"Buying local has been a byproduct of trying to find the best-tasting ingredients to put into cooks' hands," says Ryan Ford, owner of the Organic Butcher in Charlottesville. Despite the name, many of his suppliers are not certified organic. "All our products are natural, non-genetically modified," he says. "Our customers want a local product that is sustainably raised, but they don't really require us to carry organic."
"I like to use the term 'beyond organic,' " says Derek Luhowiak, who worked at Ayrshire and now with his wife, Amanda, owns the Whole Ox butcher shop in the IGA supermarket in Marshall, Virginia. "A lot of people can't afford the certification, but what they do have is transparency. They're using organic feed, the chickens are running around--but it's a huge trust issue. We have to trust the farmers, and you have to trust me."
Which is fine if you know the farmer or the butcher, but marketing terms such as "pasture-raised" and "local" aren't backed by any regulations. Beef may be "pasture-raised" on grass treated with pesticides. Or be "local" and fed conventional grain, which almost certainly has some genetically modified ingredients.
"The organic label is the gold standard," says Gwendolyn Wyard, associate director of organic standards and industry outreach for the Organic Trade Association, who works with farmers and the USDA in trying to ensure that organic standards are rigorous and transparent but achievable. "You can't just slap the word 'organic' on something, not anymore."
Lerner is passionate about the benefits of organic beef, both to human health and the environment: She was a vegetarian for 30 years, until she raised her own organic, humanely raised and processed animals. But this is one passion she may not be able to sustain.
"If I dispense with organic, my cost of feed would go down four-fifths," says Lerner. But organic is the only feed she can be sure is without genetically modified ingredients and grown without pesticides, both of which she believes lead to harmful side effects.
"Cargill and Tyson are not worried about the family farm," says Lerner. "They're worried about mine, and Niman [Ranch], medium-size farms that could take regional markets because people are trying to buy local. They are very smart, very well funded, and they hold the processing facilities hostage. And I think they've won."
Now in addition to spending time trying to meet the organic market, Lerner is spending time separating her operations in a way that would make them easy to divest.
"As the organic market matures, mid-sized organic farms are being acquired by the food conglomerates to give them instant healthy cred," Lerner writes in an e-mail. One day she's hot for the challenge, the next tired of it.
She has separated the parcel on which her cabin stands from the farm, should she decide to sell the farm. Her cats and her dog are the only things she's adamant she'll keep.
Sandy Lerner has always been riled by the powers that be. She remembers lying on the floor at age 11, waiting to be incinerated by a nuclear bomb. She graduated from high school at 15 and studied political science at California State University, Chico, and then at Claremont Graduate School, where she first used a computer.
"My first thesis was on American antitrust legislation--back then there was nothing off the shelf; you had to program it from the word go," she says over lunch at her pub, where she orders a meatball sub and a Coke Zero and asks what's for dessert--she says she has a sweet tooth. She eats here often and engages in small talk with patrons, who ask her about her trees or a planned racquetball court.
In 1976, Lerner shifted focus to computing and applied to Stanford, where she not only was accepted but was paid $25 an hour to program--a fortune to her at the time: "And I could work whenever I wanted, in jeans and no shoes."
In those days, the collective brainpower at Stanford probably made it glow from outer space. Collaboration with Xerox's Palo Alto Research Center, home of the first Ethernet, attracted Department of Defense funding of technologies now collectively known as the Internet. Lerner, along with Len Bosack, a whip-smart computer scientist she eventually married, worked on a multiple-protocol router, key to inter-network connectivity. When Stanford dithered over making the technology available to research partners at other universities and corporations, they left, founding Cisco (short for San Francisco) Systems in December 1984.
"Len and I thought that was against the spirit of collaborative research and the use of public funds for the Internet and fundamentally unreasonable," says Lerner. She seems too shy to make eye contact when talking, looking instead at your neck and checking in every so often just to see if you're following her.
By 1987 she and Bosack were selling $250,000 worth of routers each month. The company grew to $27 million by 1989 with funding from Sequoia Capital's Don Valentine, who appointed a new CEO. In 1990, the company went public and Lerner was ousted; Bosack followed.
"I thought they were partners--we had no employment contract, our stock was only half vested--and we used their lawyer. Can you spell dumb?" says Lerner. "It was time for us to go--the company was mired in bureaucracy--but the way it was done was unprofessional and unfair, inhumane. Cisco broke up my marriage, ruined my health."
She's still bitter, but she's not letting that spoil her lunch. She declares the meatball sub, which she worked hard developing, a triumph.
"Forgiveness was not in her vocabulary," Valentine told a group of students at Stanford Graduate School of Business in the fall of 2010. "When somebody . . . didn't do it the way she wanted it, she shredded them publicly."
Lerner admits she has trouble accepting other people's answers. "If a man is blunt and strong and holds his ground, he's manly," she says. "I don't think Patton or Steve Jobs or anybody else who made themselves and their fortune--Edison was apparently a big SOB--does anyone say they weren't nice?
"I think a large part of it is I don't have a great personality. I am fairly blunt and very shy--but who cares? Everything I've done, it needed to be done."