Louis Lazzari: An Economic History of Family Farming

Despite encroaching residential and commercial development, Baldwin County’s Belforest community remains predominantly a patchwork of family farms, most rooted in the late 1800s. Third-generation farmer Louis Lazzari began helping in those fields as a youngster. Except for two years in the Army, he has farmed ever since. And at age 84, he still works the land almost every day. He and eldest son, Larry, raise cattle, soybeans and produce on some 300 acres, about a third of what they once farmed.

Louis says he can still recall “as clear as if it was yesterday” his father striding behind a then state-of-the-art mule-drawn Georgia Stock turning plow. Interchangeable attachments for plowing, fertilizing and planting had him walking each row three times. Planting 70 acres in corn took weeks.

Modern machinery that plows, fertilizes and plants 16 perfectly placed, GPS-controlled rows in a single pass can cover that same 70 acres in a day.

Louis’ father, Alexander, was born to Vittorio and Teresa Lazzari, soon after the family joined the Italian Agricultural Colony of Daphne in 1896. They and some two-dozen other immigrant families were lured away from the coal mines of Illinois and Michigan by founder Alessandro Mastro-Valerio’s promotional circulars touting the southern clime and cheap land: most colonists paid between $1.50 and $5 per acre for plots ranging from 50 to 150 acres. It was a vast old-growth forest of massive long-leaf pines, which had to be cut and cleared. Stumps were burned and then dug out by hand. More than half a century later plows were still occasionally snagging buried remnants.

Vittorio’s “farm” started as little more than a cow, some chickens and a large garden. The family consumed nearly all that they produced. Alexander helped sell any excess in the long-established Anglo community along the waterfront. “The grandmother would give Daddy, at the age of six or seven, some eggs and butter, maybe some veggies, whatever they had.”

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Alexander’s farm eventually grew to encompass about 500 acres. His brother Joe amassed some 700-800 acres. “Before I was 22, I bought land, ” says Louis. “The three of us, my two brothers, A.V. and Angelo and I, bought 80 acres that daddy had in the Silverhill area.” The brothers farmed together for decades. They started with pecans, corn and potatoes. Green beans, soybeans and field peas soon followed. They raised cattle, and for seven and a half years operated a dairy. A.V. retired in 1970; Louis and Angelo bought him out and continued as partners. “Angelo and I had over 1, 000 acres and, as far as the tractor work and all of that stuff, we did 95 percent of it ourselves, ” Louis recalls.

A 1941 USDA publication featured the A. V. Lazzari family around a bountiful weekday meal — “all except the coffee grown or prepared on the farm.” Louis is the boy on the left.

The pair divided their holdings in 1989. Louis and Larry set out on their own. Open orders from Birmingham-based Bruno’s provided a ready market for what proved to be a banner year for the newly christened Double-L Farm’s cucumbers, squash and potatoes.

“It was unheard of around here, but we planted 14 acres of cucumbers in one planting. And we planted them more than one time, ” Lewis recalls. “And we planted practically 12 acres of squash at intervals of four acres, four acres and four acres. The first day that we picked squash, we got 50 40-pound boxes.” An unusually warm spring caused the second four-acre planting to “gain, ” to mature earlier than expected. Their second picking covered both plots. “It was a Saturday afternoon. We picked 380 40-pound boxes of pretty little ole crookneck squash.”

They loaded the squash into the farm’s refrigerated truck, which Louis drove to the Bruno’s warehouse in Montgomery. A $3, 800 check arrived in the mail two weeks later: $10 per box was the most that they’d ever received for squash.

Beef cattle, in what’s referred to as a cow/calf operation, play a major role in their farm today. Numbers fluctuate as calves are born and mature animals are sold, but the herd currently stands at 114. Newborn calves commonly reach a market weight of 350 to 500 pounds in six or seven months. In produce, they emphasize higher-profit crops that allow for the double-planting of fields — particularly the fields with well-fed ponds for irrigation.

The Lazzaris are now harvesting corn from fields that were blanketed in November with cabbage, collards and winter rye. The corn harvest signals planting time for soybeans. Such diversification not only spreads land use across all four seasons, it also minimizes bottom-line risks from any single weather event. Excess rains destroyed their 21-acre potato planting in 1991, while leaving corn in adjacent fields unscathed.

In good years where all goes well, an acre of collards can net some $4, 400, about seven times the expected return on an acre of Irish potatoes. But Double-L’s produce now stays mostly in the Mobile-Pensacola area, and they plant only what they know they can sell. The market for collards is much smaller than that for sweet corn or potatoes.

Louis and Larry both say that, over the years, they’ve been well compensated for the long hours and physically demanding work. Neither ever wanted to do anything else. But Double-L — like many family farms in the county’s more development-prone areas — faces an uncertain future. When his sons finished high school, Louis offered each a choice: a college education or a place in the family business. Only Larry chose farming. Larry, who turns 60 this month, gave his sons the same options. One is a police detective, and the other went into education. And as each new generation’s educational and employment opportunities have expanded, land values have soared.

A 40-acre subdivision now abuts Larry’s land. “I couldn’t afford to buy it, not at the price paid by the developer, ” he says. He could have bought the land; it just didn’t make sense economically. Only specialty crops like collards or turnips consistently return enough per acre to justify the price. But the market wouldn’t support expanding such plantings on a large scale. And that’s with no investment required beyond the land purchase. Equipping a new farm, comparable to Double-L, would cost $300, 000-$400, 000. “Just that tractor with the cab was $64, 000. And it’s small. It is rated at 95 horsepower, ” Larry explains. “Of course, with an operation like ours, you want smaller equipment.”

His comment elicits laughter from Louis, who (with A.V. and Angelo) bought his first John Deere in 1949 — a decade after his father had bought his first.

“Daddy bought that beautiful green and yellow John Deere when I was nine years old. It had 16 horsepower. I’ve got a lawnmower out there that’s more than that, ” laughs Louis. “Some of those monstrous tractors that articulate are over 500 horsepower. And GPS. You don’t drive it. You just sit there, turn it around at the end of the row.”

After a bit of needling from his son, Louis admits to warming to temperature-controlled cabs. “I don’t care about the heat. But I love it in cold weather. I spent thousands of days on those old tractors in cold weather. But if you had one of those hooded things where you could bundle up real good, ” he says, before deferring to Larry’s laughter.

“He looked like an Eskimo out there!” exclaims Larry, sparking recollections of a day ice pellets bounced off the hoods of their tractors.

Adrian Hoff is a freelance contributor to Business Alabama. He lives in Mobile.    

Text and photo by Adrian Hoff

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