The Lazors and the organic dairy movement

Jack Lazor of Westfield, Vermont, stands in a field of soybeans. Photo by Bethany M. Dunbar

by Bethany M. Dunbar, August 2, 2010

Over the years working as a journalist in a small state I’ve had the opportunity to meet some fascinating, influential Vermonters.  People in the world of politics and business, people who really care and who are trying to make a difference.

Jack and Anne Lazor of Butterworks Farm in Westfield come to mind immediately when I think of people who have brought about real change, change that matters and helps the whole state.

I interviewed Jack last week and will post that story here.  I wanted to add a little background to it by posting something I wrote about their organic farm in 1993.  Over the years I have been there a number of times and seen Jack and Anne at meetings and conferences.  I don’t remember when I started going to the annual Northeast Organic Farming Organization (NOFA) winter conferences, but the conference itself has grown by leaps and bounds right along with the organic and local food movement.

The neat thing from an economic perspective is that the movement is not only about healthy foods — it’s about healthy rural economies.

When the Lazors came to Westfield in the 1970s, organic dairy farming was a radical, fringe idea.  It’s not so fringe any more.  At this point there are 39 organic dairies in Orleans County.  There is no doubt in my mind that every single one of these 39 farmers saw what Jack and Anne Lazor were doing and saw how well it was working.  Many if not most of them have probably consulted with the Lazors about organic methods.  Jack loves to talk about it all and has shared his knowledge with anyone who asked.

So in this way I’d like to say thanks to the Lazors for all they have done.  The strength of the organic movement is self-evident, but to show you more clearly what I mean about that I will also post here a story I did in May of this year about the state of organic dairying in Orleans County these days.

Don’t forget to post your comments, thoughts, and ideas for me.  I appreciate all the feedback.  It means a lot.

Two Orleans County ag businesses receive processing grants

by Bethany M. Dunbar, the Chronicle, July 21, 2010

Jack Lazor and Ed Champine talk about the crops on Butterworks Farm in Westfield. Photo by Bethany M. Dunbar

Two Orleans County businesses have been awarded grants for agriculture-related processing.

Phil Brown of Vermont Rabbitry in West Glover got $15,500 and Jack Lazor of Butterworks Farm in Westfield got $14,000 from the Vermont Farm Viability Program, part of the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board.

Phil Brown said it was the first time he’d ever applied for a grant.  He had to do a business plan and provide matching funds.

“It was a really good shot in the arm,” he said.

The funds are allowing him to improve and expand his butchering facilities.  He will start making ground rabbit and sausage, and he has put in a vacuum packaging machine.

Rabbit meat is high in protein, low in cholesterol, and low in calories, which makes it an extremely healthy meat.  For those who have tried wild rabbit meat, Mr. Brown said it is not at all the same.  Wild hare is darker meat and tougher, he said.

Most of Mr. Brown’s meat goes to markets in Burlington — to Healthy Living natural foods market and the City Market.

The farmers who raise rabbits for him are in the St. Albans area.

Mr. Brown handles more than just rabbit meat.  Last year he cut and wrapped 125,000 pounds of beef, pork, and lamb.  He packaged 52 moose, 100-plus deer, 12 or 13 bears not to mention domestic meat animals.

“Tomorrow I will do a bear, half a beef and three pigs and will be done by 9:30 or 10 in the morning,” he said on a recent Tuesday.

Mr. Brown has one butcher working for him, Gary Lanoue, who has been cutting up meat since he was ten years old.  Mr. Lanoue’s father taught Mr. Brown’s father how to cut and wrap meat.

Mr. Brown employs a couple of other people part-time.

The grant funds allowed Mr. Brown to put in a new floor, redo three or four walls, and put in plastic molding so the room is waterproof.

Phil Brown of Vermont Rabbitry in Glover improved his facilities with a grant. Photo by Bethany M. Dunbar

He mentioned that Louise Calderwood, a Craftsbury consultant and former deputy commissioner of agriculture, helped him with the required business plan.

Business has been steady.

