Turning a passion into a business

Sandy Lerner’s new mantra is sustainability as she builds an organic model for the family farm

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Print this page by M.J. McAteer

Sandy Lerner knows how to make money. She has, after all, made two fortunes.

But money is not why she is at her desk by “5-ish” every morning these days or why she holds her first managers’ meeting at 6:30 a.m.  For Lerner, her previous, mega-money-making careers as co-founder of Internet pioneer Cisco Systems Inc. and later of Urban Decay — a cosmetic company that promoted punk over pretty — were the proverbial means to this end.

“I was just working to support my farm habit,” Lerner says, from her office in the handsome stables at Ayrshire, her 800-acre farm in Upperville. Lerner bought the farm in the heart of Virginia horse country in 1996 with some of the $170 million she and former husband Leonard Bosack reportedly took with them when they left Cisco, shortly after the company went public in 1990.

Her success in computers — she and Bosack are credited with developing the first commercially successful router — financed the restoration of Ayrshire’s dilapidated 1912 fieldstone mansion. More importantly, it provided seed money for the grand venture that consumes her now: running the first certified organic and humane farm in Virginia.

When Lerner sold Urban Decay in 2000 to French luxury goods company Moet-Hennessy Louis Vuitton, the deal provided more of the green stuff to keep her new business equally green and growing. She reportedly invested about $1 million in the cosmetic company that she founded in 1995 and sold for a profit five years later. 

That she would follow these lucrative ventures with farming seems unlikely since “nothing,” Lerner says ruefully, “pays less and requires more work than farming.” 

Money, however, “gives you the power to follow your passion,” notes Lerner. And Ayrshire is her passion, as much cause as career. Lerner is not shy in her beliefs that America’s modern food supply has been compromised by the poisons put in the ground, the manipulation of animal genetics, the growth hormones and antibiotics fed to livestock and the pesticides sprayed on crops.

At Ayrshire she is trying to run an operation free of all of that. “I am rediscovering the right way to do things,” she says. Her goal? To build a working model for sustainable farming that will benefit food safety, the environment and the family farm.

In a sense, Lerner, 54, has returned to her roots. She grew up on a family pear farm in Northern California and owned her first steer at age 9. 
At Ayrshire, she grows more than 200 kinds of fruits and vegetables. The farm also has an organic dairy and raises cattle, sheep, pigs, chickens and turkeys. Her livestock is made up of rare and so-called heritage breeds, such as Ancient White Park cattle, which have evolved slowly and have not been genetically manipulated to increase or speed production.  “I am trying to raise the best meat,” Lerner says, “not the most meat.”
She deplores both the hybrid cattle found on large, commercial feedlots — she calls them “double-muscled freaks” — and the conditions under which they spend their brief lives. “The horror I feel at factory farming, I find it inexpressibly painful,” she says. At Ayrshire, animals live as naturally as possible before being slaughtered humanely.

Unlike her previous businesses, however, Ayrshire is not profitable. Her capital costs, Lerner says, are “huge.” In fact, if the cost of the land were to be entered on the income statement, Ayrshire probably never would make it into the black.

Her carrying costs are equally backbreaking, partly because she must meet stringent federal requirements to be certified organic. Animals must be fed a diet completely free of synthetic chemicals such as herbicides, pesticides, growth hormones or antibiotics.  Ayrshire chickens take twice as long to reach maturity as mass-produced chickens, observes Lerner. If an animal falls ill, “I can’t give a bacterial ointment or shot of penicillin or it won’t be organic.”

Unlike in her other careers, though, she views success on the farm in terms of sustainability rather than profitability. She is yet to make money on her cattle or sheep, for example, but her chickens and turkey “units” are just about breaking even, and her hog unit has become an unexpected cash cow.

Running a USDA federally certified organic farm is no small achievement.  As of October, the Virginia Department of Agriculture lists 163 certified organic operations in the state, up from about 102 two years ago. Of these operations, 12, besides Ayrshire, raise beef.

Anthony Flaccavento, executive director of Appalachian Sustainable Development, heads up a nonprofit organization in Southwest Virginia that seeks to build a strong local food system based on organic and sustainable farming.  His clients include a growing number of certified organic produce farmers and livestock operations that emphasize humane practices, such as free-range chickens and grass-fed beef.  But Flaccavento knows of “very few certified organic livestock operations,” such as Lerner’s. The U.S. Department of Agriculture livestock standards are so tough, he says, that, “Yes, you do have to be rich right now to follow them.”

