There’s an old saying that goes if you find a job you truly love, you’ll never work a day in your life. Nothing could be truer for Norwich’s Jay Avis. He is a mechanical engineer by training (although he’ll tell you that he’s been “fighting it all along”) and has managed to couple those skills with his interest in primitive living and passion for helping others. From working as an outdoor educator and leading wilderness expeditions, to volunteering for Hospice and providing compassionate respite care, Jay has never lost sight of finding problems and helping people solve them. “It is a labor of love,” he says.
Jay and his wife, Amanda Burns, came to Norwich in 2012 from the suburbs of Boston. Amanda had found a teaching position at the Lyme School. “She’s an inspiration as far as what someone who is truly a perfect fit for their job looks like,” Jay tells us. “The Lyme School is the reason we moved up here, and she and the school have been the most perfect fit since day one.” In Norwich they’ve found “everything we need – and nothing we don’t need,” Jay explains. With wilderness spaces to explore, Jay and Amanda are keeping up the nature connection they bonded over when they first met as wilderness trip and environmental educators in Wiscasset, Maine with the Chewonki Foundation.
When they moved to Vermont, Jay tapped into his love of the outdoors and primitive living skills with a new business venture. He combined the primitive life skill of foraging – searching and gathering foods found naturally in our environment – with engineering. The foraged food in question? Acorns! Born out of his hobby of making acorn flour for friends and family, Oaklore LLC was founded in 2014. Jay works out of his heated garage space at home with the help of two hired workers who also share his passion for primitive living. Together they harvest and process acorns to produce a high-quality acorn flour which is sold to specialty stores, restaurants, and other niche markets.
Why acorns? Jay explained that acorns are a ‘staple food,’ one that is “high in nutrients, can be gathered in abundance, and stores well for a long period of time.” They are unique in that they are high in fat and starch, but unlike many other baking flours, are gluten free. They are also high in protein and monounsaturated oils that help reduce the risk of heart disease and stroke. For centuries, cultures around the world have enjoyed the benefits of this staple food. Jay has studied the way Native Americans have used the acorn and he has used his own technical skills to modernize production. “The wild foods I’ve consumed here in New England are varied, but I have a particular interest in the staple foods that sustained our ancestors.”
The process that Jay uses to make his flour has been updated, of course, but he is reluctant to bring the process fully into the modern age. He could, for example, employ the use of ovens to speed up acorn drying time, but he uses his radiant heat floor instead which adds weeks to the process. It is part New England frugality and part historical reverence that has kept him from automating his process. “I am a problem solver. I like doing something unprecedented on a budget.”
Jay calls upon the community quite regularly during harvest time. (The best time to harvest acorns is September through early December, when they fall off the trees.) If you’ve spent any time on the local Listserv, you’ll have seen his request. He seeks healthy, well-maintained, pet-and-pesticide-free lawns for acorn collection. One simply needs to contact him and he and his helpers will descend on your lawn to collect your acorns. “It’s a win-win for everyone involved. I get my acorns and the homeowner gets a clean lawn.” Oaklore uses acorns from Northern Red Oak trees, which are the most prevalent in the area.
His passion for primitive life skills comes into play during the harvest. He often challenges himself by asking, “how simply can I live? Is what’s outside enough to live on?” Interest in primitive skills and foraging can be traced back to his childhood in Maine when his parents sent him to summer camp. While there, he discovered wild foods that could be collected in the forest. (His first find was the Indian Cucumber or Medeola virginiana.) Fast-forward to his adult years and this curiosity is stronger than ever.
One would naturally assume that the founder of a unique company like Oaklore would be a specialty food connoisseur. On the contrary, Jay explained, “I’m not a cook. I’m not a foodie. I’m a problem solver!” His natural curiosity, successful networking, and hard work have made Oaklore a success. Help from the Vermont Small Business Administration and S.C.O.R.E. was essential as he was getting started with this first business. He was connected with a mentor, Sally Wilson – former owner of the Norwich Inn – who provided what he considered to be the most valuable piece of advice: “Focus on the flour. Don’t try to add to your product line now with specialty mixes [like muffins and pancake mix.] Do what you do best and the product will do the rest.” The advice paid off and now Jay is producing a niche product that is low volume, small scale, and handcrafted.
The business has put him in contact with a variety of people – restaurateurs, fashion designers, celebrities, film makers, brewers, and local news stations, just to name a few. His biggest celebrity client was Francis Ford Coppola who opened an American-Native-themed restaurant last year in Geyserville, California called Werowocomoco. Jay attests that specialty farm-to-table restaurants are his best customers. Another unique client was a brewery in Denver, Colorado that used his acorn flour to produce a specialty brew. While it was only a one-time exchange, it reminds us of the versatility of his product.
Despite the energy and enthusiasm Jay has for Oaklore, his curious mind has him on the lookout for the next adventure. He is currently seeking a buyer for his acorn flour business. “I’d love to find someone who has a passion for the concept and has some physical space they could devote to processing.” Jay said. The perfect buyer would be someone with “a variety of talents – from a love of physical labor for gathering and processing, to a desire to market the product.”
What’s next for this passionate, problem-solving engineer? He explained with a warm smile that he is most happy when he’s making other people happy. It should come as no surprise that his next venture directly involves focusing on people’s problems and helping them overcome them. He is interested in ‘bias reduction.’ He is going to explore the field of sociology as he finds a way to help individuals overcome their personal biases. This may indeed seem like a tough nut to crack (pun intended), but one that is necessary in our ever-changing world. He wants to create bridges between people, help diffuse tough situations, and humanize them. “I want to help people create a new way of looking at things.” He will certainly be calling upon his past experiences to bring success to this new enterprise. He’ll also be calling on you to explore more ideas as well. “I’m a networker and love connecting with people. I’m always looking for people to explore new ideas with.”
If you are ever out and about exploring the wilds of Norwich, be on the lookout for Jay and Amanda. They are an engaging couple with a great love of the outdoors to share. If you stop and chat a while, you’ll be sure to learn a thing or two about our natural environment and perhaps explore other perspectives.
If you are interested in learning more about foraging edible, wild plants, Jay suggests checking out Nature’s Garden by Samuel Thayer. For hands-on education you can also check out the R.O.O.T.S. School in Corinth, Vermont for information on wild food cooking and foraging classes. You are welcome to visit his website www.oakloreproducts.com to learn more.