Branching Out

Growth is all around for this business

by Will Lindner

langThrough their various enterprises at Lang Farm Nursery in Essex, Debbie and Jonathan Lang maintain their link to the land purchased by Jon’s great-grandfather in 1919.

Jon Lang enjoys telling people that he’s never had a job in his life.

He seems to savor the irony: the image of the slothful ne’er-do-well, which is 180 degrees removed from the reality — that this lean and slightly weathered 53-year-old has worked since he graduated from high school in Essex Junction in 1977.

A “job,” with a paycheck with someone else’s signature on it? No, that hasn’t happened. Jon Lang — who, 36 years later, owns a hydra-headed business loosely called Lang Farm with his wife, Debbie — has been the guy making out the checks as long as he remembers. Truthfully, that’s the only part of his work that hasn’t set well with him: the corporate, managerial side of things. So he found a way to pretty much quit doing that, although it took more than 20 years.

“I started out in landscaping in 1978,” says Jon. “I recruited a couple of my friends and found work mowing lawns and doing property maintenance. That morphed into landscape installations at corporate headquarters, large residential subdivisions, and condominium complexes. After a while I had 20 people working for me. I had become someone who manages personnel more than someone doing the work. That’s not me. I got out of landscaping in the fall of 2001.”

Jon had picked up a philosophy that has served him well: “If you’re a student of your own interests, you’ll find your way.” Fortunately, as a high school student Jon had had an experience that taught him where his heart and interests lay. “Not much of a classroom guy,” as he puts it, he had taken a technical track studying forestry and horticulture. The hands-on work was pleasurable, and the medium — the earth and its most beautiful resources — seemed a natural fit.

Also helpful was that Jon had access to a wonderful piece of property, the Lang Farm in Essex. His father, John, was a third-generation dairy farmer, who bought, from his father, what had become a 500-acre spread originally purchased by his grandfather (Jon’s great-grandfather) in 1919. “When my dad came back from the service,” says Jon, “the farm was almost gone. The Deal he got was if he came back and saved the farm, he would get half. He bought the other half, I think, in 1973.”

Development came to Essex as Chittenden County grew more urbanized in the 1980s and ’90s. Jon’s mother, Nancy, had a hand in that, as founder of Lang Associates, one of Vermont’s leading real estate firms. John, the father, retired from farming in 1983, and there was always the question of how best to use the property.

The Circ Highway claimed 72 acres. Through the 1980s, the senior Langs developed part of it as the Lang Farm Center and The Inn At Essex, which they later sold and are now known as Essex Outlets and Cinema and The Essex Resort & Spa.

They kept some of the best acreage, though. This proved to be Jon’s escape route from landscaping and being a personnel manager. With Steve Kolvoord, a neighbor and longtime friend, Jon developed the Links at Lang Farm — an 18-hole “executive” style golf course.

Looking at the green, undulating fairways in early summer, it’s hard to believe it was once a cornfield. But, Jon explains, they took an unorthodox approach to developing this course. To add interest and visual appeal, they hired a golf course designer from Arizona who turned the level cornfield into a richly rolling landscape. The course opened on July 3, 2002, just half a year or so after Jon had shut down his landscaping business.

“Debbie and I own 20 acres here now, my sister and her husband have a 10-acre lot, and the rest is owned by Mom and Dad,” Jon says.

Debbie, also a native Vermonter, was born in the Lund Home and adopted by a local family. She and Jon met through friends and married in 1989.

Jon has never lost track of his horticultural calling. The Lang Farm Nursery opened in 1990, and of all the businesses associated beneath the Lang Farm banner (Jon and Debbie count five at the present time), the nursery might be the closest to Jon’s heart.

Inside a sprawling, 3,000-square-foot, plastic-domed greenhouse an astounding array of color awaits the shopper looking for garden plants, hanging baskets with vines overflowing, and annuals and perennials of every hue and texture.

