Seeing your 10-year old daughter hold a one-day old lamb makes a father’s heart melt. Watching a border collie gather and herd sheep, driving them from one hilly pasture to another, all at the command of a shepherd’s whistle, causes one to stare in awe. Witnessing hundreds of lamb, running free on hundreds of acres, nestled against the backdrop of the Blue Ridge Mountains, brings an inner peace to the observer. This is the way it should be. This is the iconic American livestock farm. This is heaven on earth. This is Border Springs Farm.
Craig Rogers is one of the most interesting individuals I ever met. He used to teach engineering at Virginia Tech. He was once the Dean of the School of Engineering at the University of South Carolina. He routinely quotes Shakespeare and refers to himself as a shepherd. And now, he and his wife, Joan, run Border Springs Farm in Patrick County, Virginia, raising Kathadin and Texel sheep, a handful of turkeys, and the coolest dogs in the world.
The sheep are pastured on about 1,000 acres at the base of Bull Mountain, close to the Blue Ridge Parkway, and Craig is doing his best to raise the tastiest lamb around. Yes, that’s the reality of a livestock farm — these cute little lambs will be slaughtered. Their lives are short-lived. They will end up on our dinner plates. But I cannot possibly imagine how lamb could live a better, more carefree life than what they do on Border Springs Farm. And the restaurant industry is taking notice, partly because the lamb is so damn good, partly because of how they are raised, and partly because of the drive of Craig Rogers, who knows the power of face-to-face marketing. His lamb can be found in Sean Brock’s restaurants in Charleston. One of his first customers was Bryan Voltaggio of Top Chef fame. Ashley Christensen of Raleigh is a fan and has served Craig’s lamb in Poole’s Diner. Rogers personally delivers his lamb up and down the east coast, and more and more chefs are taking notice. This guy gets it. He knows what these great chefs want, and he delivers. Literally.
When I took my 10 year old daughter and 11 year old son to Border Springs a few weeks back, I was pretty sure that the kids would have a fun day. I had no idea that I was about to create a beautiful memory of a day that will stay with me forever. I can’t get this place out of my head. The hills. The sheep. The turkeys and horses and even a donkey. And the dogs, oh, those dogs!
There are two kinds of dogs at Border Springs (not counting the Jack Russell Terrier that lives in the Rogers’ house): Border Collies and the Livestock Guardian Dogs. Each type is amazing in its own right. You’ve seen the Border Collies do their thing before, rounding up the stray sheep, driving them through gates from one field to another, responding to the different calls of the master’s whistle. A long two-toned tweet sending the dog to the farthest point of the flock, running clockwise in a pear-shaped manner, to pull the sheep together. Several short peeps cause the dog to slow down. And, of course, the shout of, “That’ll Do,” to let the dog know he’s done well. Witnessing a Border Collie in action is nothing short of magical, an amazingly orchestrated interaction between dog, master, and sheep. I couldn’t help but leave my jaw hanging as I watched Jake, a national champion, round up sheep who had no desire to be rounded up. It was amazing. It was almost spiritual.
The livestock guard dogs are no less amazing. These are the big sheep dogs, the Pyrenees, the Wolfhounds. These are the dogs that live with the sheep, the ones who greet your car as you drive into the farm. If you remember the old Looney Tunes cartoons with Ralph E. Wolf and Sam Sheepdog — well, these are the sheep dogs. They’re here to protect the sheep, against coyotes, but more often than not, against neighbors’ dogs. These are dogs that will immediately kill a coyote or dog attacking the sheep, but they will nuzzle up against a 10 year old girl walking among the lambs. They’re majestic animals, intimidating on one side yet completing comforting on the other.
The appeal of Border Springs is that it has it all. The pastoral scenery, the choreography of dog/man/sheep, the story of the Shakespeare-quoting shepherd/engineer. And, by the way, the lamb is incredible. I’ve now had leg of lamb smoked over cherry, lamb shanks braised in red wine, and ground lamb burgers, and I’m sold. I figured the stuff would be great if Sean Brock were using it, and I hope to see more restaurants offering Border Springs lamb. I’ll certainly enjoy eating it when they do, but I’ll really love having that lamb revive the memories of this special place.