By Hannah Palmer-Egan – June 14, 2017
As an only child growing up at Butterworks Farm in Westfield, Christine Lazor spent lots of time alone. She’d play on the stone walls and in the tree lines at the edges of the fields. “I enjoyed being invisible,” she said, “out of the way, unobtrusive. I think I felt like part of the bigger picture, part of nature, time and space.”
Back then, her parents, Jack and Anne Lazor — now 66 and 65 years old, respectively — worked long days milking cows and tending fields of organic grain. Many evenings, they made yogurt in the farm’s modest production plant until well past suppertime. Christine, now 37, said she learned to make her own dinner — spaghetti and scrambled eggs — by the time she turned 8. “The business was everything,” she said earlier this month, sitting at her cluttered kitchen table. “Family time was kind of incidental.”
By age 15, Christine was milking cows regularly — she liked spending time with the animals, she said. Still, she never imagined she might one day take over the farm.
Two decades later, that’s exactly what she and her husband, Collin Mahoney, 43, are doing. Christine realized that if she didn’t take responsibility for her family’s farm, someone else would. “I wanted to do it for this place,” she said. “I have a real attachment to this spot.”
Today, Christine and Collin work as managers at Butterworks. They’re about 10 years into a process that will eventually transition the farm from Jack and Anne to them. With estate and business planning, day-to-day operations, and family dynamics all part of the deal, the Lazors have discovered that passing the farm from one generation to the next ain’t easy.
And they’re not alone. According to Don Buckloh of the American Farmland Trust, 90 percent of New England’s older farmers have no one lined up to take over.
Transfers — between family members or otherwise — involve many separate issues: animal husbandry, land stewardship, employee management and ethics, along with product development, branding and marketing.
At the Intervale Center in Burlington, farm business specialist Sam Smith helps families and total strangers through the process. In many cases, he said, “the business model that worked for the exiting farmer isn’t going to work for the next generation.”
For a transfer to work long-term, the operation must be profitable enough to weather unpredictable swings in agricultural markets. While many baby boomers could “get into a relatively cheap piece of property and struggle along for 50 years,” Smith said, today’s young farmers must excel to stay afloat.