“It keeps rolling in the door, and I’m happy with it,” he said.  “I’ve thought about adding on a slaughterhouse for local animals.”

Butterworks Farm in Westfield is best known for its organic yogurt, which Jack and Anne Lazor have been making and selling for decades.

The Lazors grow their own grains for their Jersey herd and have started branching out into crops for human consumption.

“We’ve been growing wheat since the very beginning,” said Mr. Lazor.

The grant funds will help Butterworks Farm to process more types of grain crops.  Oats require two steps in processing, and up until now Mr. Lazor has been hauling his up to a processor in Canada called Golden Grains or Les Moissons d’Or in Compton, Quebec.  Mr. Lazor has been taking oats and spelt up there for processing, but there are some disadvantages.  The Canadian company keeps the hulls and small oats that are filtered out in hulling.

Once the oats are hulled, they must be steamed to stabilize the fat, and then flaked.

A company called Eric and Andy’s used to sell oatmeal they grew and processed in Cabot, Vermont, and Mr. Lazor said the Canadian company bought their roller mill.  Mr. Lazor said he thinks Eric and Andy were ahead of their time.

If all the processing is to be done in Quebec, that means trucking raw oats, bringing back the hulled oats, then taking them back to Canada for the steaming and flaking.  There are complicated border requirements for trucking food both on the way up and the way back.

Also, laws of the road seem to be more stringent in Canada.

“You just don’t drive a Vermont farm truck on the roads in Quebec,” he said.

For all these reasons, plus the cost, Mr. Lazor’s plan is to do the first part, the hulling, on his farm.  He will continue, at least for now, to truck the hulled oats to Canada for the final processing.

The cost of setting up a hulling system has been much more than what the grant will cover.

“We’ve already got $30,000 invested right now,” he said.  He had to build a tower on to the top of one of his barns to reach 55 feet tall for the grain elevators.  He bought the huller second-hand, and he still needs a paddy table, so named because the process is similar to rice processing.

The paddy table will separate the hulled oats from the hulls completely, and that involved seven levels of screening.

“It’s all done by shaking,” he said.  A new one costs $40,000.

This year the Lazors are growing 40 acres of wheat, 50 acres of barley and peas, one and a half acres of flax, 50 acres of soy beans, 50 to 55 acres of corn, plus rye, sunflower seed and hay.

He has about 45 milking Jersey cows, and a dozen employees.

On July 28, Butterworks Farm hosted a Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont workshop on growing heirloom wheat varieties.

The Lazors came to Westfield in the 1970s.

“We were organic and we didn’t even know it.  We knew we didn’t want to be regular,” he said.  The farm inadvertently started a local movement as many conventional farms around Westfield, Jay and Troy saw the success the organic dairy achieved and decided to convert to organic methods.

“People are so keen on wanting to have meaning in their food,” he said.  Over the years Mr. Lazor has become someone other farmers come to for help getting started or solving problems on their organic farms and he is often asked to speak or host workshops.

“Anne is really the superstar,” he said.  “I’m just the outgoing one.”

Other grant recipients in this round were Gleason Grains, an organic milling facility in Bridport, Sharon Beef, and Spring Hill Poultry Processing in Morrisville.

Last year, Brault’s Market in Troy was one of four businesses that received grants to help build an addition to increase the size of the processing and retail space.  Last year’s grants were $40,000 in all divided among the four.

Ela Chapin, the program director, said Tuesday the Vermont Farm Viability Program has worked with over 300 farms since 2003 making business plans and helping to implement them.  The program has helped cheesemakers, vegetable processors and on-farm meat processors.  She said in many cases, farmers’ business plans have been restricted by the lack of processing infrastructure, which led to the current agriculture processing grants.

The third round of grants will have a February deadline, and that’s the last year of these grants.  Funding is coming from the state and federal governments and from two private foundations.  One of the private foundations is the John Merck Fund, and the other one, which provided $450,000, wishes to remain anonymous.

