Butterworks Farm, Vermont
Butterworks Farm's 100% grass-fed Jersey cows bring premium organic dairy products to the market including yogurt, kefir, buttermilk, and heavy cream. In addition to producing delicious food, they are committed to using their land and livestock to sequester as much carbon as possible.
Know Your Farmer | Butterworks Farm, Vermont
Jack Lazor: It's much more difficult for us now to sell our yogurt now than it was 20 years ago because we're competing with all these slick-looking brands on the shelves that don't even come from farms, but they've got “farm” written all over them.
Producing a Signature Product at Butterworks Farm
Anne Lazor: This is Butterworks Farm in Westfield, Vermont. We are a dairy farm with about 40 Jersey cows, all grass-fed. We have a lot of pasture all around us here and some hay land. All of our milk is made into Butterworks Farm yogurt, kefir, buttermilk, and heavy cream.
Jack: We decided to produce a signature product – something that we could put our name on and pour our heart and soul into. We did it at a time when the marketplace and organics were growing. It was the beginning of the movement.
Market and Media Forcing Out Small-Scale Dairies
Jack: The movement has kind of flattened out now. We are dealing with a lot of huge corporate competitors. You hear every day about how organics is growing, and you go to the store and you see all this packaged stuff – everything from cheddar flavored lotus nuts to cold brewed coffee, and it's all in fancy packaging.
The other big thing in the dairy industry right now is the proliferation of “plant-based milks” whether it's oat milk or almond milk or soymilk or any of these things… or the Impossible Burger. It's a foregone conclusion in The New Yorker and the New York Times that these are better for the earth, and consumers out there really want to do the best. Many, many of them do. But small farms are really at a disadvantage right now.
Unsustainable Exceptions for the Mega-Dairies
Anne: The price of milk is at an all-time low. There are huge dairy farms out there milking 500 or 1,000 cows. Some of them are even certified organic, which raises eyebrows because how do you be certified organic without giving your cows pasture? The organic rules require farmers to have the cows out on pasture for 130 days a year, and the big dairy farms that are trying to milk that many cows often don't have the pasture that can support that. So, they tend to have what they call concrete grazers where they bring in green feed and call it “good enough.” For some reason, the USDA National Organic Program has okayed this, much to the chagrin of small farms.
A supposedly “organic” dairy farm with little to no pasture. Photo courtesy of the Washington Post.
Defaulting to “Cheapest is Best”
Anne: All sorts of people, high-income as well as low-income, are buying their food at the cheapest places, which might be Trader Joe's or Costco or Walmart or wherever. I think our values have really shifted to a place that's probably not as good for the human body as well as the environment. It’s perfectly alright to spend $1,000 on a phone, but it's not alright to spend money on food anymore.
Farming for the Planet
Christine Lazor: Regenerative agriculture and the way we farm can do so much for the quality of our food, air, water, and animal lives while building soil organic matter, fostering healthy soil microbes, and pulling atmospheric carbon down into the soil through photosynthesis.
Jack: We have undergone a transition ourselves in the last five years from being a dairy farm that grew all its own grain (and also sold grain) to a 100% grass-fed operation. We had our own cornmeal, flour, rolled oats, and oat groats in the stores. I even wrote a book called The Organic Grain Grower. Anne: We wanted to be fully sustainable. In the past, we tilled a lot of land and we depleted some of the resources in that land by exposing it to the air and doing a lot of tillage. Yeah, we used cover crops and things like that, but it just didn't have any comparison with having grass roots in the ground all year round.
Jack: Five years ago, we stopped feeding grain to our cows. In the process of going 100% grass-fed, we also started learning about climate issues. We took all our grain land and seeded it all back down to forage and hay crops. That land has just gotten better and better.
Sequestering Carbon Through Dairy Farming
Jack: Whatever time we have left at the end of our careers here, we would like to devote it to working on methods that actually take carbon out of the atmosphere and put it back down in the soil. We are in a project right now with Dartmouth to see if we can even sequester more carbon. Anne: Don’t underestimate the value of the cows in the carbon sequestration process because the cows are actually eating the grass and improving the biology by leaving their manure behind. The manure then gets incorporated into the soil, and it builds the organic matter. Our farm is hopefully contributing a lot more carbon into the earth than we're taking off (although we're all taking carbon off the earth).
Jack: I feel better about the way we farm than we did five years ago. The contribution that agriculture could make to climate issues is just tremendous, and it's hardly ever mentioned. We need to have our side of the story told. We need more articles in The New York Times that will actually tell you that cows on grass are not bad. As a group, we know what we're doing. And we know how to heal the earth.
Recognizing Farmers’ Work
Christine: I'm hopeful when I hear the voices of women farmers, young farmers, minority farmers, that as caretakers of the soil, our work can be recognized as it becomes ever more important. I think we need to hear a more diverse array of voices among farmers to build the awareness and empathy we need as a society and also to grow the respect farming deserves as an occupation.
Bringing Together Those Who Care
Dave Chapman: A long time ago far, far away, organic was simple. It was about healthy soil. We all know that organic was about respect and care. Jack and Anne are here – they are symbols of Real Organic farming, and one of the things that we are coping with and the reason that we're creating this effort is because these symbols are being used as false representations of what people are often buying.
Jack: The Real Organic Project has been a great thing because it's bound together a group of farmers who really, really care and there's farmers who are longtime farmers like us. And then there's farmers who are fairly young and new. But we're all here to care for the earth and care for our customers.