Conscientious Carnivores

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For some, Ayrshire Farm in Loudon County, Va., is a model of politically correct agriculture with a mandate of humanely treating livestock and using organic and sustainable methods. The life of the farm’s heritage livestock seems protected and idyllic. But Lerner makes clear that none of this works without profitability.

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

On a recent tour, John Hass, formerly Ayrshire Farm’s manager, explained the business realities. Gloucestershire Old Spot and Tamworth pigs, he told us, live good lives, but they have only a few months to enjoy the farm.

Within three months, piglets weigh 30 pounds to 40 pounds. With two feedings a day in six to seven months, their weight will have increased tenfold, at which point they will be sent to market weighing upward of 350 pounds.

For chickens and turkeys, their stay will be counted in days and weeks, not months.

Looking to the past to see into the future

When she started the farm, Sandy Lerner had a choice about which breeds to raise.

She told guests at dinner that instead of stocking the farm with well-established breeds, she chose to focus on disease-resistant, heritage animals. Like an organic farmer who rejects the commonly accepted hybrids popular in supermarkets, Lerner took a step backward in her look to the future.

As a conservationist, she wanted to preserve livestock that are rare or listed on the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy and the British Rare Breeds Survival Trust.

Those breeds include the long horned White Park, Short Horn, and wavy haired, Scottish Highland cattle and the Buckeye Chicken, Bourbon Red Turkey, Bronze Turkey and Midget White Turkey.

It will strike some as ironic that to protect a livestock breed from extinction, the animals have to be bred, slaughtered and marketed to restaurants and home kitchens, but in a real world governed by economics that’s the way it works.

When Lerner talked about the humane treatment of livestock, she didn’t pound her fists on the table or shake her head back and forth fanatically. She made her points softly with a matter-of-fact tone, saying, in effect, “Why wouldn’t you treat animals with kindness? What is to be gained by cruelty?”

For a time, the cruelty involved in slaughtering many animals prompted Lerner to give up meat.

“I was 18 and sold my steer at Cow Palace (in San Francisco) and, as I watched them lead him away to death, I was just devastated — not that he would become food, but that nobody from that point on would treat him respectfully. I vowed I would not eat meat until I could be sure it had been respectfully and kindly treated for its whole life.”Sandy Lerner

Since she created Ayrshire Farm, she eats meat again, but the one part of the farm-to-table process she doesn’t control is the slaughterhouse.

Each week the market herd — on average, five cows — is sent to a slaughterhouse in a nearby town. That’s something Lerner wants to change. “I want the process completely transparent. I want to take responsibility for all of it.”

As part of her master plan, she will build a slaughterhouse on the farm so she can guarantee that, from birth to death, each and every animal is treated humanely.

A life well-lived makes a steak well-served

Lerner talked about her animals with affection. She wants them to enjoy their lives, but this wasn’t the sentimentality of a tree-hugging conservationist. As a consumer of their meat, she maintained that animals that live good lives taste better.

The proof of her point is in the pudding, so to speak. Hunter’s Head Tavern only serves meat and poultry raised on the farm.

At dinner, she recommended the pork loin with whole-grain mustard and horseradish pan sauce. “Our pigs are kept in the woods. They forage and eat turnip greens, nuts. Their flavor isn’t strong, it’s a rich flavor. Unique.”

The pork was everything she suggested it would be — sweet, tender and moist. The rib-eye steak had a unique, deeply layered flavor. The outside crust complemented the sweet, juicy meat inside. The flavors of both were unique.

Lerner explained she uses the tavern and the Home Farm Store in Middleburg to brand the farm’s products. Anyone, she said, who eats at the tavern or buys meat from the retail store will be back for more. This, Lerner believes, will allow her to continue to expand her operation by leasing and buying more land to expand the farm.

Ayrshire Farm values cruelty-free practices and rare breedsThe meat and poultry in the retail store sell at prices competitive with Whole Foods and other specialty grocery stores. Starting with 800 acres in 1996, she now owns and leases 2,500 acres.

During the meal, she only picked at her plate of turkey picatta, but when the desserts arrived, like a contented kid, she ate a big slice of chocolate cake with spoon-licking pleasure.

Cupping a mug of coffee with both hands, she told guests, with all that she has accomplished, she still has more she wants to do.

“I’m a late bloomer. I’m still waiting to bloom.”


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:

Ribeye steak with herbed butter, carrots, asparagus and grilled onion at the Hunter’s Head Tavern.
Sandy Lerner.
Half sides of beef, cold room, Ayrshire Farms.

Credits: David Latt

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