It’s obvious from his passionate discourse that of all Rogers’s titles, “shepherd” and “farmer” are closest to his heart.
When the decision was made to launch this column in April, my train of thought immediately followed this route: Passover. Easter. Lamb. Craig Rogers.
Rogers, 51, owns Border Springs Farm in Patrick County, Va., 60 acres of pastured land at the base of the Blue Ridge Mountains near the North Carolina border. There, and on land he leases from a neighbor, Rogers raises grass-fed, Animal Welfare Approved, certified naturally grown Katahdin and Texel sheep. He breeds them to create lamb with a sweet fat profile and a delicate, yet earthy, meat flavor.
Last month I got a firsthand look at the Border Springs operation, something Rogers encourages everybody, especially clients, to do, particularly during primary lambing season in late fall and early spring.
“My breeding is primarily based on the fat,” he says. “The Katahdins don’t have a lot of lanolin, which is where the musky taste comes from in the fat. But the meat tastes too mild. The Texel sires provide the additional flavor.”
Texel sheep come from an island off the Netherlands and are rare in the United States, he says. They are thickly muscled (think speed skater vs. marathon runner) and exceptionally round, with broad heads and shoulders and big rear ends. They are lean sheep that basically look like “bourbon barrels with wool,” Rogers says.
Katahdins are an American breed popular among farmers because they lamb (give birth) easily. They are parasite-resistant and make good mothers, and they produce coarse hair that sheds, meaning no shearing is required.
Rogers’s lambs wean naturally; after that, they are grass-fed. To create fat, every two years Rogers seeds his pastures with grasses that have very high sugar content: perennial rye, white and red clover, and timothy or orchard grass. (Most of his clients want their lamb grain-finished, for flavor, and he complies with their requests.)
The sheep have a lifespan of 10 to 20 years. A Katahdin mother’s breeding life is eight years; some breed three times in a two-year cycle. Rogers’s flock consists primarily of about 600 Katahdin females and 30 Texel sires. Their offspring go to slaughter at between seven and 10 months, once they’ve reached between 90 and 95 pounds. (That translates to a 40-pound carcass.)
It was Rogers’s love of border collies that got him into the business. (The name Border Springs combines border collie with Patrick Springs, the name of the farm’s town.) In 1995, while a professor at Virginia Tech, Rogers saw his first sheepdog trial.
“It was the most amazing thing I had ever seen: using a whistle and controlling a dog” to herd sheep, he says.
In 1996, he married a woman who owned two horses. They lived in South Carolina for a while; then in 2002, Rogers’s job brought him back to Virginia. He and his wife, Joan, bought a farm for the horses. Three days after they moved in, they had six Dorset sheep and a trained border collie so Rogers could enter competitions.
Trials spurred his already-competitive drive. He soon realized two things: He had a lot to learn about sheep. And the guy who had the most sheep usually won.
So he started acquiring them. Through contacts he made in the sheepdog world, he spent time on sheep farms in Texas, the Dakotas, Wyoming, Colorado, Utah and Oregon. He learned about veterinary care and nutrition, and about the characteristics of different breeds of sheep. That education eventually led him to settle on Katahdins and Texels — and to win sheepdog competitions.
His knowledge came in handy, because before long, Rogers had too many sheep. He needed the enterprise to pay for itself; selling lamb was the obvious solution. Nine years after it started, Border Springs Farm is beginning to break even.
More than just a business, sheep farming is something deeply personal to Rogers and his wife. Joan bottle-feeds lambs whose mothers reject them, and those she names become pets, not dinner. Many aging animals live out their lives at Border Springs; three of the original Dorsets are still there.
Rogers is an unabashed carnivore and scientist, but his respect for animals is reflected in the path his business takes. He primarily sells whole animals directly to chefs who understand and appreciate their quality.
“Other farmers think I’m crazy, but you put all this effort into these sheep and then send them to New Holland [a livestock auction in Pennsylvania] and leave them behind. I don’t want to feel like I’m selling a commodity. They’re animals, not corn,” he says.
After a bad first experience selling a whole animal directly to a chef, Rogers did what academics do best: research. That’s how he found Bryan Voltaggio, the chef-owner of Volt restaurant in Frederick who gained notoriety as a competitor on Season 6 of Bravo TV’s “Top Chef.”
People were talking about Voltaggio’s devotion to local farms, Rogers remembers: “I called him up. He wanted to know where I was and thought maybe it was too far. So I showed up the next day with my lamb.”
The notion that “local” must correlate to an arbitrarily prescribed distance riles Rogers, who shares his opinion often.
“If a farmer is willing to leave his land and personally travel to your destination, that’s local!” he says. To that end, Rogers routinely delivers to chefs six hours from his farm, usually beginning and ending the round trip on the same day.
Rogers’s lamb is “well marbled despite the fact that it is almost all pasture-fed,” Voltaggio says. “I’ve had enough Australian, New Zealand and domestic lamb to know that it’s just that much better.”
The chef introduced Rogers to other chefs. In addition to restaurants in Washington, Rogers now ships or directly delivers fresh or frozen lamb to chefs in Charleston, S.C.; Atlanta; Birmingham, Ala.; Roanoke, Va.; Berkeley Springs, W.Va.; Louisville; Nashville; New Orleans and New York.
For the most part, Rogers considers selling at farmers markets to be a waste of his time. (A study he cites indicates that only 4 percent of market sales are for meat.) But his lamb is available at the FreshFarm Market in Dupont Circle on Sundays, through EcoFriendly Farms. Rogers also sells directly to consumers via his Web site,
. (See the accompanying sidebar for pricing and other details.)
Visitors to the farm are likely to be met with irresistible wafts from Rogers’s Vulcan smoker. I enjoyed a dinner there that included rack of lamb “lollipops” crusted with bread crumbs and herbs; his own slow-cooked puttanesca sauce made with lamb necks and served over penne pasta; smoked leg of lamb; a garden salad with fresh local goat cheese; and smoked chicken. (Rogers also raises heritage chickens and turkeys.) He sent his guests home with leftovers, plus a bonus of smoked lamb shoulder.
“Great for barbecue,” he says.
At home, I experimented with various Border Springs cuts.
Having already noticed the meat’s superior quality in dishes at Bourbon Steak and Bibiana, I was curious to see whether I could detect the difference in my own recipes.
In one dish after another, the subtly familiar tang of lamb came through, with sweet, slightly mineral and utterly pleasant tones. As Rogers promises, the fat is creamy, with no trace of musk.
I seared lamb shanks on the grill, then braised them with stock, caramelized onions and dried apricots. I pureed the resulting sauce and made rice pilaf to finish the dish.
I turned ground lamb into chili with an Indian slant (coconut milk, curry and Kashmiri chili powders, ginger), plus pine nuts and golden raisins, topped with dollops of yogurt, scallions and herbs.
Thinking of Easter and Passover main-course options, I went for an entree more elegant than the usual leg of lamb. I rolled tenderloins and an herb paste within a larger loin, then wrapped the loin in bacon, seared it and popped it in the oven. The result: a showstopper roast that yields medium-rare medallions and is aptly accompanied by a lamb jus, sauteed Swiss chard and a two-potato gratin.
Finally, I took Rogers’s advice and slathered his shredded smoked lamb shoulder with leftover coffee barbecue sauce.
Both Doctor Rogers and Farmer Rogers will be happy about that.
Bacon-Wrapped Herbed Loin of LambWith Jus
Apricot Ancho Lamb Shanks
Hagedorn and Rogers will join Free Range chat April 13 at noon.