A Modern Shepherd

“Right. Right. Left. Left. Left. Left. Right. Ouch. Oh no. Eek. Sorry Mr. Sheep.”

01.28.16.bordersprings.palmettobluff.1468That was me, sorting sheep at Border Springs Farm. As they came barreling through the chute in a cloud of white, I was checking for the tags in their ears – right ear male, left ear female – and funneling them into two different pens by changing the direction of the gate. Unfortunately sheep don’t necessarily proceed in single file, so a few ewes got caught up in my gate mishandling and I found myself apologizing to them while they undoubtedly were looking around for their shepherd, Craig Rogers.

Oh, and that song about their fleece being white as snow? Well, that may be the case in the spring hills of Virginia, but in the January hills after a snowstorm dropped three feet of the cold white stuff, which was steadily melting, meant the farm was mostly mud. But the sheep didn’t seem to mind, so why should I? After all, if ever there was a good sport, it is Rogers.

I first met him in 2014 as his “Ewe Haul” came to a halt at my feet. He made the trek from Patrick Springs, Virginia, to Lake James, North Carolina, for the “on the road” Music to Your Mouth event, and our open fire cooking concept was a recently unloaded pile of equipment in a field. Rogers – a stranger to me at the time – hopped from the cab of his truck, kissed me on the cheek and said, “We’ll shake hands later. Show me everything.” After I gave him a quick lay of the land, he was fully engaged and already a part of the extended Palmetto Bluff family.

His MTYM menu that night consisted of spit-roasted whole lamb; grilled corn and fennel salad with pickled chilies and white anchovy salsa verde; and chili glazed Denver ribs with fried shallots, carrots, and jicama slaw, which was detailed and lofty to say the least. And we loved that. He didn’t’ travel with sous chefs, only his friends Connie and Brian (the only person he trusts to roast a whole lamb on a spit for him) Littell joined him to help – and we loved that even more.

And as the pink summer skies over an epically lit Lake James field gave way to torrential rain, Rogers and the Littells never stopped serving his lamb to guests that night. Even as the rain extinguished the fires in his cauldrons and filled his dishes, it never dampened his spirit. And we loved that the most.

So as Mother Nature played a part in our first meeting, it only seemed right that as I made my way north to Virginia, my winding route showed evidence of winter’s fury slowly melting away. Just across the North Carolina border, in what could certainly qualify as the middle of nowhere, the stunning valleys and peaks of Border Spring Farms sat glowing in the sunshine.

I spotted the Guardian Dogs first, fulfilling their duties perfectly with a barely audible growl, but just loud enough to let me know that they weren’t going to come bounding toward me and lick my face. Because that isn’t their job. Their job is to protect the sheep. They work the third shift, keeping the sheep safe from predators. “They know only of life with sheep,” Rogers said. “Their barking at night is dubbed the ‘shepherd’s lullabye.’” So, by afternoon they are in the midst of their siesta, and that is how I found them — sound asleep in the pastures, dotting the melting snow.

Rogers and I began to walk and talk, and naturally I wanted to know how he ended up here. But, he doesn’t like to speak of what he did before this. “This is the most rewarding work I’ve ever done,” he said. So the questions ended there, with a symbolic drop of my pencil into my notebook, as if to say, understood, I will pry no more.

“I am a farmer. Not a hobby farmer. A farmer. Some people don’t know the difference,” Rogers said. He seems to have a desire to be the voice of the farmer. The farmer who works his land all day, and into the night, which quickly becomes morning. The farmer who isn’t being interviewed, who isn’t invited to events across the country.

A farmer tends to hundreds of acres. They have to, to stay in business, to make a financially sustainable business. And a shepherd, well they are a special breed. After spending the day with Rogers, I think it is no coincidence that he has found this to be his calling. Rogers has 1800 ewes, spread 41 per acre, in valleys and across a creek into the mountains. And his landscape is stunning – you can see why someone would want to be here. Every day. And, our day was chilly. The wind was whipping; the temps didn’t get out of the forties; the snow and mud quickly chilled my feet to the bone. But, I was here to work.

“So, what would you normally do on a day like today?” I asked. Rogers pointed up to the house, and said, “I’d be in there with a cup of coffee.” Man, I love this man’s sass.

