Jack Lazor, the co-founder of Butterworks Farm in Westfield and an organic agriculture pioneer, died Saturday at 69. Lazor had been diagnosed with cancer in 2013.
Lazor grew up in Somers, Connecticut, the son of a polymer chemist who worked at Monsanto, and discovered a love of farming while he was working at Sturbridge Village between semesters at Tufts University in Boston. He switched his major to the history of agriculture and along the way met his wife Anne, who herself first pursued her interest in agriculture while in college, in her case at the University of Wisconsin.
The two spent their first weekend together going to farm auctions.
“We were going to live happily ever after as a couple of back-to-the-landers,” Jack Lazor said at an interview mid-November at the couple’s farm in Westfield.
After he graduated from college in 1973, Jack started working on a friend’s dairy farm in Barnet while he waited for Anne to graduate. He also did a stint as a school bus driver, shop teacher, and janitor – all in one job – for the St. Johnsbury school system, before getting an opportunity to return to Sturbridge Village as a historical researcher.
Then the newly married pair started out on their back-to-the-land life at a rented home in Irasburg. It was 1975.
“We hadn’t been there a week before we somehow ended up with a cow and a dog, and then a workhorse, a wild thing,” said Jack. “We somehow lived through it.” A used car dealer sold them some chickens that never laid any eggs.
“We were definitely a little wet behind the ears,” said Anne. But they liked farming as much as they had expected to, and soon paid $20,000 for the Westfield farm — then 60 acres — where they eventually built their herd of Jerseys and their yogurt business. They slowly purchased parts of the farm that had been sold off over the years, building it up to about 500 acres of fields and forest and 85 Jersey cows.
By 1979, the couple was selling yogurt, cottage cheese and raw milk locally. They slowly built up their yogurt business until it reached an apex in the millions of dollars around 2008. The recession, and competition from the suddenly popular Greek yogurt, suppressed the business, but they still make yogurt at the farm with four employees.
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Along the way, Jack Lazor taught organic agriculture at the University of Vermont and wrote a book, “The Organic Grain Grower,” that Mother Earth News called “the best resource we’ve seen for small-scale grain growers everywhere.” The book, published by Chelsea Green, has sold 5,000 copies.
He served as a regular keynote speaker at events put on by groups like the Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont, and frequently hosted farm groups or individuals who were looking for information about organic dairying.
“He was his best when he was really inspired,” said former farmer Peter Young, who became friends with Jack when Young was starting his own organic dairy in Marshfield around the time that the Lazors started theirs.
“He was friendly, passionate, kind of effervescent, and he didn’t have any problem chatting; he loved having an audience,” said Young. “And he loved sharing his knowledge.”
In the past two decades, Jack and Anne Lazor exhaustively researched ways to pass the business on as it is now, with farming carried out biodynamically to preserve the soil. They sought to establish a cooperative farm venture but it never panned out, and eventually their daughter, Christine Lazor, and her family started to work the property. The Lazors also hired a manager to run the financial side of the business.
Anne and Jack Lazor were awarded NOFA’s Lifetime Achievement Award in 2019 and were the first organic farmers to be inducted into the Vermont Agriculture Hall of Fame.
“He was ahead of his time when it came to organic,” said Vermont Agriculture Secretary Anson Tebbetts. “Organic is now pretty mainstream, and he can take credit for launching that.”
Tebbetts recalled Lazor’s testimony on water quality two years ago at a Statehouse hearing.
“He wasn’t pointing fingers at anybody; he was like talking about how important agriculture was to the state of Vermont,” said Tebbetts. “It didn’t matter if you were conventional, if you were organic; he knew they needed to stick together and work together. Right up to the end he was learning, listening and teaching and sharing his knowledge with anyone who came before him.”
In mid-November, Jack Lazor reflected on the difficulties that young people face when they enter dairy farming nowadays. Lazor, who frequently mentioned his dislike for capitalism, was deeply frustrated by the economic forces that have shaped farming and suppressed its profits.
“Why would you want to go into deep debt to milk cows? It’s not a way to riches for sure. It’s barely a way to make a living,” he said.
“Is it the values that we have in our society that make some things so valuable and other things kind of worthless?” he said. “If somebody will pay $1,200 for a new iPhone 12, and they won’t pay 30 cents more for a quart of our yogurt, I guess that tells me that the iPhone is more important than the food.”
And he often ascribed his own success to luck.
“We’re very, very fortunate that we have been able to do what we are doing for the last 40-plus years,” he said. “We rode a wave through the early ’80s and ’90s, and it’s not that easy today.”
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Jack Lazor occasionally contributed commentaries to VTDigger:
Changing paradigms in food and farming, Jan. 14, 2018
A new direction for Vermont agriculture, Sept. 14, 2016
Lake remediation starts with soil restoration, March 6, 2014
The Lowell Wind Project as seen from Butterworks Farm, Aug. 23, 2012