The plants come, Jon explains, from larger greenhouse operations in Michigan and western New York, which take root cuttings grown overseas at “stock farms” and root them. These are plug trays, which Jon buys by the thousands and shepherds to bloom in his greenhouse. “It’s a huge business, controlled by multinational companies,” he says.

Besides knowing the distributors, Jon must know his customers. And he does. Almost all are women — about 85 to 90 percent. It’s their sensibilities and tastes that Jon has learned and keeps in mind as, in the greenhouse, the surrounding courtyard, and the smaller of the two old barns, he displays his plants, tools, containers, and other products. “Men come for soil and mulch,” he says.

Yet even the nursery isn’t enough to quell Jon’s interest in exploring new opportunities for Lang Farm. In the past five years he and Debbie have developed two new ventures that have widened the appeal of the enterprise: the Lang Farm Antique Center, and The Barn at Lang Farm.

The Antique Center is Debbie’s domain. It occupies the lower level of the large, 1879 post-and-beam barn that three generations of Langs used for their dairy operation. Debbie displays her own antiques, but also leases spaces to other dealers.

The Antique Center provides a tremendous variety of furniture, tools, kitchenware, art, and almost anything else that harks back to the lives of Vermonters (and others) of earlier times. Some of the more rustic furniture also provides props for the plants and flowers Jon displays in his nursery.

The large second floor of the barn, which once housed hay, is now the site of yet another enterprise. Completely restored, immaculate in a way that yet retains a bucolic atmosphere, The Barn at Lang Farm is now an event center. One of its most common uses is for destination weddings. Standing at the large double doors at the base of the ramp built to show the space to its best advantage, Jon impersonates the out-of-state wedding parties that frequently use the facility.

“You’ll see them come in, like this,” he says. “And when they get here” — he pauses where the parties would enter the majestic main room of the 144-year-old barn, with its lofty ceiling and perfectly angled beams and crosspieces — “they go, ‘Ahhhhh!’ Then they go, ‘Wow!’ It happens every time.

“The event business is something I can continue to run as I age,” Jon explains. “That’s part of the thinking.”

For, aside from the golf course business, which has several employees but is basically self-contained, he has accomplished his goal of managing projects, not people. Considering the breadth of their enterprises — the nursery, the Antique Center, the Event Center, and a handful of rental units on the now 165-acre property — he and Debbie have a surprisingly small staff: two full-time and three part-time employees, including Al Weldon and Art Gilbert, who have been with them for years, and as of recently, Debbie’s sister, Susie. It’s a staffing model that means Jon and his accomplices do nearly everything — which is how he likes it.

“It’s like being a farmer,” he says. “You learn how to do 20 different things. If it’s something we believe we can do, we’ll tackle it.”

Their success is evidenced by a plaque in the Antique Center — the Small Business Administration’s award as Vermont’s Family Business of the Year, 2011.

At least once each year, Jon and Debbie use The Barn to host fund-raising events for community organizations, often having to do with cancer treatment and research, and with education. This began in 2010, after Jon suffered a brain tumor that, although it was technically benign, was situated in an area that put his life in danger. He fully recovered, but the experience left the couple appreciative and determined to help others achieve the same triumph.

Another of their interests is travel.

“We work hard, and we play hard,” they say in tandem. Their businesses are oriented toward fair-weather months, so in the winter they are apt to take off, even though it means taking their kids —17-year-old Justin and 14-year-old Chloe — out of school for a few weeks at a time. They have rented cottages in Provence; visited Istanbul, Italy, and Greece; and traveled 1,000 miles up the Amazon River. A spot they always return to is a small, obscure hotel in Jamaica, where they have become ingrained in the community. They carry school supplies with them as gifts to the local children, and hold their own book fairs at the hotel.

“Travel is our passion,” says Debbie. And they believe that Justin and Chloe get a better experiential education — about the world and their place in it — than they would by remaining in school for those few weeks.

It may be true that one experience their father can’t tell them much about is “having a job.” But as for working, and being a student of your own heart … that’s something else altogether. •