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Remembering Organic Pioneer Jack Lazor

Anne and Jack Lazor.

By TRACY FRISCH

On November 28 we lost a giant in the organic agriculture movement with the passing of Jack Lazor at age 69, after a long illness. With his wife and partner, Anne, who survives him, Jack co-founded Butterworks Farm, the second dairy farm to gain organic certification in the state of Vermont. Jack made his mark as an organic dairy farmer, organic grain grower, grazier, pioneering farmstead yogurt maker, regenerative agriculture practitioner, writer, teacher, font of practical and historical knowledge, and beloved mentor.


Jack was a master farmer who was always learning. He came to agriculture with an immense curiosity that he sought to satisfy by reading books and talking to all the old timers, Anne said. He never stopped taking on new challenges and enjoying the stimulation of learning. For him, this was always an adventure worth pursuing. And whatever he learned, he wanted to share, because bringing others along was part of the circle of life, as he understood it.

Jack received numerous awards for his agricultural achievements. He gave many workshops and hosted frequent farm tours and field days and was a popular keynote speaker at conferences. (He spoke at the 2010 Acres U.S.A. conference.) In 2014 Jack was one of two dozen organic farming pioneers chosen for a 2014 gathering of “agrarian elders” at Esalen Institute in California. In 2019 Jack and Anne were inducted into the Vermont Agricultural Hall of Fame with a lifetime achievement award for producing organic yogurt, stewarding the land and advocating for organic agriculture.

In its tribute to Jack, the Northern Grain Growers Association beautifully summed up his contribution to the world with a perfect agricultural metaphor: “Among the many gifts Jack gave to us and the world was cultivation. Cultivation of plants and animals to provide nutritious foods. Cultivation of knowledge through his teaching at UVM and beyond. And, perhaps most importantly, cultivation of relationships – bringing together people throughout the food system to find a common path to sustainability. Jack’s work to help found the Northern Grain Growers Association is an example of this cultivation.”

“Honoring Jack Lazor,” an August 22, 2013 article by the late Enid Wonnacott in the newsletter of the Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont, captured the essence of Jack’s spirit at the launch of his new book, The Organic Grain Grower: Small-scale, Holistic Grain Production for the Home and Market Producer. At this celebration of him as a farmer-author, Jack turned the attention to his own teachers and mentors. He said that he learned so much from the people who took time to educate him along the way, and he took away an essential lesson — “generosity doesn’t cost, it pays.” Many of his mentors, as well as those he mentored, were present at this event. A farmer who transitioned to organic production because of Jack’s influence said, “I used to farm in partnership with Cargill and Monsanto, and I converted to organic production after driving around with Jack.”

Heather Darby, an agronomy professor with University of Vermont Extension, was Jack’s good friend and collaborator for 17 years. They partnered on all sorts of grain-related research, such as breeding open-pollinated corn and wheat that thrive in northern climates. “Jack and Anne opened the farm and their hearts and minds to anyone who wanted to learn,” Darby said. “This made them different.”

No account of Jack Lazor’s life would be complete without mention of “all the wonderful interns who lived with us over the years and contributed their good energy and labor to our farm and lives,” said Anne. Many of them have taken the skills and concepts that they learned at Butterworks Farm to create their own farms and homesteads. As Jack used to say, “They got the farming bug.”

BIRTH OF BUTTERWORKS

Back in the mid 1970s, during a wave of back-to-the-land migration, Jack and Anne, both flatlanders raised in Massachusetts, moved to a remote, rural region of Vermont called the Northeast Kingdom. The couple started farming in 1975 with one cow, a bull calf and a flock of “used” chickens. The following year they purchased 60 rocky acres of hilltop land that they would transform over the years into the lush pastures of Butterworks Farm. When they moved there in 1978, they first had to learn to build a house while living in a pole shed — with the cow.

As is the nature of dairy farming, one cow leads to two, so they bought heifer calves to consume the milk. When the calves were weaned, Jack and Ann had to find something else to do with all the milk. “That’s when we starting peddling it to our neighbors and the local health-food store,” Anne explained. Jack, who was naturally outgoing and friendly, shone as a marketer. “He could stop someone on the street and say, “Do you want to buy my cottage cheese?” recalled Anne, who is shy in comparison.

