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Striving to Keep Organic Farming Sustainable
Sandy Lerner made millions from her companies Cisco Systems and Urban Decay. Now, on her Virginia farm, she is hoping to change the way Americans get their meat. But is it a battle she can win? By Lydia Strohl
Sandy Lerner is passionate about the benefits of organic farming. She was a vegetarian for 30 years but now will eat her farm's humanely raised and processed meat. Photograph by Jeff Elkins.
Comments () | Published May 17, 2012

Sandy Lerner sits in a field in her black Range Rover, the door emblazoned with the crest of Ayrshire, her 800-acre farm in Upperville, Virginia. Out of the tall grass teeters a days-old calf with a white face and black ears, one of more than 200 born to her 1,200-strong herd last spring. Against the backdrop of the Blue Ridge Mountains, the calf stretches its gangly legs and takes a few experimental hops.

"Look!" says Lerner, who usually seems aloof. She watches with delight, as if it were her own child walking for the first time. "I love watching them--it's like cow TV. Even if you know they won't be here for long."

Which means here today, hamburger tomorrow. Or maybe not. Lerner--who made millions founding (and then leaving) Cisco Systems, an early technology start-up, and Urban Decay, a cosmetics company--hasn't, in the 15 years she's been raising beef by USDA organic standards, made money doing it. Now she's torn: keep raising these gorgeous animals to supply her nearby Hunter's Head Tavern and Home Farm Store, use them for her high-end Furry Foodie pet food, or sell the lot and get out altogether?

"I put my beef up to any. Am I going to keep subsidizing it forever? Absolutely not," says Lerner, 56, her eyes steely behind round glasses and her hair--which, when hanging down, reaches the small of her back like Morticia Addams's--gathered into a messy bun. The woman the press has variously tagged "wispy" and a head-turner now favors jeans, sky-high wedge sneakers, and baggy T-shirts paired with necklaces she beads herself.

"In the next few months, all that beautiful heritage-breed food--your dog might be eating it," she says. "Is that what the American consumer wants? I would be happy to end up the nation's primary supplier of the best pet food on the planet."

Lerner's life has always centered on animals. The farm has more than 70 cats, which she deems as essential to Ayrshire's ecosystem as its turkeys, chickens, pigs, cattle, horses, and dogs. She treats all creatures well--her operation is certified organic by Oregon Tilth, a USDA certifying body, and certified humane by the Humane Farm Animal Care program, adhering to a strict code dictating how animals are treated not only in life but in the way they're put to death.

On Ayrshire, her Upperville farm, Lerner must decide: keep raising organic beef for human consumption--and lose money--or turn it into dog food. Photograph by Jeff Elkins.

"I basically grew up alone in a barn," says Lerner. "I was the only child on the farm, and my aunt and uncle had full-time jobs like most farmers did." She was just four years old when her parents divorced, and she eventually went to live with her aunt and uncle on a cattle ranch in the foothills of Clipper Gap outside Sacramento. She spent many summers with another aunt in Beverly Hills.

She credits her aunt and uncle--and nine years in 4-H--for who she is today. Uncle Earl Bailey, and Aunt Doris, who is now 93, ran a home-heating-oil business--leaving Lerner, a self-described shy, awkward child, to care for the cattle. At age nine, she started raising her own steer.

"There was no division of boy and girl work," Lerner says. "My aunt was one of the most tenacious women on the planet--she was strong and vocal, and she just would not give up."

Born on Bastille Day 1955, Lerner, a child of the '60s, has always been a rebel. Her past is punctuated with controversy, perhaps the most defining one her unplanned exit from Cisco Systems--the company's equipment today runs an estimated 80 percent of the Internet--which she and then-husband Len Bosack formed in 1984, leaving six years later with $170 million between them.

In 1996, after seeing 50 properties, she paid $7 million for Ayrshire, in a wealthy area where neighbors have last names like Mars, Fleischmann, and Mellon. Her arrival seemed to be good news in a community that cares about land preservation--the owners long waited for a buyer who wouldn't subdivide the farm. But on arrival she closed the land to the Piedmont Fox Hounds, members of which had been running in the area since 1840. She then bought a historic home central to the nearby village of Upperville, intending to establish a pub. When some opposed her, she erected a chainlink fence around it and posted a demolition sign.

"She's not thin-skinned," says Harry Atherton, then chair of the Fauquier County Planning Commission. "Most people live here because they want to, and they don't like change. Anyone else would have walked away."

The battle got ugly, with Lerner receiving what she calls "death threats" from a neighbor. But deep pockets can fund lawyers, and Lerner had them. (Many locals still decline to discuss her on the record.)

The battle raged for a year and a half before the zoning board found in her favor on the pub. Now many of her former opponents' names can be seen engraved on the pewter mugs that hang above the bar for regulars. Perhaps coincidentally, when she finally got her way she named her English-style pub the Hunter's Head. Over one fireplace hangs the visage of a terrified-looking man wearing a riding helmet.

That kind of cheek is trademark Lerner. Forbes magazine sent a photographer to Ayrshire, and she posed naked on a Shire horse. In her Urban Decay days, she wore blue body paint to a party for the British prime minister. She had a "trailer trash" party to launch the luxury motor home in which she took her cat to Williamsburg and Niagara Falls in the last weeks of its life. At the party, there were lots of leotards, exposed hairy stomachs, and moonshine.

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  • Eka

    Sandy Lerner, you inspire me to be better and start working on the projects that are dear to my hearts: healthy food and sustainable farming. You are one of the best role models for girls that believe in themselves. Nothing is impossible! Thank you for the examples you show us.

  • My discovery of Ayrshire and the Home Farm Store saved my very health and well-being. My vegetarian diet was making me sick, due to unknown allergies to gluten, grains, soy, and legumes - all of which are foundational elements of a vegetarian diet. I made the decision to start eating meat again under the conditions that the meat would have to come from locally, humanely, & sustainably raised animals.

    On a drive home to my mother's small horse farm in Aldie, I passed through Middleburg, relishing in the appeal of the quaint town. The grey stone front and large white columns of the Home Farm Store immediately caught my eye, as if for the first time, despite having driven past the corner several times before. I pulled over, pored over the clean glass fronts of the meat display, and picked out 2 heritage beef NY strips. After searing them on the grill with just a touch of sea salt and coarse ground pepper, I sliced in to the steak and was greeted with the most vibrantly colored rare meat. After a pep-talk, a glass (or 2) of VA Cabernet franc, I gathered up the courage to eat meat for the first time in 4 years. The taste of the Ayrshire farm beef was divine - and I've never looked back, only forward, and with an utmost dedication to eating meat that is produced with the philosophies best for me, and more importantly, best for the animals.

    Thank you Sandy Lerner for providing me with a return to excellent health, animals that are happy and healthy, and faith that there are others who hold steadfast to the truths of the REAL animal production system. Not the ways of the cartel-esque modern agricultural system.

  • Yaya4816

    You are an amazing woman I would love to work for you. You inspire me.

  • Connie

    Ms. Lerner seems like an incredible woman. She supports and protects animals in a way that is totally inspirational. She's a strong woman and she supports women. And she does it all with strength and tenacity. When she says she is nothing special, she is WRONG. Think of the all the creatures she's made a better life for. Thank you Ms. Lerner.

  • She made a good decision on starting her own organic farm and stop being a vegan. Organic farming is quite a hard work, you have to put more effort on taking care of your animals since you won't use any medications.

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Posted at 04:30 PM/ET, 05/17/2012 RSS | Print | Permalink | Comments () | Washingtonian.com Articles