If you had to be born a sheep, you’d probably want to be born somewhere remote in New Zealand, on a farm that uses only your wool and leaves you alone for 99 percent of the year. The shearing might be slightly traumatic, but being a sheep, you’d probably forget that it had happened as soon as it was over.
Your second choice, however, would be a place like Border Springs Farm. Although your ultimate destiny as a Border Springs lamb would be to end up on somebody’s plate, until that day came, you’d be watched over by a truly dedicated, eminently kind shepherd named Craig Rogers. He’s the kind of caretaker who will not sell his lamb to a chef who won’t honor the animal, the kind of guy who invests not only time and money, but also emotion, into his flock. So it’s no wonder that the lamb he produces is showing up on tables in some of the East Coast’s finest restaurants.
Rogers came into the sheep-herding business through the back door, you could say. It was dogs, not sheep, that led him to the profession. “I had seen a sheep dog trial, kind of like in the movie Babe, and thought it was the most amazing thing I had ever seen,” he says. If you’ve ever seen one of these — or if you’ve seen Babe — you’ll understand the sentiment. At these trials, a sheepdog moves a small herd of sheep around a field as directed by his handler, who uses a whistle and sometimes hand gestures. To a spectator, it looks like the dog and the handler can read each other’s minds. “The handler is doing nothing but communicating with the dog with just a sheepdog whistle, which just sounded like a bird tweeting,” Rogers says. “It had all of this grace. That was something that my wife and I wanted to do.”
But they weren’t able to find the time or space to start working with sheep dogs until Rogers retired and they were searching for a new home. When they found Border Springs, a farm close to the border between North Carolina and Virginia, they moved in, and within a matter of days they had six sheep and a trained border collie. Rogers started learning to be a shepherd, working with the dogs and caring for his sheep. Then he began entering sheep dog competitions. “I found that the shepherd with the most sheep normally won, because the dog had more experience and the shepherd had more experience,” he says. “So I guess I became what’s technically referred to as a sheep hoarder. I woke up one day with 600 sheep, and I needed to figure out what to do with them.” Selling them for meat was the natural answer.
His first experiences selling his sheep, however, were not the best. He and his wife cared for their animals in the way that came naturally to them, which meant raising the sheep to be happy and healthy, grazing over acres of pasture. Perhaps because he has a natural respect for animals, perhaps because he came into the business in an unconventional way, Rogers has never seen his charges as a simple commodity. “Caring for the animals is important to me,” he says. “This has been an emotional and educational journey for me, learning this business. [You feel] the ecstasy and joy of watching a newborn lamb hit the ground and immediately get on its feet and know how to nurse. And also the pain of having to deal with the many forms of death that come with having animals on a farm, whether it’s humanely euthanizing or humanely slaughtering, caring for the sick, or dealing with sheep that have been ripped apart by a neighbor’s dog. The emotions of farm life are quite varied and quite exaggerated.”
So when he got to the livestock auction, which is still the typical method of selling animals for meat, he found it “exceptionally unrewarding,” he says. “There is very little difference in what you get for having the best animals at the auction versus having the worst. It’s not a way [of selling] that creates pride in your handiwork.” He then started selling directly to chefs, but that presented its own set of problems. “I sold lamb to some chefs who, quite frankly, did not honor the animals. Either because of [the chefs’] own talent or their own ethics, the animals weren’t being rewarded … and I decided that wasn’t acceptable.”
And so Rogers set out to find chefs who would honor his animals. He began by seeking out the very best chefs he could find — ones to whom he’d be proud to sell his meat — and offering to personally deliver them a sample. The taste spoke for itself, and after the first couple of clients signed on, word started to spread. “The nice thing about the business has been that those great chefs are so secure in what they do that they graciously help their colleagues when they find a good source,” Rogers says. “So all of my marketing has just been word of mouth, one chef to another. I’ve been very fortunate that the great chefs appreciate what we do here on our farm.”
