

“Our intent is to get into some of the restaurants in Stowe,” Ms. Azur said.  Then they will advance to selling the meat to restaurants around New England.

The general manager of the company is Josh Mason.  Ray Edwards is in charge of sales, and he is finding that the local beef sells very well.  Some of the chefs are very excited to hear about it.  One of the problems is that some want exclusively grass-fed beef, and others want beef finished by feeding them some grain.

“We’re kind of in a transition phase,” Mr. Edwards said.  “Right now they are grain finished.”

They are working on a system to have some animals fed each way so they can fill both markets.

“We know that a lot of the restaurants just want consistency,” said Ms. Azur, meaning a company that can supply beef year-round, which the Azurs can do.

“Everybody is more and more concerned with where the animals are grown,” Mr. Edwards said, including how they are treated.

Although the Vermont Highland Cattle are not organic, they are not given grain with antibiotics in it or growth hormones.  Some of the large cattle dealers out west regularly feed cattle antibiotics to increase their appetites in hot weather, Ms. Azur said.

The only reason for using antibiotics on the Vermont Highland Cattle would be if an animal became sick.  The majority of the animals don’t ever get treated, according to herd master Derek Williams.

“They’re on pasture as long as they possibly can be,” he said.  The company just bought the former Bob Judd farm in order to have enough pasture acres for all their animals.  Ms. Azur said they have about 500 acres of pasture, and each animal needs about an acre.

In the winter they get silage bales made on the Azurs’ farms.  They have 800 acres of crop land.

Young animals are kept with their mothers for five or six months.

“They learn how to graze and how to be a cow,” she said.

The animals are taken to local slaughterhouses — St. Johnsbury and Troy — so they don’t have to travel great distances packed tightly into huge trailers.

Mr. Edwards said he sees a lot of similarities between the beef industry right now and the organic movement a number of years ago.  Mr. Edwards came to this job from New Haven, Connecticut, where he worked in the produce department of an organic market.  His wife is a vegan chef, and they still have a place in Connecticut where she works.

He said he sees the local food movement as being about more than just geography.  It’s about knowing your farmer and meeting with that person directly.  In other words, a chef in Boston might consider Vermont Highland Cattle as local beef because the chef can ask questions of the people who raised the animal and even make requests (such as to finish the animal with grain or not).

The Azurs are clearly quite proud of their cows.  All of the bulls but one have won national championships in shows.  They are all in the same paddock together and seem to get along just fine.  They don’t mind visitors coming into the paddock and seem to enjoy having their pictures taken and a nice scratch on the neck.

“They love to be brushed and spoiled,” Ms. Azur said.

Mr. Williams just graduated from the University of Vermont and has been showing Highland cattle since he was nine years old.

He and the Azurs know the Shatneys of Greensboro, who have raised and shown Highland cattle for years.

Another main interest of the Azurs is hunting, and their home is a showcase of huge impressive trophies — full body mounts of deer, bear, and a head and the front shoulders of a bison are seen in the main entrance.  Mr. Azur has hunted all over the globe, including alligators in Lousiana and bears in Alaska.

“It took us two times to Alaska to get the brown bear you wanted,” Ms. Azur said to her husband.  Ms. Azur fishes.  She doesn’t hunt but often accompanies her husband on his hunting trips.

Another hobby of theirs is helping others who are less fortunate.

“Fran and I are pretty active in philanthropic ideas,” Ms. Azur said.  The two started a foundation, the Bartko Foundation, using Ms. Azur’s maiden name.  Its mission is to help single minority women get education, transportation, and housing in Pittsburgh.

Monthly beef donations to the local schools were scheduled to begin on Monday, September 29, with 60 pounds apiece to schools in Newport Center, Troy, Jay-Westfield, Lowell, and Coventry.

Melanie and Fran Azur at their home in Newport Center. Photo by Bethany M. Dunbar

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One response to “The Azurs — the people behind the pellet plant

  1. It’s really nice to hear about a successful agricultural venture these days! With a father who has angus beef as a hobby I know the quality of good, locally raised beef. I wish I had that in my cafeteria when I was in school. That’s such an awesome idea! Thanks for the great blog, as usual.

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