The Celebrity Shepherd - Modern Farmer

The Celebrity Shepherd

Big, boisterous, and selling lamb to some of America's top chefs, Craig Rogers wants to raise the profile of the lowly shepherd (and his own).

Photography

My flight from Atlanta to Los Angeles is boarding in 15 minutes, but I answer the call. “Besha!” Craig Rogers’ voice comes through the line, loud and smiling. “How are you, dear? It’s your own personal shepherd!”

“Your own personal shepherd” is a term Craig Rogers uses a lot, and he has become the personal shepherd to enough chefs up and down the East Coast, and particularly throughout the South, that he’s now one of the best-known farmers in the country. It’s a distinction that’s at once impressive and inconsequential ”“ the farmer-as-celebrity pool is awfully small.

He asks how I’m doing and I tell him I’m anxious. “I’m on my way to L.A. for a job interview,” I say.

“Well …” he says, searching for an appropriate response. “We’d sure miss you in the South.”

Then he launches into the reason he’s called. He’s looking for an Atlanta location for his “Lambs and Clams” party, an impromptu-feeling gathering he held with Travis Croxton of Rappahannock River Oysters after the Charleston Food & Wine Festival. In Charleston, a party at midnight off the back of a truck down near the water was charming, and many of the chefs and food personalities associated with the festival showed up to eat lamb and clams and drink from the mason jar Rogers passed around. I can’t see a similar party working quite so well in downtown Atlanta, but Rogers is undeterred.

He also wants to tell me about some farmers he knows who were selling milk to a large cheese producer, but were never paid. Legal action has begun. “But I’m thinking the best way for this to come to a resolution,” Rogers says to me as the boarding process begins, “is for there to be some media attention.” I tell him I think he’s right, although I don’t know who exactly would want to print a story about a legal dispute among sheep farmers.

“I just think that with all the love and feel-good stuff people are always talking about when it comes to small farmers,” he says, getting worked up, “people also ought to know the flip side. It’s hard to be out here on your own. People think of farmers and they think of sunshine and planting seeds and all that, but this is a business, and we get ripped off. I just think people ought to hear about that as well.”

***

Three months later, I’m riding on the back of a golf cart that Rogers is driving. I’m holding a PBR and we’re careening through the pasture of his stunningly beautiful southern Virginia farm. “Look down,” he says. “Now say something nice about my grass.”

“Nice grass,” I say, and I mean it. It’s been a good year, weather-wise, here in Patrick Springs, Virginia. In the foothills of the mountains the grass underneath us is thick and, to me, the color of heaven. This is my first trip back to the South since moving to L.A., and what I don’t say to Rogers is that all this green, all that vivid life-giving grass, is making me feel as though my heart might burst.

L.A. is nice. But it is not very green.

Rogers and his flock in Patrick Springs, Virginia.

The softly tumbling hills of the pasture are dotted with tents. In the distance, the Blue Ridge mountains rise, living up to their name in a blue-gray haze. Rogers owns 100 acres, but he farms close to 1,000. Unlike many other meat farmers who have become semi-celebrities in the food world (Will Harris, Bill Niman), Rogers does not sell meat produced on farms outside his own.

This is no ordinary day at the farm ”“ it’s the first day of Lambstock, Rogers’ annual party for chefs and “friends of the farm,” a three day bacchanal that’s achieved legendary status in the restaurant industry. Those tents in the field belong mainly to chefs and cooks, some of whom have traveled thousands of miles to spend a few days camped in Rogers’ sheep pasture.

I first heard about Lambstock from Mike Lata, the James Beard award-winning chef from Charleston. “It’s this party in a field,” he said, swirling whisky in his glass on the back landing of an Atlanta restaurant. “For chefs and cooks. We just get together and drink and cook and get to be ourselves. There’s no media there, just a bunch of guys hanging out. It’s so awesome.”

Rogers conceived of Lambstock as a thank you to the industry that supports him, and 2012 was the third year of what Rogers calls “a party in my backyard.”

“These guys work so hard,” he says, speaking of the chefs and cooks he supplies. “I wanted to give them a few days where they could just relax and be themselves.” That theme ”“ be yourself ”“ comes up a lot when people talk about Lambstock. These days, well-known chefs see a lot of each other at events and food festivals around the country, but there’s a sense that because of the public and media, chefs have to constantly be “on,” the face of their restaurants, salesmen for their cookbooks. Lambstock is a place where they can just come and hang out and have fun, drink, build fires, swear, and cook for each other.

