Craig Rogers took an unusual route to sheep farming—he was an engineering college dean and a businessman first—but chefs rave about his lamb.
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Rogers holding a two day-old-lamb
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Jake the border collie
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Grazing Texel sheep
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Jake, leading the way
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Rogers was an engineering school dean, business CEO and expert witness in patent litigation before becoming a sheep farmer.
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Jake, riding with Rogers
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Rogers tending to a sheep
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Rogers with company
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Rogers walking with Jake
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Sheep, with lamb
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A lawyer becomes a novelist. An insurance broker swaps policies for photography. A teacher trades the classroom for a yoga studio. In this country, these days, we commonly change careers, re-invent ourselves, pursue our passions and strive for authenticity. But it’s not every day that a university engineering professor abandons a successful career to become a shepherd. That’s a story I’d never heard—until, that is, I met Craig Rogers and visited his redoubt on 60 rolling acres in southwest Virginia’s Patrick County: Border Springs Farm.
It’s no coincidence that the first creatures you’ll meet when you follow the farm’s tree-lined driveway, pass the agility course and park next to the freezer truck are dogs. You see, without canine intervention—border collies, to be specific—there would be no Border Springs Farm. Rogers, who with his wife Joan, devotedly cares for the animals and works as the county’s social services director, is completely crazy about sheepdogs. Not only do they live with about 10 of these highly intelligent working dogs, they also breed, train and compete them—she in agility and he (no surprise) in sheep herding. What began as a hobby 15 years ago, after Rogers was awestruck by his first sheepdog trial, has evolved not only into a livelihood but a way of life, a true vocation. In a unique twist on the chicken and the egg paradox, in this case, the sheepdogs came first. Without the sheepdogs, there would be no sheep. Without the sheep, no pasture-raised lamb and no Border Springs Farm, beloved since 2008 by chefs from New York to Atlanta and beyond.
We met Jake, the farm’s prize-winning border collie and a national stockdog champion, as soon as Rogers opened the front door to welcome us. My nine-year-old, dog-loving daughter, Mila, and I had been invited to spend the weekend at the farm, complete with a Saturday evening all-lamb feast with the shepherd and his foodie friends. The meal included rack of lamb “lollipops,” grilled lamb kebobs and lamb ragù with pasta. Who were we to say no?
But before we could put our bags down and take off our hats, Rogers, age 51, was already escorting us back out into the frigid January air, eager to show us his animals before sunset. So we stayed bundled and followed the shepherd and the sheepdog out to the fields and meadows spreading out in the lengthening shadow of hills and mountains. Through the first gate, we were greeted by Oso and Lucy—two of the couple’s enormous blond livestock dogs whose only job is to protect the sheep from predators (neighborhood dogs, coyotes). Let’s just say I was thankful we were with the pack leader.
Mila and I gasped as we caught sight of the lambs and ewes grazing on hay in a sun-lit patch bordering the woods. There could hardly be a more beautiful, more natural or tender sight, even in the freezing cold. One tiny brown and white lamb still had its umbilical cord attached. “That one was probably born a few minutes ago,” Rogers said. He scooped up a slightly bigger white lamb and gave it to Mila to hold. Another baby bleated from inside a stack of sticks, and we watched in amazement as its mother, instinctively, recognized the call and came to collect her offspring. These were Katahdin sheep, a hardy, adaptable, low maintenance breed originally raised in Maine that’s ideal for pasture grazing—which is abundant at this farm—and whose meat tends to be lean and mild: their fat is so sweet that many chefs make bacon out of it. As we witnessed, Katahdin ewes are devoted mothers, and the lambs are alert, agile and eager to feed.
We discovered the farm’s other breed of sheep—wooly Texel—after walking past a pond and up a hill to an adjacent meadow. It was Jake who introduced us. Rogers blew into his high-pitched herding whistle and, just like that, his prized pup sprinted away towards the barn, a blur of black-and-white disappearing over the hill. A few seconds later, we felt the earth tremble as a flock of about 60 stocky, dressed-for-the-weather sheep came thundering toward us. Responding promptly to his shepherd’s signals, Jake darted from side-to-side, keeping the sheep in line, clearly doing what he was bred to do. It was an awe-inspiring spectacle of fear, respect, agility and fine-tuned communication between man and dog.