Out of Virginia’s more than 20,000 cattle operations, Lerner is one of only a tiny number of cattle farmers attempting to raise certified organic animals in a bigger-than-backyard way. Spencer Neale, senior assistant director of the Virginia Farm Bureau, terms Lerner “one of the major players on the meat side.”

To try to boost business, Lerner markets her meats online to 38 states and hopes to go national with the Ayrshire brand soon. One of her most popular products is organic pet food. It’s packaged on the farm and looks, well, good enough to eat. She also sells to area restaurants, such as that gourmet’s delight, the Inn at Little Washington.

Two spinoff businesses, the Hunter’s Head Tavern in Upperville and the Home Farm Store in nearby Middleburg, also provide outlets for her organic products.

Lerner says Ayrshire meats have a “rabid local following,” despite what average grocery shoppers might consider exorbitant prices:  $14.99-a-pound pork loin, $36.99-a-pound filet mignon and 10-pound turkeys that fetch $95. Her customers, many of them families with children, “are willing to make sacrifices in their material consumption for better food,” she says.

Lerner maintains that the comparatively inexpensive supermarket prices are deceptive: They do not reflect real costs, she says, because of agricultural subsidies. Plus, she asks people to consider what she calls “the collateral aftermath of factory farming” — the damage to the environment.  “A little less food of better quality, and maybe Americans wouldn’t be so obese and unhealthy, and the land would be healthier, too,” she says.

That kind of sentiment doesn’t always get a warm reception, but Lerner is known for forging her own path.

At Ayrshire, for instance, she lives in a cabin rather than in the mansion, which she reserves for charitable and business events.

Some years ago, she took up jousting, a mostly male endeavor, that, in its modern incarnation, usually points the lance at nonhuman targets.
Her stables still house her preferred mount, the Shire horse, the tallest of the heavy horse breeds — only 100 Shire foals are born in the world each year. One of them, Baby Jane, was born at Ayrshire.  The filly’s name is a tribute to one of Lerner’s favorite authors, Jane Austen. Lerner has invested in the restoration of an Austen family dwelling in England, Chawton House in Hampshire, which she turned into a center for the study of English women writers. “I’ve always been an enthusiast,” she says.

In 1997, Lerner even posed nude on a horse for Forbes magazine and now sports a belt buckle embossed with a reproduction of that startling photo.
The locals were leery of the Californian when she first moved to Ayrshire. Some regarded her as a dilettante. “No one who takes in 24 tons of feed at a time has a hobby,” Lerner says dryly.

News  Closing her land to the local foxhunt also raised hackles. She was portrayed, she says, as “a tree-hugging PETA lover.” But it was when she bought an old building in Upperville and announced her plan to open a restaurant that the fur really began to fly. Opponents claimed that the tiny town would be overrun by unsavory elements that would think nothing of relieving themselves in the bushes.

“I was in the middle of it before I even knew it began,” Lerner says.

She played hardball, though, threatening to raze the building if she couldn’t use it for a restaurant. End of fight.

The décor of the Hunter’s Head, a British style pub, still features a cartoon-like foxhunter’s head mounted on the wall, yet it has become a popular watering hole for the sporting crowd, and it’s not unusual to see Lerner behind the bar pouring out libations.

The menu features Lerner’s meats and produce, and the tavern, unlike Ayrshire and the Home Farm Store, actually makes money.
But the bottom line is that the bottom line is no longer the fundamental point for Lerner. “Nothing about this business is lucrative,” she says. “Anyone with less money and less perverseness would have quit a long time ago.”

Lerner obviously has plenty of both. She’s determined to make organic farming commercially viable as a way to preserve the family farm.  Active in many agricultural groups, Lerner lobbies for research money for sustainable farms and changes in agricultural subsidy policies that would benefit small farms. 

“There have always been people with disposable income who can innovate,” she says, mentioning one of the Old Dominion’s favorite sons, Thomas Jefferson. Being that innovator is what Lerner considers to be her business now.

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