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From Online to Organic

In recent best-selling food-policy books, so powerfully repulsive was the description of the way livestock were treated on industrial farms and in processing plants, many readers turned away from burgers and headed to the salad bar.

Loving Livestock to Death

A two-part series on Sandy Lerner's sustainable, organic livestock operation at Ayrshire Farm.

Part 1: From Online to Organic

Part 2: Conscientious Carnivores

But The Omnivore’s Dilemma author, Michael Pollan; and Rory Freedman and Kim Barnouin of “Skinny Bitch” fame, only talk about food. Sandy Lerner puts it on the table.

An avowed vegetarian and animal rights advocate, Lerner decided to become one of America’s premier producers of sustainable, humanely raised meat.

‘All about me’

A person of tireless energy and ingenuity, Lerner has a habit of being in the right place at the right time. She co-founded Cisco Systems, without which we wouldn’t have the Internet, email, Google or Facebook.

At a recent dinner with journalists, Lerner recounted a story about how she knew Cisco Systems was a success.Sandy Lerner

“When Cisco went public, the bankers took us to a really nice restaurant. They told us, order anything you want. I had dessert for the first course, dessert for the second course and dessert for dessert. I realized it was all about me,” she said gleefully.

“All about me” for Lerner meant pursuing her passions.

With her substantial resources, she restored Jane Austen’s Chawton House in Hampshire, England. She co-founded the Urban Decay makeup company so women could buy cosmetics that didn’t rely on animal testing.

And she created a personal version of farm-to-table with her Northern Virginia businesses, Ayrshire Farm and Hunter’s Head Tavern in Upperville, and the Home Farm Store in Middleburg.

Man versus beast

In the eternal contest of man versus nature, Lerner sides with the beasts. Taking a tour in the spring, a visit to Ayrshire Farm yielded an up-close and personal look at a humane setting for raising livestock.

After a soaking from spring rains, the grass had grown tall enough that driving across the pasture had to be done cautiously so we would not hurt any of the newborn calves who were virtually invisible, napping in the high grass.

The farm’s online fact sheet summarizes Lerner’s objectives: “Certified Organic sustainable farming that combines 21st century technology with traditional [pre-WWII] farming methods: integrated composting, holistic planned grazing, and dry beef aging.”

Spending formative years on a Northern California farm deeply ingrained the rhythms of rural life in her psyche. Even after becoming a technology pioneer in Silicon Valley, she wanted to find a way back to the world of her childhood.

Starting Ayrshire Farm was Lerner’s way of turning back the clock.

With a ranch operation tiny by industrial farm standards, livestock are bred without hormones and antibiotics. She even rejects the commonly accepted practice of artificial insemination, relying instead on old-fashioned one-on-one connections between males and females.

Her press releases proudly note that the farm “holds the distinction of being the first farm in the U.S. to receive its Certified Humane designation for its veal program.”

At Hunter’s Head Tavern, which bills itself as “the only organic, Certified Humane restaurant in the U.S.,” Lerner’s wry sense of Steaks from Home Farm Storehumor is on full display. If visitors don’t understand the intent of the tavern’s name, when they step up to place their order, the icon on the wall makes the point: a hunter’s head mounted on a plaque, much as if he were a deer or elk. Look on the walls to see 18th-century lithographs that put animals into human roles, ruling the roost, as it were.

In pursuit of a legacy point of view, Ayrshire Farm is predator friendly. Lerner accepts losses as part of a tradeoff to do-no-harm to nature. She refuses to string razor wire around the chicken coops even though she knows she’ll lose some to foxes and eagles.

And speaking of foxes, when she bought the farm, the local equestrian society asked for permission to continue their generations-long practice of having a fox hunt on Ayrshire Farm’s fields. Lerner refused.

An idyllic setting

If a 19th-century landscape painter happened to time-travel to the farm and set up an easel in the soggy fields, no doubt his art would show a scene of great contentment.

Lazy clouds float in the blue sky overhead. A wide expanse of pastures leads to gently rolling hills in the distance. Cattle stand quietly together in mother and child pairs. The resulting painting would suggest that a contented life is in reach of all God’s creatures.

But these seemingly idyllic scenes are but moments in a larger cycle of birth, life and death. These well-fed animals live and die in a carefully measured term.

Economics determines how long they stay on the farm. Calves pass from birth to adolescence and young adulthood in two years before joining the market herd and traveling to the slaughterhouse.

When they return to the farm, they do so as half sides hung in the 33-degree cold room for up to 30 days before being sent to the Home Farm Store, Hunter’s Head Tavern or to the kitchens of celebrity chefs in the Washington, D.C. area.

Ayrshire Farm is a business, and Lerner is the farm’s tough-minded leader.

Zester Daily contributor David Latt is a television writer/producer with a passion for food. His new book, “10 Delicious Holiday Recipes” is available from Amazon. In addition to writing about food for his own site, Men Who Like to Cook, he has contributed to Mark Bittman’s New York Times food blogBittenOne for the Table and Traveling Mom. He continues to develop for television but recently has taken his passion for food on the road and is now a contributor to Peter Greenberg’s travel site and the New York Daily News online.

Photos, from top:

Cattle at Ayrshire Farm. 

Sandy Lerner.

Steaks at Home Farm Store.

Credit: David Latt

Zester Daily contributor David Latt is a television writer/producer with a passion for food. Putting his television experience to good use, he created Secrets of Restaurant Chefs, a YouTube Channel, with lively videos by well-known chefs sharing their favorite recipes. In addition to writing about food for Zester Daily and his own sites, Men Who Like to Cook and Men Who Like to Travelhe has contributed to Mark Bittman's New York Times food blog, BittenOne for the Table and Traveling Mom.  His helpful guide to holiday entertaining, "10 Delicious Holiday Recipes,"  is available on Amazon eCookbooks. He still develops for television but finds time to take his passion for food on the road as a contributor to Peter Greenberg's travel siteNew York Daily NewsHuffington Post/Travel and Luxury Travel Magazine.