At the start of their farmstead dairy enterprise they were ignorant of the legal requirements for dairy products. They heated their cow’s milk on the kitchen stove and incubated yogurt all over the farmhouse kitchen. For an incubator, they repurposed a wooden box made to hold firewood. They wrapped gallon jars of inoculated milk in quilts to maintain the correct temperature for the yogurt culture. They sold fluid milk in Tropicana jars and labeled their other dairy products by writing directly on the plastic tubs.

In July 1982, when Jack and Anne were building their barn, the state discovered that they were illegally selling and processing raw milk and shut down their business. Despite a helpful inspector, it took them more than two years to obtain their first dairy-processing license from the state of Vermont so they could reopen their operation. By then they were milking seven cows. They cobbled together their first creamery with secondhand equipment and “funky” fixes, like filling in the cracks in tongue-and-groove walls with putty to meet state regulations. “It wouldn’t be possible or legal to do that today,” Anne said.

‘EAGER BEAVER’

Jack grew up in Somers, Connecticut, the oldest child in the family. When he was a boy, his father, a chemist in Monsanto’s plastics division, would leave him a list of the day’s garden chores. Jack would take around any extra backyard vegetables in a wagon to sell in the neighborhood.

His dad pushed Jack hard to be successful, Anne said. Jack became an Eagle Scott and a self-described “eager beaver overachiever in school.” But while Jack was ambitious in whatever he did, he was never motivated by money. Rather it was his relationships with people and his quest to achieve his dreams and bring his principles to life that drove him. “He had so many ideas, and he always had visions of doing something bigger,” explained Anne.

After more than four decades as Jack’s partner in life and work, Anne still stands in awe of his people skills and “amazing personality.”

“Somehow he always talked to people so they felt like they were his best friend,” she said. “He gave them his full attention and freely shared all his ideas and his passions. He was a good listener and counselor.” His relationships were authentic, for “Jack was as inspired by the people he inspired as they were inspired by him.”

THE MENTOR

Like so many others who are mourning his loss, Heather Darby, the agronomist, concurs. She first met Jack soon after she started working at the University of Vermont in 2003. Given her interests, someone encouraged her to meet Jack.

Heather said she had to push herself to pick up the phone, given her discomfort with cold calling people. “As I was dialing the number, I was thinking, ‘I hope I get the answering machine.’ Jack answered and it was like he was waiting for me to call. We chatted and instantly he invited me up to his farm.”

“We had this relationship that just flourished,” she said. “In almost 20 years at Extension, I can only think of one other farmer that made me feel that way. I would call him at least once a week, whether we were doing research together or not. I learned so much. He was willing to share everything and he wanted to. That was a driving force for him – to share and foster good agricultural practices and mentor interested farmers.”

Heather and Jack traveled all over to speak at conferences and for tours. They even took a bunch of organic farmers to Denmark to visit organic grain operations there, she said.

GRAIN FOCUS

Jack became interested in grain growing early on. According to Darby, all the grains were really interesting to Jack. The challenge of doing something new was particularly compelling for him. In his eyes, refining his ability to successfully grow organic grain probably constituted of the greatest adventure of his life and became his passion.

The initial impetus to grow grain involved a desire to be self-reliant, she said. Jack and Anne wanted to feed themselves and to produce grain for flour for their bread and grain for their cows.

The grain operation that he created was one of a kind in Vermont, Darby said. He pressed sunflower oil, made corn meal, and grew oats, barley, soybeans and flax.

In 2010 Jack got a contract with Chelsea Green Publishing to write a book about growing organic grain. At the time, he had no experience using a computer. Nonetheless, The Organic Grain Grower: Small-Scale, Holistic Grain Production for the Home and Market Producer was released to wide acclaim in 2013. Four days before the first book signing, Jack was hospitalized with kidney failure, a complication of prostate cancer.

With home dialysis five days a week, he regained much of his strength and created a college course on organic grain production that he taught for three years at the University of Vermont. “He loved teaching the students,” Darby said. “He was really trying to support people who were interested in agriculture.”

Until the end of his life, Jack continued to have dreams. One of his ideas was to go 100 percent grass-fed, with the goal of marketing Butterworks Farm yogurt for its carbon-sequestration value.