The dairy farm as an organism

by Bethany M. Dunbar, the Chronicle, September 29, 1993

WESTFIELD — Jack Lazor is wearing a greasy cap, trying to keep his spirits up as he pulls straw out of a clogged-up John Deere.  He has less than an acre on one field to get in before the sun, which is sinking fast, hits the horizon.  The wind is picking up, a frost is predicted, and there’s the cows to be milked before the day is done.  In short, he looks just about like any old dairy farmer in Orleans County having a bad day.

He is — except for a couple of pretty major differences.

For one thing, his farm is organic and he grows all his own grain.  The clogged-up John Deere is not the usual tractor often seen haying or chopping corn in this area.  It’s a combine Mr. Lazor is using to get in the barley he’ll feed his herd of Jerseys over the winter to supplement hay and other feeds grown right on the place.

He doesn’t buy any commercial grain from off the farm at all.  Although this is not a requirement for an organic farm, Jack and his wife, Anne, had enough land and energy to give growing their own grain a try.  On roughly 130 acres of tillage and pasture, they have proven it can be done.

The other major difference on this farm is that the Lazors cut out some of the middlemen by selling dairy products themselves.  Their manufacturing and distribution company sells yogurt and cream under the brand name of Butterworks Farm.

As consumers become more and more concerned about the wholesomeness of the food they buy and eat, demand continues to grow for the Lazors’ yogurt.  In fact, business is doing so well the Lazors have invested over $100,000 in the last couple of years to meet the demand for their natural products.  They are working on breaking into out-of-state markets as far south as Virginia, and they are toying with the idea of finding another farm that would convert to organic dairying in order to ship its milk to Butterworks.

They believe they could pay someone in the neighborhood of $20 a hundredweight, or $1.72 a gallon, for organic milk.  The average price farmers got for milk in August was $12.60 a hundredweight, or $1.08 a gallon.

Part of the reason Mr. Lazor can grow enough grain to feed the herd is that he doesn’t need to feed much.  With a fairly intricate and intensive rotational grazing system set up, Mr. Lazor manages his pasture to the point that he only feeds about ten pounds of grain a day to his 43 milkers, and still they average around 40 pounds of milk a day (a little more than four and a half gallons).  The herd makes enough milk for Butterworks to produce about 3,000 quarts of yogurt a week.

Mr. Lazor hammer-mills the barley into meal and bales up the leftover straw for bedding.  It works much better than sawdust, he said, and he saves money there, too, by not having to buy bedding.

This past summer, the Lazors participated in a rotational grazing program with the University of Vermont (UVM) Extension System that gave them more detailed information to back up what they already knew – that rotational grazing and pasture management make sense economically.

Mrs. Lazor said the idea is to treat the pasture as if it was a crop.  That means testing the crop and the soil fairly regularly.  Some of the forage samples came back 23 to 26 percent protein.

On many farms, the pasture is the roughest land, put into that use because it isn’t good enough for haying.  But pasture management advocates suggest if farmers take a closer look, they might get more out of their pastureland.

Rotational grazing means setting up lots of tiny pastures, and turning the cows into each one for only a short time.  The Lazors give the herd about 12 hours on each one-third to one-half-acre paddock.  All this takes a lot of electric fence and a water system that allows them to drink in each paddock.  It also takes a little record-keeping or a least a good memory to figure out which paddock they should be in on a given day.

Until this year, the Lazors had a rotational grazing program but without the water system.  Mr. Lazor said the water system, basically a series of pipes and hoses and a large transportable bucket, makes a lot of difference.  Before, the cows would wander back up to the barn to drink out of a tank.

Unfortunately, they usually didn’t make it back to the paddock before letting loose a little of the best-known organic fertilizer Vermont farms have to offer.  So the paddocks directly below the water tank were nice and green while the ones off in other directions didn’t do so well.

This year, fertilization is more regular, and the cows are milking better.

The Lazors got in on a new program funded partly with a grant from the Kellogg’s Foundation.  (Mr. Lazor said you’re getting something with your cornflakes.)  The program worked with 22 farms, mostly in Franklin County, but a few others around the edges.

“We’re hoping to expand it north and south,” said Lisa McCrory of the UVM Pasture Management Outreach Program, but that depends on getting more grant funds.  Even if it only continues on the current level, there will be five or six openings next summer because some people who have been on it for a few years will be ready to quit.