One of those chefs is Bryan Voltaggio, a Top Chef finalist and executive chef of the James Beard Award-nominated restaurant Volt in Frederick, Md. Voltaggio was one of Rogers’ first clients, and introduced the shepherd to Travis Croxton of Rappahannock River Oysters. Rappahannock River Oysters is a true family affair: Croxton’s great-grandfather started the business in 1899, and Croxton now runs it with his cousin. Voltaggio, who uses Rappahannock’s oysters in his restaurants, asked Rogers and Croxton to help cater a charity event that he was doing, and the shepherd and the oysterman hit it off. “We do business the same way, our clients are mostly the same, and most importantly we have a great time together,” says Rogers. “There’s great respect for one another.” The two also share a commitment to producing great food responsibly. “Travis is a true conservationist, and he’s doing fabulous work with preserving the [Chesapeake] bay and producing great oysters.” From that friendship, the food-and-party sensation that is Lambs and Clams was born.
Charleston Wine + Foodies will know Lambs and Clams from their after-parties. The first one they ever did here was hosted by Sean Brock of Husk and McCrady’s, who is one of Border Springs Farm’s most loyal customers. Rogers provided the lamb for that event, and after that he and Croxton started hosting their own. One of the reasons they do these parties is to showcase the work of chefs who haven’t yet hit the food festival circuit. “We invite our respected customers that haven’t gotten the exposure to come to the after-party and cook. We donate the product, they create a dish, and they get to show off in front of their elite colleagues. It has been such great fun,” Rogers says. “We’re going to have 20 chefs coming to Charleston to cook, 10 wineries, two breweries — and they’re all doing this on their own nickel because they have such respect for these chefs [at the festival] and want to show them what they can do.”
For their part, Rogers and Croxton just enjoy being around people who love great food as much as they do. “Being where chefs are is fun for us. It’s kind of our gang, so we love being at food festivals to hang with them, but we decided we’d do something for them … This is the way we give back to our friends — by putting on what we hope is one of the most memorable parties.”
While there’s no doubt these planned shindigs are memorable, there’s another Lambs and Clams event that might have them beat. Croxton and Rogers also throw killer unplanned after-after-parties, which are totally unpretentious and feature bushels upon bushels of oysters, endless lamb sliders, and moonshine. Last year, the two set up on the Battery, slinging food and drink to partiers until the wee hours (one of the attendees was Top Chef finalist Jen Carroll — footage from the party ended up on an episode of Bravo’s Life After Top Chef). “Travis and I can have a good time together,” Rogers says. “There is no doubt about that. You’ll find us cruising around Charleston during the festival in our golf cart with a shepherd pole attached to it as our calling card, and chances are that we’ll throw in a late night after-party. We’ll probably tweet during the festival that we’re some place in town and to come hang out with us.”
Charleston is a kind of home-away-from-home for Rogers, who has a strong connection to the restaurants and chefs here — especially Brock. “I always say, Bryan [Voltaggio] was my first great chef, and he introduced me to [Atlanta chef and Top Chef All-Stars winner] Richard Blais, and Richard introduced me to Sean Brock, and Sean Brock introduced me to the rest of the South,” Rogers says. “We would not be able to do what we do, or be this sustainable, without the long-term commitment that Sean has made to our farm.”
Despite the attention that Lambs and Clams has attracted from high-falutin’ outfits like the James Beard Foundation and the New York Times, Rogers remains humble. He’s content in his chosen — and unglamorous — profession. “You learn something about people when you introduce yourself as a shepherd — the lowliest of all positions. You learn something about the people you associate with, and how sincere they are, when you are a part of the lowliest profession since the beginning of time,” he says. “I take great pride in calling myself a shepherd. I think it’s fulfilling and honest work.”
So once the party’s over, and the chefs and foodies have all gone home, Rogers heads back to Virginia to do the real work of watching over his flock. Because no matter how much fun it is to hang out with some of the country’s best chefs, Rogers finds his true fulfilment in the small, everyday tasks of running a working farm. “You know, I’ve been very fortunate in life. I’ve had jobs and professions that have allowed me to be pretty distant from earnest labor. So becoming a farmer, and doing things with your hands and getting dirty every day … has given me a whole new respect for earnest labor,” he says. “Every step forward on this path I’ve enjoyed more than the job before it. This one is the grandest thus far.”
That doesn’t sound lowly to us at all.