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Transforming How Food Is Grown

Chuck Lacy, a former president of Ben & Jerry's, is developing alternatives to corporate agriculture.
Chuck Lacy gets friendly with one of his Red Devons.

Chuck Lacy
Rotokawa Cattle Company

"What's big?" asks Chuck Lacy, surveying the breakfast menu at a café in Burlington, Vermont. Standing 6 foot 8 and sporting a full gray beard, a tattered beige barn coat, and a well-worn Red Sox cap, Lacy is an outsize presence wherever he goes. A former president of Ben & Jerry's, Lacy, 54, helped drive the ice cream maker's 1,000 percent growth during his eight-year tenure there in the late '80s and early '90s -- and created the template for the for-profit business with a social mission, a then-radical notion.

For the past 10 years, Lacy has been on another mission: to transform the business of beef. In 2001, Lacy and partner Ridge Shinn co-founded the Bakewell Reproductive Center in Hardwick, Massachusetts, and began selling bull semen, fertilized embryos, and breeding stock to farmers specializing in grass-fed beef. They soon realized that success would require fresh blood, literally. Most American cattle, bred for half a century to fatten in feedlots, just didn't do well on grass.

A worldwide search for animals that did -- and that could tough out New England winters -- led Lacy and Shinn to a herd of Red Devons owned by a New Zealand rancher named Ken McDowall. In 2003, they brought back 12 pregnant heifers to found a herd in Vermont. Five years later, McDowall announced plans to retire and disperse his herd. Lacy and Shinn agreed there was just one thing to do -- bring the roughly 100 animals to America by airlifting them on two 747s. Arriving in Los Angeles, the shaggy-coated herd, which included several pregnant cows, was greeted by 110-degree summer heat and Shinn, who took them up the coast to acclimate on a ranch where they were kept cool by misters in specially built shelters.

Now settled in Massachusetts and on a new partner ranch in Pennsylvania, the herd is growing. So is Lacy's influence. Between the breeding operation -- renamed Rotokawa Cattle Company, after the ranch in New Zealand -- plus a processing and distribution company called Hardwick Beef, and a couple hundred cattle Lacy keeps himself in Vermont, he is now a big player in a growing market. "There aren't many times in life when you just find yourself in front of the right parade," he says. "We're trying to re-create a food system that has been decimated by large-scale agriculture. We're never going to be on a list of the fastest-growing companies, but if we sell 20 bulls a year to 20 different farms, that can make or break the movement."

IMAGE: Sage Sohier
Last updated: Dec 1, 2010


Adam Bluestein is a frequent contributor to Inc., writing about health care, innovation, and new technology. He lives with his wife and two children in Burlington, Vermont.

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