Heaven is a Place on Earth — Border Springs Farm

December 22, 2010

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.


The Best Birthday Present Ever

September 28, 2009

carrotI turned 46 on Saturday and celebrated with a big party, drinking lots of tequila, eating tacos, and just having a great time.  A bunch of people ignored my “no gifts” requirement, of course, and now I have more tequila than I started with and a lot of great looking wines.  But the best gift I received came from my wife.

My wife is a very practical woman.  She doesn’t like material things, but she knows that I do.  So this year, I was trying to think what she might be getting me.  She knows I’d like a nice GPS system for my car.  I know she’s aware that I dream of the day that I have a big screen, flat panel TV (we watch most television on an old, 19″ cathode ray set — yeah, I no longer am allowed to carry my “man card”).  So I thought this might be the year that I get something grandiose.

And I did, but this gift was nothing electronic.  What I got was so much better:  a garden.

See, I’ve always wanted a garden.  I tried to do something this year beside the house, but that area just didn’t get nearly enough sun.  Even though we have over half an acre of land, there is only one spot that gets sun nearly all day, and that’s on a hill where nothing could be planted.  So my wife got in touch with one of her close college friends, who is a landscaper, and they’re going to create a two-level terraced garden on that hillside.  It’ll only be about 150-200 square feet, but I can grow a lot there.  And we can set it up properly, with good drainage and fertile soil.

Construction begins next month, and the difficult part will be waiting until next spring to get started.  But dammit, I’m gonna have me a garden, thanks to my wonderful wife.

Help Me Grow a Garden

March 10, 2009

gardenI want to grow a garden.

I have never grown anything edible in my life.

I need your help.

Here’s the deal.  I am looking for volunteers to help me grow some vegetables and maybe some fruit.  I don’t have great land next to my house, and I’m not sure it gets enough sun.  The soil might be complete crap.  But I want to grow something.  Anything.  I’ve got 4 workers who happen to be my children, and they can help with the weeding and watering duties.

I need your help because I’m a complete ignoramus when it comes to growing things.  I don’t know how to fertilize or till or plant.  I don’t know what should be started as seeds in the house versus in the ground.  I don’t know what items require lots of sun and what can tolerate shade.  I’m clueless about watering.  And I won’t even begin to pretend that I have any idea about organic methods.  Be serious, people.

We can come up with a weekend day that we can commit to the Varmint Garden.  So, anyone willing to help me out???

Most Important Food Story of the Year

August 13, 2008

Andrea Weigl and Shawn Rocco of the News & Observer have put together an article and multi-media presentation that should be required reading for everyone over the age of ten. This is the story of a pig, a cute Ossabaw hog that has made its way to the abbatoir. A pig that will be dinner in a week’s time. The article itself is graphic and gut wrenching, but is as well-written and objective as anything you’ll find. This isn’t a story that you usually see in the food section of a newspaper, with inherent space limitations and over-editing. This is a well-rounded, detailed journalistic piece and includes a side story comparing the small operation of the packing plant used for the Ossabaw with the large, industrial plant of the Smithfield Packing plant in Tar Heel, NC. This is top notch writing and photojournalism, pure and simple. Rocco’s pictures juxtapose sweet shots of piglets with a scene of “dead pig walking” and a somewhat eery photo of a small plastic pig in the cup holder of the truck taking the pig to the slaughterhouse. Frankly, I have not seen a story as compelling as this in any paper or magazine this year.

As a father of four children, I believe it’s my duty to ensure that my children understand how we get our food. Whether it’s the heirloom tomatoes, the Frosted Mini-Wheat or the barbecue, my kids should know that food production and processing isn’t always pretty. Sometimes, it really hurts.

This story was the second reminder I’ve had of this in the past month. The first time was when we were in Alaska, on a small boat in Resurrection Bay near Kenai Fjords National Park. The primary purpose of the boat trip was to see wildlife and scenery, and boy, did we ever see some sights! However, we also stopped two times to fish, once for silver (coho) salmon and the second for halibut. My 12-year old daughter, who doesn’t eat much meat at all (and absolutely no fish), was looking forward to catching a fish or two. She got really excited when her younger brother hooked a feisty salmon, even though we couldn’t net it. When her 70 year old grandmother brought the first fish into the boat, she was ecstatic. But that was all to change. The crew brought out a small club and brutally and quickly ended the salmon’s life. I hadn’t prepared my daughter or any of my children for that reality. And she couldn’t handle it, starting to bawl from witnessing the cruelty of meat. Just as Morrissey and the Smiths said, “Meat is Murder,” and my daughter just witnessed a killing.