He also dreamed of transforming the farm into a cooperative, gaining his inspiration from a student in his college course on organic grain growing who wrote about creating a cooperative dairy farm in her final exam. But in the end, after hiring a general manager to look after the business, Jack and Anne envisioned the farm continuing to thrive with its value-added dairy business, and with the hard work and in-depth knowledge of daughter Christine Lazor and son-in-law Collin Mahoney and a committed crew of employees. It had taken them 13 years to work out how to let go of their management roles. (The Lazors had sold their development rights to the Vermont Land Trust 20 years earlier. By then, their farm comprised close to 500 acres of fields and forest.)

By the early 2000s, Butterworks Farm had become a $1.2 million business. But the recession that began in 2008 dealt them a blow that was compounded by increasing competition from other farmstead organic yogurt makers (several of whom the Lazors had mentored) and from corporate imitators that gave the impression of being family farmers. In 2008 they contracted with Grafton Village Cheese to turn their extra milk into aged cheddar cheese. This served as a way to put their milk in the bank, Anne explained.

While their business has shrunk – today the creamery counts four employees – Jack and Anne have been able to sustain it and adapt to the market for more than 30 years. Currently the farm produces 5,000 quarts of whole milk and nonfat yogurt, 1,000 pints of cultured buttermilk, 300 pints of kefir and up to 700 pints of heavy cream weekly.

LEADING BY EXAMPLE

Doug Flack, a grass farmer pioneer in his own right, respected his friend Jack on many levels. He noted that Jack never proselytized, but rather led by example. Jack’s integrity though seemed to have most impressed Doug. Despite a passion for growing grain, upon discovering that the grain-growing soils were not gaining organic matter while his pasture soils were improving, Jack was very upfront and public about this outcome, Doug explained. Jack revealed in an article that, after 40 years of plowing and cultivating fields to grow organic crops, the soil organic matter “barely broke 2 percent,” while his permanent grasslands tested out at 8 to 9 percent organic matter. This discovery prompted Jack’s conversion to a reduced tillage, biologically based agricultural system. As Doug explained, “It squashed his dream of grain farming and being able to grow the grain for his cows, and he decided that his cows were going to be grain free.”

Jack discussed his decision to transition Butterworks’ Jersey herd to grass-only production in a 2016 article. His enthusiastic embrace of the challenges it entailed and his eagerness to take others along on the journey were emblematic of who Jack was. In 2016, he wrote:

“Our primary goal in farming is to take more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and, through photosynthesis, lock it up in the Earth’s crust as humus and organic matter. Higher carbon levels in the soil are the number one weapon that we as humans have to reduce and eliminate the effects of a changing climate. We are excited to be trying something challenging and new. Our farming practices were already focused on mineralization and soil health, which has built a vibrant farm organism. Our switch to 100 percent grass fed dairying is taking us to new levels. It is incredibly hard work, but so much fun, and what we are learning we want to share with others in the process.”

As Jack grew older, his friends watched his passion for the earth and the care of the land become more and more motivating for him. By then, decades of experience had demonstrated how much healthy soil mattered. Reflecting on his roots in agriculture at the 2014 Esalen gathering of agrarian elders, Jack observed, “We went out of our way to give everything to the earth, and the earth gives back to us,” according to the New York Times article on the event.

“Jack’s legacy lives on in farmers and consumers and policy makers,” said Darby “He contributed so much in all kinds of ways to shape agriculture in Vermont.” Although he was a great innovator, as well as a pioneer at value-adding at the farm level, it may be that his generosity — “always being there with the doors open” — will have the most lasting influence.

Donations in honor of Jack Lazor can be made through the Northern Grain Growers Association (NGGA). The donations will be presented to Chief Don Stevens and the Nulhegan Abenaki Tribe in May 2021 at the celebration of life for Jack. The mailing address is NGGA, Attn: Heather Darby, 278 So. Main Street, Suite 2, St. Albans, VT 05478. Donations can also be made directly to Nulhegan Abenaki Tribe in support of its food security and sovereignty programs. A link to their food program, with a donate button at the bottom, can be accessed at abenakitribe.org.

Tracy Frisch lives in upstate New York.