Dressed in overalls, a heavy canvas jacket and well-worn brown leather hat, faithful dog by his side, connected to every aspect of his farm, Rogers definitely looked the part of the shepherd, even if he got to farming by an unconventional route. He was the dean of the engineering college at the University of South Carolina for five years, then the CEO of a microelectronics firm, and then worked as an expert witness in patent litigation for five years before selling his first lamb.
I couldn’t help but notice that his hands and forearms were marked with small cuts and bruises from working the farm in winter. It was a stretch to picture him—pre-career chang— in coat and tie, lecturing in a classroom. Yet when he speaks, quoting Shakespeare, reciting fact after fact about Virginia food policies, animals (dogs, sheep, turkeys, chicken), restaurants and recipes, his intelligence and breadth of knowledge shine through. No wonder he’s attracted to the smartest dogs in the world, no wonder chefs admire him. “I seldom tell people what my background is,” he shared. “I want them to appreciate the humble profession of shepherd and farmer.”
Though he is humble, he’s also used his smarts to figure out a way to both honor the animal and serve the chef. Different from most farmers, Rogers learned how to lamb four times per year (instead of the normal two)—early and late fall, early and late spring—thus providing restaurants with lamb 52 weeks out of the year. Though he now uses several humane slaughterhouses in the area, he euthanized his first lamb himself before taking it to a butcher, wanting, as always, to honor the animal. “I was in tears,” he told me. “That first time really illuminated my ignorance, but I felt it was important that I do it myself.”
Rogers supplies lamb to about 35 to 40 stellar restaurants, charging them a little less than his $400 retail price for a full lamb, and delivers personally to most. His clients include Sean Brock, the James Beard “Best Chef of the Southeast 2010” winner (McCrady’s and Husk restaurants) in Charleston, fellow Beard nominee Linton Hopkins of Restaurant Eugene in Atlanta, and 2009 Beard “Best Southern Chef” winner John Currence of City Grocery in Oxford, Mississippi. Rogers seeks out those who will appreciate his product and opt for the purity of his process (lambs graze on grass and hay in the open air for eight full months, mothers nearby) and the integrity of his craftsmanship over the size of his racks. And he knows what chefs like: Whenever one of his chefs refers a new restaurant to Border Springs, Rogers thanks them with a $100 bottle of top-rated Pappy Van Winkle’s 20-year-old bourbon.
In Chilhowie, Virginia, Town House Chef John Shields is one of many top chefs who rely on Border Springs Farm for lamb all year. “The fact that Craig changed careers later in life and is now producing the best lamb in the country, and as fast as he did, says it all,” Shields says. “I believe he has an awareness about him that helps him understand the land, the grass and the animals, and I consider myself incredibly lucky to have him so close to my restaurant.” Chef Bryan Voltaggio, owner of Volt in Frederick, Maryland, came up several times in my conversations with Rogers. Voltaggio has been buying from Craig for about two years, and for good reason. “The fat ratio is perfect for my type of cooking,” he explains, “streaks of creamy fat throughout the loins and just enough on the legs if you want that crispy, flavorful coating when roasting whole. In other words, he raises his lamb to what I see as a chef’s lamb.”
Not only did Voltaggio win Bravo’s “Top Chef” runner-up prize (Season 6), he also inspired what will now be an annual event at Border Springs Farm: Lambstock. Eager to educate his staff, Voltaggio asked Rogers if he and his crew could tour the farm, meet the farmer and, given the travel distance, camp overnight amidst the lamb. A true shepherd, Rogers’ calling seems to be that of not only keeping—but primarily bringing—people together. So he didn’t just agree to Voltaggio’s request, he invited all of his chef-clients and their friends, too.
In the end, about 175 chefs and friends converged on Border Springs Farms one weekend last August. Mike Lata of Fig came up from Charleston on his Ducati. Aldea’s chef, George Mendes, flew down from New York City and cooked scrambled eggs with chanterelle mushrooms, smoked BSF lamb sausage, biscuits and gravy for breakfast one morning. Chef David Varley of Bourbon Steak in Washington D.C. roasted a side of beef seven different ways and slept in a hammock strung between two trees for three nights. Rogers cooked a whole lamb on the spit. Cases of Pappy’s bourbon were consumed.
Needless to say, I have Lambstock 2011 highlighted on my calendar.
Webxtra Slideshow: VirginiaLiving.com/Lamb