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At Ayrshire Farm, Little Things Make a Big Difference

Article by Sheree McDowell, Ayrshire Farm VP

Photography by Ayrshire Farm

Originally published in Leesburg Lifestyle

Ayrshire Farm was doing organic before organic was cool in Virginia. For more than 25 years we’ve been practicing sustainable farming in Upperville as a Certified Humane® and Certified Organic regenerative farm. Sure, call us the proto-hipsters of the local agriculture scene: It’s a badge we wear proudly.

Ayrshire Farm specializes in raising heritage-breed beef and pork, and we also raise poultry seasonally, including turkeys and broiler chickens. Our farm operation is 100% pasture-based and predator-friendly; we pride ourselves on maintaining sustainable practices throughout our businesses. In addition to our farm, we also have a restaurant, The Hunter’s Head Tavern; a custom processor, Gentle Harvest Abattoir; and a colonial-era grist mill, Locke’s Mill.

As a company, we’ve earned a lot of firsts: First Certified Humane® and Certified Organic farm in Virginia, and the first Certified Humane® Veal Operation, Restaurant, and Butcher Shop in Virginia. Our tavern, built in the 18th Century, is a three-star Certified Green® Restaurant — a showcase of our core principles, living with one foot in history and one foot in the future. Similarly, our grist mill, built in the 1770s, grinds exclusively organic grains, providing essential services to the growing local organic food movement. We believe in restoring and using beautiful old buildings, reviving livestock breeds on the brink of extinction, and doing things a little bit differently, because the little things make a big difference.

To say that what we do is unusual is an understatement. I’ve worked for Ayrshire Farm for more than 13 years. My journey with the company started in the kitchen, after moving to Virginia about 14 years ago. I was intrigued when I met the chef from Ayrshire at a local food event, and once I learned more about the unique operation, I knew I wanted to join. My first role was executive pastry chef, then food and beverage director, and now I am Vice President of Operations. I have had an amazing opportunity to grow and learn with the company over the years. As I adjusted to each new role, I learned more about how our founder came to build the business, and why. But most importantly, I learned why these differences matter.

One of the most influential stories shared with the team by our leader is from her childhood. Sandy Lerner, owner and farmer at Ayrshire, recalls how her family – who were pear farmers during her childhood – had their business wiped out by a single event. One year, there was a terrible blight and all the trees in the orchard were affected; the orchard was completely lost. There was no diversity in their crop plan, therefore, there was no tree in their orchard that was not affected. Seeing the family farm destroyed taught a painful but valuable lesson about the importance of genetic diversity in farming, and how to farm with the vagaries of nature, not in competition with nature.

When Sandy started Ayrshire Farm in 1996, one of her goals was to reintroduce heritage-breed cattle. These breeds have amazing benefits — better flavor, marbling and hardiness — but most importantly, they survive in a pasture environment and do not require the high-input feeds of hybridized commercial cattle. These thrifty “landrace” breeds have been lost to modern consumers during the decades of factory farming. It may seem counterintuitive to eat breeds that are in danger of becoming extinct, but by creating a market for these animals, it ensures their continued survival. It is also truly superior beef.

Our cattle herd is composed mostly of Scottish Highland, Ancient White Park, and English Longhorn cows, all rare heritage breeds. We raise Gloucester Old Spot hogs, and in past years we have also had Red Wattle, Mangalitsa, and Tamworth. We have kept the Old Spots as they have proven to have superior flavor and marbling.

Though my background is not in farming, one thing I have learned is that good data is essential to good farming. We use our own grading system to gather information about individual animals, which helps us make tweaks and adjustments to our breeding program. Heritage breeds take about twice as long as hybridized animals: Beef takes an average of 36 to 48 months to fully mature, sometimes more. Our hogs take an average of nine months to mature, and they are all raised on pasture, near tree lines for shade and protection. That means each animal we raise is a significant investment, and they are treated as such: Kindly, respectfully and mindfully.

Our way of farming is a bit slower, and it isn’t easy. But that’s OK: We know the results are worth it.

I’m continually impressed by the dedication of our farming staff and the effort they put into ensuring that every step is completed to our high standards. Farm animals don’t take days off, and our team works tirelessly to make sure they are well-cared for year-round.

If there is any takeaway I can offer it is this: Buy local or bye local. Our founder coined this phrase many years ago, and it still rings true. If we want food systems we can trust and to have a connection with our food, then we need to support local farms, local processors and local providers whenever possible. Food is the medicine and preventative care we need for healthy bodies; everything else is reactive.

Many of the things we do in our business appear and sound old-fashioned, and for good reason. I remember my grandparents talking about a time when the food system was more transparent, and people had a greater understanding of their food and where it came from. It was part of your community, part of your culture, and part of your ensured survival.

Though I didn’t grow up on a farm, I was part of a family that always gardened. We put up tomatoes, corn, green beans, and okra each summer for the following winter. We shared our harvest with neighbors when we had too much squash or cucumbers. We picked wild blackberries together and we snapped green beans on a porch swing while my grandpa made fresh ice cream with our foraged berries. Life wasn’t perfect, don’t get me wrong, but at least the food was good.

If you want to have control over what you put into your body and the food memories you pass down to your own kids, connect with the people raising food in your community. Shake a farmer’s hand and purchase their products whenever possible. Invest in a deep freezer, buy local meats and vegetables, and put up something for future dinners. Buy local grains and make your own bread. Most importantly, cook with your kids — even if it is just a scrambled farm egg or some local honey slathered on toast.

I don’t have delusions that everyone has time to live like Laura Ingalls Wilder, but taking small steps to protect your food system and building relationships with the people raising food in your community is, really, just another little thing that makes a big difference.

Buy local or bye local.... If we want food systems we can trust and to have a connection with our food, then we need to support local farms, local processors and local providers whenever possible.