Mud and melting snow are not ideal conditions for farming, but I was committed to work, and Rogers was committed to giving me something to see and do. Little did I know, it was actually the dogs who do much of the work. Enter Brit, the Border Collie who walks side-by-side with Rogers waiting for his next command. Border Collie’s work the sheep. It is what they are born to do. “A Border Collie will spend its first few months noticing nothing, and then sometime between three months and a year a switch flips and one day they want to do it all. They just get behind the sheep and start moving them,” Rogers said.

01.28.16.bordersprings.palmettobluff.0689Having a relationship with your dog is paramount for a shepherd. They need to be in lock step. Rogers gentle, “Shhhhh….” gets Brit running, on her mission to gather the sheep together and move them to where Rogers needs them to go next. Often times that means moving from pasture to pasture across the hundreds of acres, for the purpose of rotational grazing. Brit will head out (in the direction of the side Rogers placed her on), forming a wide circle. A series of whistles moves Brit to and fro. The way the sheep begin to move makes you believe that they too know the commands, when in fact it is the mutual respect between Brit and her herd that moves them almost symphonically. The goal of the shepherd is to have a dog who respects the sheep, and sheep who respect the dog. Rogers doesn’t want the sheep to fear Brit – “that is the difference between a good dog and a crazy dog,” he says.

Slowly over the crest of the hill, I begin to see sheep appear. A few at first and then they begin to fill in. Almost as if a marching band moving in formation. “They don’t run?” I ask. “No. The last thing you want to do is eat an athlete. You want a couch potato, meat on the bones – makes for perfect marbling,” Rogers tells me. (Oh yeah, I just remembered, one of their buddies is what’s for dinner tonight.) Once Brit has moved about 40 sheep to the pasture we are standing in, I have to wonder, what’s next?

And this is where the shepherd’s hook comes into play. Rogers slowly loops the hook around one sheep’s neck, stopping him in his tracks. He respects the shepherd too. Rogers move the sheep to his rear, so it appears that he is literally sitting down. And as gentle as can be Rogers leans down whispering, “How you doing buddy. How you doing?” He checks his hooves, one at a time. Making sure the snow and mud and winter weather hasn’t been detrimental. He pats his belly a few times, as if to say, get back out there. And the sheep ambles on.

“I am culling. I am breeding. I am keeping the best,” Rogers said. Literally taking personal stock of each member of his flock. Setting the bar higher and higher each year. “I cull the lowest percentage to get better lamb and I’ll tell you what – my lamb is much better today than it was five years ago. It takes a long time to build a brand and a heartbeat to lose it.”

Rogers recently saw a picture from the first “Lambs & Clams” event that he participated in (a brand of its own now which has found him in the James Beard House, partnering with the Southern Foodways Alliance, and making multiple city stops each year), and he said he smiled a little thinking how proud he was back then. His pride has only swelled since. Almost like a proud Papa watching his baby grow. For him the baby is the business, the brand. But it’s more too. Just days before my visit, in the midst of the winter storm the latest baby lamb was born. Rogers cradled it as gently as he did his new granddaughter who he met just after Christmas. All of it, a labor of love.

Fast forward a couple hours and I just finished a spectacular soak in a sumptuous tub, defrosting my feet and fingers at Primland, a 12,000 acre resort of space and sky in the Blue Ridge Mountains. I am headed back down the mountain, along a road dubbed “Busted Rock,” en route to the farmer’s table for dinner.

There I was met again by the Guardian Dogs, and in a perfect example of coming full circle, the Littells. They were again helping Rogers prepare dinner – a leg of lamb and lamb ribs served with both a horseradish and chimichurri sauce, but of course the meat needed neither. Connie’s spinach salad sprinkled with “our goat cheese,” which promoted the question, “Your goat cheese?” “Oh yes, we have a farm too – sheep, goats, chickens. We make our own cheese,” Connie said. There was spinach and cheese quiche. And Brian’s famous twice-baked potatoes, which will get my vote any day.

Rogers paired the meal with Virginia-based Williamsburg wines, that I have to say – and I am not a wine expert by any means – were quite delicious. (Rogers sent me home with a bottle of the Adagio, and I cannot wait to uncork.) Virginia does not have a reputation as “wine country” and it was compelling to think that a palate could be satisfied with wines from an east coast region.

The conversation was just as satisfying as the meal. Of course, we reminisced about our first meal together in the pouring rain. And then talked about Rogers’ and the Littells’ upcoming trip to Vegas, where I insisted they see Barry Manilow. As the plates were cleared from the table, conversation quickly turned to talk of having to go put up the chickens, and bring in the dogs. But for me? I just couldn’t wait to put up my feet.

Written by Courtney Hampson

 

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