The program includes a farm visit every three weeks by a pasture specialist like Ms. McCrory, who takes forage and soil samples.  Farmers are assisted with record-keeping and any problems that arise, and cows are periodically checked for body condition, to make sure they’re staying healthy.

Ms. McCrory said she’s found pasture management can result in substantial feed cost savings.  On one farm, pasture management saved $12,000 a year, she said.

Another component of the program is regular farm meetings.  During these meetings, held on a different farm each session, there is a tour and brief presentations.  But most of the meeting is left for people to ask questions and talk over different farm management techniques.

One of these meetings is coming up in Montgomery on October 6 at the Mark Brouillette farm, and another is coming up at an organic dairy in Addison County October 13.  There is another in Stowe on October 20, and another October 27 at the Brian and Lisa Stone farm in Montpelier on the subject of seasonal dairying.  Anyone who wants more information on pasture management or the meetings can call Ms. McCrory at 656-0641.

The pasture management program is part of another program, called Environmental Programs In Communities (EPIC), which includes everything from helping towns start conservation commissions to rural marketing techniques for economic growth.

Ms. McCrory said pasture management is “environmentally sound” because the farmer puts less extraneous stuff into the land.

Mr. Lazor said he likes dairy farming for that reason – it inherently values the land, crops and everything, not just the cows and milk.  He found a book about dairying published in 1905 that looked at the farm as an organism.

“It’s the kindest farming there is,” he said.

He said a lot of people have the impression that organic farming is negative – you can’t do this, and you can’t do that.  But he doesn’t look at it that way.  He said he doesn’t go around his farm with a rulebook in hand.  Rather, he has a certain frame of mind about daily decisions.  He likes to think of organic farming as promoting life on every level.

Rather than using antibiotics on sick cows, the Lazors use homeopathic cures – a tiny dose of belladonna or poison ivy or some other herb or natural cure depending on the malady.  Mrs. Lazor said she believes the cures work on basically the same principle as vaccinations.  They stimulate the body to fight off the disease.

Antibiotics kill off the disease instead, and Mrs. Lazor’s point was that they kill off lots of other things in the body at the same time.  While their use is not completely forbidden for organic farmers, it is discouraged.  If antibiotics are used, the milk must be kept out of the tank for two or three times longer than on a regular farm.

Growing corn organically is trickier than with herbicides, but Mr. Lazor said there are benefits to the soil, and he enjoys the challenge.  Putting herbicides on the corn kills some helpful bacteria and worms, he mentioned.

Having lived in Wisconsin, where corn ears are harvested with a combine rather than chopping up the whole stalk for silage, he was interested in giving that a try.  He had some success, but in general he prefers barley as a mainstay grain.

Mr. Lazor grows a lot of clover and alfalfa hay, rotating fields from one crop to another to help keep weeds down and improve the soil.

At the beginning of September, he had fields of alfalfa that were knee-high, as lush, thick, and even as any in the county.  It was ready to be cut – for the third time this year.

When the Lazors started farming in Westfield in the late ’70s, theirs was the only organic dairy farm in the state.  Trial and error was the name of the game, and gradually they made contacts all over the country.  It’s an interesting network of people, Mr. Lazor said.  He seems to have a constant stream of visitors who are curious about the operation.

One day earlier this month, a fellow from New York State was visiting, interested in seeing the Lazors’ methods firsthand because he was considering adopting them.  Another fellow, a mechanic between jobs who happened to stop for some milk, got talking with them and wound up staying a few days and fixing some machinery.

Last week there was a film crew from public television, working on a series about agriculture.  The Lazors are also going to be featured soon in a national organic farming magazine.

The Lazors started out with a stovetop yogurt-making operation, and that has grown to a shiny manufacturing plant.  It may be small by industry standards, but it’s impressive nonetheless.