And a small part of me is glad she did.

Many of you are thinking that I’m an awful father for thinking it’s a good thing for your child to hurt, but that’s not the case. I suspect my daughter already had issues with eating meat because of humane reasons, and this incident may make it worse. I know it bothered her later that day when that salmon was on our dinner table, but she saw first hand how the fish gave its life for our nourishment. She knows that the world of food, including fish and other meat, is not pretty. She knows that her chicken drumstick really came from an animal, an animal that was killed to satisfy her hunger. I don’t think she’ll need to go into therapy, thank god, but she’s forever changed. A little less innocent, perhaps. And after many of us read Weigl’s articles, we might be, too.

Edit: Please also read Weigl’s first piece about this particular pig that came out in Sunday’s paper.  Great, great writing.

Eno Restaurant & Market to Open in Durham

June 26, 2008

The folks behind Raleigh’s Zely & Ritz have combined forces with local food enthusiast and bon vivant Jamie DeMent to open a new farm-to-table restaurant in Durham, Eno Restaurant & Market.  Scheduled to open at the end of this year, Richard Holcomb and Sarig Agasi, will open in partnership with Holcomb’s Coon Rock Farm in the Fire Station Building in downtown Durham.

A native North Carolinian, DeMent was raised around her family’s farm supply store and developed an interest in organically farmed foods and environmental issues after seeing nearby farms slowly disappear throughout her childhood. Holcomb, who began Coon Rock Farm in 2005 after 20 successful years as a software entrepreneur, is pleased to have a new outlet for his heirloom vegetables and pasture raised meats including chickens (and some of the best eggs around), pork, lamb, goat and more.

The restaurant’s menu will be dictated by Coon Rock Farm’s harvest and the season.  In addition to the vegetables, expect to see house-made bacon, whole hog terrines, pates and sausages. Eno will tap into other local providers for dairy products and other staples for the restaurant.

One of the cool parts of Eno comes from their restaurant staff work-share program, where cooks and servers alike will be involved in the growing of vegetables and raising of livestock.  It’s their belief that this involvement of the staff from farm to restaurant will make a big difference in what is ultimately put on the diners’ plates.  Very interesting.

In addition, Coon Rock Farm will offer its goods at a retail market adjacent to the restaurant , essentially bringing the farm to the customer.

Eno Restaurant & Market will serve lunch and dinner daily, and brunch on the weekends.

Eno Restaurant & Market

Rogers Alley

101 City Hall Plaza

Durham, NC


The Glory of Freshly Laid Eggs

May 2, 2008

I visited the Moore Square Farmers Market a week ago Wednesday (yes, it’s been a busy week for me) before meeting a friend for lunch, and I stopped by the Coon Rock Farm booth. I like Coon Rock Farm, because they’re local, they’re organic and they do things the right way. Many of their vegetables are heirloom varieties, and they raise and sell pasture raised pork. But one of the things I like most about Coon Rock is their freshly laid eggs — from hens who roam freely around the farm. We’re not talking about “free range” chicken eggs, where the chickens have access to the pasture — these chickens spend their days walking about, foraging for food in addition to what Coon Rock feeds them. I think it’s that extra foraged food that makes the difference.

This isn’t a watery, mass-produced egg. The yolks are a deep, rich orange, filled with flavor — they look much more like the eggs you see in France or Italy. The whites firm up quickly and tightly. As a shameless lover of poached eggs, this made my Wednesday night pasta dish so much more unctuous and tasty. Even my daughter, who does not really like egg yolks at all asked me if I can make that dish for her sometime soon.

I’m not a Slow Food zealot. I do most of my shopping at the Harris Teeter, buying industrial-style meat and produce. But my food budget is slowly shifting to the local producers. The artisans. The ones who know how much better sustainable practices are for our environment while truly recognizing that these practices result in tastier food. If it didn’t taste good, I wouldn’t eat it. But these eggs, even at twice the price of the supermarket version, are so worth it. We’re all trying to keep our costs down as the price of gas and food and everything else keeps climbing. But I’m not going to sacrifice on those things that taste good, particularly when that food has been brought to the table humanely.

Local Farmers Featured in N&O

April 9, 2008

Andrea Weigl has a wonderful story in today’s N&O about the “next generation” of local farmers. Featuring some super photos by Shawn Rocco, this is food journalism at its best. When I told Andrea that this would have made a great multimedia presentation, she pointed me to this link of a slide show of the farmers with a brief audio clip from each.

I know I keep singing the praises of the N&O, but it’s well-deserved.