Recently, I was in Middleburg, Virginia, in the thick of horse and hound country, scouting for a good and healthy place to eat. Locals recommended Hunter’s Head Tavern. They said it was a comfortable, unpretentious restaurant with great food. I was stunned when I entered the tavern and saw—instead of the football team banners or horse racing results I expected—a wall lined with brochures about the humane treatment of farm animals, preserving rare and endangered breeds of livestock, certified organic foods, and sustainable farming.
In chatting with patrons and the bartender, I learned that owner Sandy Lerner is a prophetess when it comes to combining traditional farming practices and 21st century technology. Her restaurant was the first in the United States to be recognized as Certified Humane.
In a phone interview, Lerner proved to be affable, highly informed, and educated (she has a degree in computer science and statistics). As co-founder of the tech giant Cisco Systems, she is an astute businesswoman and a passionate advocate of animal rights. But she’s certainly not your average animal advocate.
Lerner was raised on a small ranch in northern California, and was horrified when she went off to college and found out about factory farming and how food is produced in the United States. She became a vegetarian for 30 years (although she now consumes meat if it is from her own farm or is certified organic).
When Cisco went public and Lerner was fired, she took her considerable fortune and bought a farm in Virginia. “I started being a farmer,” she said. “I grew food organically and humanely…and bought other farms that were owned by developers. I turned the land back into farms to preserve it from being developed.”
Disgusted by industrial farming that hybridizes animals to survive in factory conditions (they can’t walk or rear their young or survive outside of factories), Lerner began to raise unhybridized animals. The heritage breed animals she raises are highly adapted to microclimates and microecology. Her Ancient White Park cattle are direct descendents of a 13th century herd in Northumberland. Her poultry includes such exotica as Bourbon Red turkey and she raises Gloucester Old Spot hogs. “If these animals do not have commercial viability, who will raise them? Who will save them from extinction? We have to eat them,” Lerner maintains, “because if people do not consume meat, the breeds will disappear.”
Lerner admitted that people look at her as a defector from vegetarianism. “They don’t know about these beautiful animals or what leads me to want to save them. They stick to a dogmatic course despite ecological consequence. They don’t understand that it’s bad if you don’t eat sustainable meat and preserve these rare stocks. There may be another Ice Age and we survived the last one by eating meat. What do we do if we lose these genetic stocks? In the early 1960s, there was a pear blight in my county in California. We grew Bartlett pears, genetic clones. It was a monoculture. The pear trees died and the economy collapsed.”
Lerner is as passionate about traditional agriculture as she is about rare heritage breeds and humane farming. She said she embraced traditional agriculture for a lot of reasons: human health, animal health and well-being, the viability of a rural economy and national security. “Would you choose to be dependent on foreign oil or foreign food?” she asked. “We have one-twelfth of the earth’s arable land mass and we are on the verge of becoming food importers. We are losing one per cent of our farmers per year. The average age of a farmer is sixty-three. I am fifty-five years old, and in my lifetime we will run out of farmers unless we turn around our food and agricultural and consumer policies. Consumers have to be willing to pay up front for the cost of their food—rather than later, in terms of illness, agricultural subsidies, the price of hauling food. We subsidize that system. We pay for the highways and communications structure. We subsidize agribusiness. Then we have to pay for environmental clean-up.”
Lerner said she leaves the land in better shape every year with her commitment to sustainable agriculture and composting. She doesn’t plough. She sequesters carbon and groundwater. There is no run-off problem. Every year the biodiversity increases. Each year a new species returns to the farm. “This year it was red squirrels,” she said. “These native squirrels were here when the Europeans arrived.”
Lerner is highly articulate and outspoken when it comes to traditional farming versus factory farming. “The average McDonald’s hamburger is comprised of meat from eleven hundred different cows,” she said. “Think of tracing e-coli or BSE. We do lot traceability. So on your receipt you get an ear tag number so if anything is wrong it can be traced to anyone who got any part of that animal.”
When asked if organic food tastes better, Lerner replied, “Organic can’t taste better. If you could taste herbicides and pesticides, and chemicals, they wouldn’t be put in the food because then people wouldn’t buy it. It’s the stuff you can’t see and taste that’s the problem.
To find out more or order food that Sandy produces, go to www.AyrshireFarm.com.