A filling and capping machine, to meet state Department of Agriculture no-touch regulations, cost $35,000.  The Lazors also recently put an addition on to separate the manufacturing area from the shipping area.  They added a walk-in cooler and set up a loading dock for loading the truck.  They bought a secondhand refrigerated truck, and they’re working on getting a costly interstate shipping license.

Mr. Lazor said in general he feels the Department of Agriculture has gone to bat for Butterworks and supported its efforts.  But he’s not wild about the Department’s latest kick – which he calls “condiment agriculture” – spending so much of its time promoting specialty foods like hot sauce, ketchup, and salsa made in Vermont.

“It’s a very limited market.  They’re all sold to yuppie types who are as fickle as hell, so maybe they’ll be onto some other kick next year.  We kind of feel like we’re not into specialty foods.  I like those fancy cheeses and everything, but I don’t really know if they’re the answer.”

Originally from Connecticut, Mr. Lazor grew up on a hobby farm with an apple orchard and other small projects going on.  He studied the history of American agriculture at Tufts University and worked on an historical farm at Sturbridge Village, which is where he and Anne met.  She is originally from Massachusetts.  Mr. Lazor first came to Vermont when he got a job on a dairy farm in Barnet.

The Lazors have one daughter, Christine, who is 14 and is home-schooled.  Anne and Christine Lazors’ biggest hobby is riding horses, and they were working this week on building a new stall.

Mr. Lazor said he doesn’t really have hobbies.

“I’m really pretty dull,” he said.  He prefers to spend his time comparing notes on nutrients in alfalfa.

He mentioned he gets a lot of encouragement and inspiration from the regular dairy farmers in the area, and the grain farmers in Canada.

“My favorite thing to do is talk to other farmers,” he said.  “A good organic farmer and a good regular farmer are very, very similar, at least in their cropping.”

Organic dairies are holding their own

by Bethany M. Dunbar, the Chronicle, May 19, 2010

WESTFIELD – Life on an organic dairy farm is not easy.  But the 39 organic farms in Orleans County are probably losing less money right now than the conventional farmers.

Karen and Allan Bathalon of Paddlebridge Holsteins are glad they made the switch.

The Bathalons both grew up on dairy farms and always wanted to farm.  They got married in 1998 and went into farming the conventional way.  But it was so difficult to make ends meet they decided to transition to organic.

They did not make the change based on the philosophy of organics, but now that they are milking that way, they can see that it’s healthier.

“I think the big thing is our price is stable,” said Mr. Bathalon.  “It was a business decision,” agreed Mrs. Bathalon.

“If you love your animals, once you start being organic you just know it’s so much better,” she said.

Sienna, Autumn, Karen, Maeve, and Allan Bathalon pose with their dogs and Holstein dairy cows at their organic farm, Paddlebridge Holsteins in Westfield. Photo by Bethany M. Dunbar

Mr. Bathalon said there are some rules that make no sense to him, but he follows them because they are about something that’s important to the organic consumers.

Unlike most conventional dairy farmers these days, whose milk check is determined by a complicated federal plan, the Bathalons’ milk price is determined by the cooperative that buys their milk.

There are two major buyers for organic milk in Vermont, Horizon and Organic Valley.

“Organic Valley has instituted a quota system,” said Ed Maltby of the Northeast Organic Dairy Producers Alliance based in Massachusetts.  The alliance advocates for farmers and Mr. Maltby follows the markets closely.

He said Organic Valley’s quota system is calling for about 7 percent less milk than it bought last year.  Meanwhile Horizon has asked producers to reduce production by 5 to 10 percent in the past year.

But recently Horizon has started allowing farmers to go back to their original production levels from a year ago, Mr. Maltby said, so it seems that the organic market might be picking up again.

From his standpoint, there are three types of organic dairy farmers.  One group has been running organic dairies for a long time, has little debt, and is holding their own right now.

A middle group does not have a huge amount of debt but transitioned from conventional farming more recently and is struggling a bit more.  The transition costs average about $50,000 to $60,000 per farm.

The third group is really stuck right now – young new farmers or those who made the transition right before the recession.  These farms had hopes of slowly expanding in some cases and now they are in a bad position.

