Every year since 2008, the Loudoun Laurels Foundation recognizes the contributions of Loudoun County citizens by naming them Laureates at an annual gala at Lansdowne Resort in Leesburg.
For this year’s event on Sept. 30, Sandy Lerner, co-founder of Cisco Systems and owner of Ayrshire Farm in Upperville, has been selected as the honoree. Lerner sat down with the Times-Mirror earlier this week to talk about her work in Loudoun County and what it means to be recognized for her service.
As a pioneer in organic farming and humanely raising animals in Virginia, Sandy Lerner is grateful and appreciative for this show of respect she has earned from the community.
Her introduction to Upperville had a rocky start when she purchased Ayrshire Farm in 1996. Community members were upset that she closed her land to the local hunts and she received resistance for her idea to open an English Pub-style restaurant – Hunters Head Tavern – in Upperville which is open seven days a week.
However, she persevered and has continued to pursue her passions for sustainable and humane farming – while quietly encouraging others to follow her lead.
“I think aside from the fact that I did exactly what I said I was going to do, and I think that on any level, it’s at least innocuous if not a good thing. So, to come full circle to be honored is frankly, a bit surreal. But I’m very appreciative, and very grateful,” Lerner said.
Lerner, 67, grew up living with her aunt and uncle on a ranch in Northern California. They worked full time and she was often alone and she grew up spending a lot of time with the animals.
“I would sit in the barn with them and they would lay down at my command and I would lean against them and do my homework. We didn’t have any neighbors,” she said.
“Nobody needed to tell me that hurting them and feeding them growth hormones and poison was wrong,” she said. “That’s kind of a no brainer in my eyes. The idea that we would hurt our cows was just something we never even thought of,” she said. “I didn’t know about industrialized agriculture until I got ready to go to college and it was quite an awakening. Enough to make me vegetarian for 30 years.”
Lerner has degrees from California State University, Claremont Graduate School and a master’s degree from Stanford University. In 1984, she co-founded the technology company Cisco Systems with her former husband Len Bosack. When Cisco went public, Lerner was forced out of the company so she and Bosack sold their shares and she decided it was time to move to the east coast.
She enjoyed the sport of jousting and considered properties in Maryland, where it is the official state sport. She looked at 50 properties before she found the 800-acre Ayrshire Farm in Upperville with a circa 1912 main house. It was run down and needed a lot of work, but she felt it was the best option for her vision.
“There’s water, no earthquakes and I can farm humanely without murdering the land,” she said. “The place was pretty derelict then, the barn looked better than the house. I spent $7K to get rid of bat poop in the hay loft. I started a two-year renovation of the house – it had no heat, water pipes were broken and the gutters collapsed, slime on the walls and a disembodied mannequin in the kitchen. My real estate agent didn’t think I could handle it and I said ‘go ahead, underestimate me.’”
The farm was certified organic in 1999. It is also certified humane, no-till and net carbon negative, certified predator friendly and there is a seven-acre compost, Lerner said. The goal is to raise genetically viable herds of rare breeds, such as Scottish Highland cattle, Shire horses, Ancient White Park cattle, Gloucestershire Old Spot hogs and several breeds of free-range chickens, turkeys and ducks. The soil is amended with cover crops and compost and the Ayrshire Shires help in soil improvement using horse-powered farming.
“I’m overjoyed the streams are running clear on the farm and we are holding enough water to stop erosion after 20 years,” she said.
Her vision continues as she now owns Gentle Harvest, a humane slaughterhouse in northern Winchester and Locke’s Mill, a grist mill in Berryville which makes organic-certified flour.
“At the flour mill, I was able to realize the dream as I’d wanted to be a miller for a long time. I have my house in England and it is on an old mill. And I just really liked the idea of it. My goal is to grow the grain here and go out with my horses and thrash it and grind it and make bread and eat it the same day,” she said. “It’s really cool to be able to do that and smell the grain when it’s warm. And when you make the bread – I’m a bread junkie – it’s a completely different experience. If you’ve ever had an heirloom tomato versus the Safeway version, it’s the same thing for me.”
Lerner is not only focused on farming and animals – her other projects include the Centre for the Study of Early English Writing in England and Petfinder, a software management tool for animal shelters. She also enjoys carriage driving, is a metal smith and she is learning how to be a helicopter pilot.
She has also placed thousands of acres of land into conservation easement to save it from development and recently sold a neighboring property to JK Moving’s CEO Chuck Kuhn, who has the same mission.
While Lerner does not take credit for organic farming because she considers it to be mainstream, she admits Virginia is behind the rest of the country.
“The organic movement in this country started in 1970. I look at myself as sort of a Johnny come lately,” she said. “Organics is mainstream now – kids know this – they drink kale juice and believe in exercise and healthy eating. We were raised with a different ethic – kids know better than this today. Either we are going to know better about farming for the future — or we won’t. We only have one planet.”
Lerner added, “I’m doing my part. We invite school groups, give talks, and sell the products here. We have meat boxes now. However, there has to be a generational change. Food goes directly in your body; shouldn’t you be as choosy about that as your sneakers and iPhone?” she said.
In addition to honoring Lerner, the Loudoun Laurels Foundation is granting $40,000 scholarships to two Loudoun County high school seniors to attend the Virginia college of their choice. The awardees are Jasmeet Kaur, a Tuscarora High School senior who will attend George Mason University and Carlos Morales, a Potomac Falls High School senior who will also attend George Mason University.
Past Laureate honorees include Punkin Lee, Chuck Kuhn, Kristina Bouweiri, Di Cook, Fred and Karen Schaufeld, Al P. Van Huyck, Betsy Davis, Bill Harrison, Margaret Morton, Chief Judge Thomas D. Horne, Cate Magennis, J Hamilton Lambert, Joseph Boling, Jack Cook, Dr. Edgar B. Hatrick III, Su Webb, Stanley Caulkins, Fred Drummond, James P. Roberts, Robert Sevila, The Honorable Joe May, Lang and Judy Washburn, Karen Hatcher Russel, Paul Ziluca, Childs Burden, G. Kimball Hart and Eugene Scheel.
Editor's note: An earlier version of the story said Lerner has placed hundreds of acres in conservation easement, when it is actually thousands of acres.