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Striving to Keep Organic Farming Sustainable
Comments () | Published May 17, 2012

If she seems to step over the line, maybe she's unsure where the line is.

"Body language means nothing to me, but I can tell you what a cow is thinking from 50 paces," she says. Though Ayrshire has a large main house, which she spent $2 million to restore, she lives in a cabin on the farm. "I live alone with my cats. I'm your typical nerd who lacks social skills."

She says that because her only model for childhood is her own, she's never had kids. She doesn't talk about her marriage or relationships except to say she was married and does date. Would she remarry? "Never say never," she says. "Never is a long time."

Sandy Lerner grew up with an uncle and aunt, Earl and Doris Bailey, on a cattle ranch outside Sacramento. Photograph courtesy of Sandy Lerner.

When she does care, it's on a generous scale. She's spent thousands of dollars on pioneering medicine for her cats, dogs, and horses. She built a new sound system for a local church and regularly opens her farm to charity events, many of which benefit animals. She has a collection of carriages and a team of Shire horses, which she lends out for local Christmas parades and for friends heading to the chapel to get married.

Driving through Ayrshire Farm, Lerner scribbles notes on a pad stashed between a diet Snapple and a York Peppermint Patty. As she tours the meat locker, she takes one look at the hanging carcasses and turns on her heel. "Excuse me," she says, her voice flat, "I've got to go pitch a fit." It turns out the animals were hanging with their kidneys intact; kidneys, she has repeatedly told her staff, need to be taken fresh.

"Last year we had profitable turkeys, the chickens are driving over to the right side of zero, and I think I will get my pigs over, if not very close. The only thing I have not been able to drive in the right direction is the beef operation," she says, tapping a nail painted with black polish.

Lerner started at Ayrshire as she had as a kid, with heritage cattle, but "it didn't take a genius to figure out you need an integrated farm to produce the waste you put back on the field."

So she added chickens, turkeys, and pigs, even a garden--now defunct, as it couldn't turn a profit--making the farm a sustainable system in which the animals and their waste power the soil, which in turn nourishes the animals without chemical pesticides, medicines, or feed. In separate operations, she buys lamb and raises veal, all of which she serves and sells at the Hunter's Head Tavern and the Home Farm Store. She also supplies high-end restaurants such as Restaurant Nora and the Inn at Little Washington, and organic markets such as MOM's in Maryland, but rising fuel costs cut that profit to the bone.

By age nine, the self-described shy, awkward child was raising her own steer. At age 13, she won a 4-H award with her steer Teddy. Photograph courtesy of Sandy Lerner.

Lerner praises the British (she has a home near Bath), who established an organic economy after mad-cow disease decimated their food chain in the '90s.

"The Brits have saved their countryside, put back rural industry, and rebuilt the food chain," says Lerner of programs that assist not only farmers but entrepreneurs setting up supporting businesses such as canning and processing. According to the US Department of Agriculture, about 80 percent of food costs accrue after the product leaves the farm--in transporting, processing, and distributing. Farmers get 20 percent. "There's no food infrastructure here," she says. "Farmers have to be carpenters, engineers, marketers--that's why so many give up."

Lerner's beef is with some of the USDA regulations governing the term "organic." For most livestock, to be labeled as such, the animal--or its mother before it's born--must be fed organically and provided pasture with no drugs or hormones during the last third of its gestation. Meat from Lerner's Home Farm Store has an ID number on the receipt, tracing it back through processing--she bought her own processing facility in Front Royal in 2008--to the animal itself. And all these operations must be documented for USDA certifiers, who check in regularly. If the animal gets sick, it must be treated, and if that requires a non-approved substance--Terramycin, for example, which treats pink eye, a common cow condition--the animal is no longer considered organic.

In other words, the investment is lost.

"Your capital is tied up too long before you see a return," says Lerner. Even with consumers willing to pay a premium for organic beef, the costs are often not offset by profit. "What is the risk over four years of something happening to that animal that will remove its organic certification? It is a barrier to entry that I believe was constructed by the packer-cartel beef lobby."

Lerner fumes when she talks about this "cartel," the four meatpacking companies that dominate the market--Cargill, National Beef, JBS, and Tyson.

Ayrshire is in a tough market space. A medium-size farm but not a family farm, it has all the expenses of professional staff--vacations, insurance--without the economies of scale of large producers. Or the subsidies: Of $261.9 billion in farm subsidies paid in the US between 1995 and 2010, most has gone to the largest farmers, according to the Environmental Working Group. Some 62 percent of American farmers get no subsidies.

"To be certified organic more than doubles the cost of raising the cattle," says Mike Brannon of Old Line Custom Meat Company, a medium-size beef producer in Maryland that raises beef mostly on pasture without hormones. Even with the premium that organic beef commands at the cash register, he says, "I just don't see the numbers working."

Which is why many farmers are instead using labels such as "local," "natural," and "pasture-raised" to market their products.

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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