Mr. Maltby said the average milk price for organic dairy farms in New England is about $26 a hundredweight ($2.24 per gallon).  He said the average cost of production on an organic dairy farm is about $30 per hundredweight ($2.58 a gallon), if the formula for cost of production includes things like a return on equity, health insurance for the family, and enough money to send the kids to college.

If you consider the person running a dairy farm to be equivalent to middle management with that kind of pay scale, the cost of production is more like $34, ($2.92 a gallon) he said.

The milk price for conventional farmers is more like $11.56 for a hundredweight ($0.99 a gallon) compared to a cost of production around $18 (1.69 a gallon).

Mr. Maltby has followed the political debates about what to do with the milk price for conventional farmers, and he says it’s important to think about what kind of dairy system the country wants in the future.  If the country wants all its milk from huge farms out west, that’s one thing.  But he believes that consumers want to get their milk from smaller farms all around the country.

If that’s the case, policy should reflect cost of production differences in different regions, he suggested.

“Any solution can’t just be political,” he added.  The farmers themselves and the dairy industry must get together, he said.

Dave Rogers at the Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont agrees with Mr. Maltby’s assessment.

“Most organic dairy farmers are having a tough time,” he said.  “This is an incredibly deep recession, so sales of everything has dropped.”

He added, “There are a lot of creative organic dairy farmers out there growing their own grain” and figuring out other ways to cut costs.

A new pasture rule for organic farmers should help Vermont and the organic dairy industry overall, Mr. Rogers said.

“We’re very happy with the new pasture rule.”

Essentially, the new federal rule requires the same thing Vermont organic farmers have been doing for years:  cows must be on pasture 120 days a year,  have a chance to get outside for exercise and fresh air every day, and 30 percent of their dry matter intake must be from grass.

“The large scale producers, particularly out west, have had to trim their herds back,” Mr. Rogers said.

Mr. Maltby agrees the pasture rule is a good thing for farmers and consumers.  Consumers will be able to know that the cows whose milk they are drinking are getting outside and eating grass.

“It’s third-party certified.  It’s not a marketing trick,” he said.

He said the large organic dairies have known the new rule was coming and have made adjustments.  The pasture rules will make it harder for new really large farms to get started because they will have to have a large amount of land to comply.

He said the next question is likely to be water, and, as he put it, “What is the role of irrigated dairies?”

The Bathalons in Westfield made the transition to organic starting in 2003 and were certified organic in 2004.

Money is tight, but they are making ends meet.

“We’re not extravagant,” said Mrs. Bathalon.  They don’t take vacations.

They enjoy the rhythm and process of farm life – the internal clock that says it’s time to hay or milk or plant crops.

“It’s almost like being in synch with something,” said Mrs. Bathalon.

Mr. Bathalon has worked outside the farm driving a truck and in a factory, but he always wanted to get back to farming.

“When we started farming our goal was milk production,” Mrs. Bathalon said, and the average amount of milk each cow in the herd made in a year reached 24,000 pounds.

Farming organically, the pressure is off to make as much milk.  The herd average is down around 17,000.

The Bathalons have four children, Autumn, 18, Zach, 17, Sienna, ten, and Maeve, seven.

Orleans County has 39 organic dairy farms, 139 dairy farms in all.

There are about 200 organic dairies in the state, about 1,000 dairy farms in all.

Vermont Secretary of Agriculture Roger Allbee predicted recently that if nothing changes, the state could lose 200 of them this year.

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2 responses to “The Lazors and the organic dairy movement

  1. Great article, and great farms! We need “succession planning” for the small, essential family farms that are finally prospering. Like restaurants and bakeries, these businesses require constant love and attention, around the clock. If we don’t plan for their survival, they vanish as their owners age and ache. How can we “seed” the next generation?

    • vermontfeature

      Hi Beth. That’s a really good question, one I’ve heard people talking about. In the Lazors’ case their daughter lives nearby and is deeply involved in the business. I think there is no shortage of young people who are interested. The question is how to make these transitions work out for both generations. I have heard statistics about the average age of farmers in the U.S. and it’s high.

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