NEWPORT CENTER — Vermont Highland Cattle owners Melanie and Francis Azur have recently bought their sixth farm, a refrigerated truck, and the former Comstock plant in Orleans where they will be able to butcher beef. The plan is to set that up sometime next year. At this point the company has 14 employees in Vermont and 500 head of cattle. "Our goal is to get up to 1,000 or 2,000," Ms. Azur said.
The company was started in 2005, and in 2006, as Ms. Azur puts it, "we got serious." Vermont Highland Cattle is planning to get even more serious, and part of its plan is to be a good neighbor. The company is donating a ton of beef to local schools. Mr. Azur was born in Newport and met his wife, Melanie, in Pennsylvania. The two were working together in support services for real estate transactions. Eventually they started a company together, called ATM Corporation of America, which does appraisals, titles, and closing services. The two owned that company from 1993 until August of last year.
Although they have spent a lot of their time in Pennsylvania, they are regularly in Vermont as well, and six years ago they built a house in Newport Center. They still have a place in Pennsylvania and divide their time between the two places.
The Azurs have always had animals. In Pennsylvania they have 30 Paso Fino horses that they show, plus standardbred racehorses they raise and race, plus a couple of Icelandic horses they bought during a trip to Iceland. The general manager of the company is Josh Mason. Ray Edwards is in charge of sales, and he is finding that the local beef sells very well. Some of the chefs are very excited to hear about it.
Although the Vermont Highland Cattle are not organic, they are not given grain with antibiotics in it or growth hormones. Some of the large cattle dealers out west regularly feed cattle antibiotics to increase their appetites in hot weather, Ms. Azur said. The only reason for using antibiotics on the Vermont Highland Cattle would be if an animal became sick. The majority of the animals don't ever get treated, according to herd master Derek Williams. The company just bought the former Bob Judd farm in order to have enough pasture acres for all their animals. Ms. Azur said they have about 500 acres of pasture, and each animal needs about an acre.
They have 800 acres of crop land. Young animals are kept with their mothers for five or six months. "They learn how to graze and how to be a cow," she said. The animals are taken to local slaughterhouses — St. Johnsbury and Troy — so they don't have to travel great distances packed tightly into huge trailers.
The Azurs are clearly quite proud of their cows. All of the bulls but one have won national championships in shows. They are all in the same paddock together and seem to get along just fine. They don't mind visitors coming into the paddock and seem to enjoy having their pictures taken and a nice scratch on the neck. "They love to be brushed and spoiled," Ms. Azur said.
Another main interest of the Azurs is hunting, and their home is a showcase of huge impressive trophies — full body mounts of deer, bear, and a head and the front shoulders of a bison are seen in the main entrance. Mr. Azur has hunted all over the globe, including alligators in Lousiana and bears in Alaska.
"It took us two times to Alaska to get the brown bear you wanted," Ms. Azur said to her husband. Ms. Azur fishes. She doesn't hunt but often accompanies her husband on his hunting trips. Another hobby of theirs is helping others who are less fortunate. "Fran and I are pretty active in philanthropic ideas," Ms. Azur said. The two started a foundation, the Bartko Foundation, using Ms.Azur's maiden name. Its mission is to help single minority women get education, transportation, and housing in Pittsburgh.
Monthly beef donations to the local schools were scheduled to begin on Monday, September 29, with 60 pounds apiece to schools in Newport Center, Troy, Jay-Westfield, Lowell, and Coventry.