In previous years, Rogers has been protective of Lambstock ”“ in 2011, a large sign was posted at the welcoming table in his driveway declaring that no tweets or articles were allowed without Rogers’ express permission. In 2012, he gave all that up, and as a result there was much more media attention given to Lambstock, including a fawning blog post on the New York Times dining blog. “I was trying to protect Lambstock in the past,” Rogers says. “I wanted the chefs to feel that they could come here and not be scrutinized. But they themselves were telling everyone what was happening here, so I thought ‘why bother?’” But still, Lambstock remains a party for the chefs, not an event for the public. It isn’t about promotion. Except, of course, for Craig Rogers.

***

At festivals, Rogers is a striking figure, six foot one, rotund in overalls, wearing a wide-brimmed hat, carrying a shepherd’s crook, and usually standing beside one of his lambs roasting on a spit. He would be almost comical if he weren’t so endearing and passionate. Rogers is fond of saying “I’m just a simple shepherd,” but of course this is a lie. He’s as complex as they come.

Rogers tending to his flock, shepherd's crook in hand.

Rogers was born in Vermont and had a great aunt who was a dairy farmer, but that was the extent of his agrarian background. His original career was in academics ”“ he has a Ph.D. in Chemical Engineering from Virginia Tech, and was the Dean of the College of Engineering at the University of South Carolina. Google Rogers with the right search terms and you’ll come across reports of research he championed to reduce helicopter noise and how, in the 80’s, he established something called the “Smart Materials and Structures Laboratory.” He says he and his wife were looking for a retirement farm when they saw a sheepdog trial on campus. “I thought it was the most amazing thing.”

Rogers is fond of saying ‘I’m just a simple shepherd,’ but of course this is a lie. He’s as complex as they come.

They bought the farm in 2002 and got into competitive sheepdog trials. “I noticed early on that the guy with the most sheep usually won. So I became a bit of a sheep herder. It got to the point where eventually I had to find something to do with them.”

Having traveled and dined quite a bit in his academic life, Rogers had always loved lamb. The first lamb he slaughtered, he says, “was the most horrific piece of meat I had ever had.” So he started researching breeds, trying to find out which lamb would taste the best. “I set out to find something I would enjoy. It didn’t have much to do with chefs.”

Once he finally got his lamb tasting the way he wanted it to, he tried to find a chef who might appreciate it. “I got it in my head that Bryan Voltaggio was the guy,” he says. It turns out he was right. Voltaggio introduced him to some other chefs, who introduced him to chefs in Charleston, who introduced him to Sean Brock, the chef at Charleston’s McCrady’s and one of the most feverishly adored young chefs in the country in recent years. “And for me, Sean Brock was like the parting of the Red Sea.”

Rogers has figured out what many farmers have yet to turn to their advantage: that America is preoccupied not just with food but with chef culture. Also unlike many other farmers, Rogers has learned to sell his own product. That sense of salesmanship has him befriending and selling directly to chefs, as well as working hard to get his name out there and promote his sheep farm, Border Springs, as a brand. He attends festivals, makes connections with journalists and food celebrities, throws parties, and is generally everywhere all the time. He stands as a symbol of the changing nature of farming, where farmers come out of the field and smack into the middle of our food-obsessed culture.

And he has no signs of slowing: he was recently part of a dinner at the James Beard house, an honor usually only bestowed on chefs or restaurateurs, not producers. He has hired executive chefs to help him build “lamb shops” in historic markets in D.C. and Philadelphia, next-generation butcher counters where meat from his farm is for sale alongside chef-driven to-go items. “People don’t know what to do with lamb,” he says. “You have to show them.” (He’s long been part of local farmers markets all over the South, usually traveling thousands of miles in a week to get from market to market – my mother has run across him on Saturday morning in Winston-Salem N.C. on the same weekend he’s been spotted by friends in D.C. and Baltimore.)

Rogers bottle feeds a lamb. 1
Rogers bottle feeds a lamb.
Rogers and a coworker head out into the fields. 2
Rogers and a coworker head out into the fields.
A sheepdog helps keep the flock together. 3
A sheepdog helps keep the flock together.
Rogers' crook isn't just a fashion accessory. 4
Rogers' crook isn't just a fashion accessory.
1
Rogers bottle feeds a lamb.
2
Rogers and a coworker head out into the fields.
3
A sheepdog helps keep the flock together.
4
Rogers' crook isn't just a fashion accessory.

Besides being everywhere and knowing everyone, he is now contemplating jumping into the restaurant business itself. A possible concept, location and business partners for a small restaurant in the D.C. area have arisen, and Rogers says he’s “considering the possibilities.”

People’s reactions in the food community to Rogers’ name vary from extreme affection to weary eye-rolls. “Why does he have to be at every damn thing?” one chef said to me recently. “It’s just too much.” There’s an irony here, that the people I’ve come across who distrust Rogers’ affection for attention are chefs – folks who have only very recently begun to enjoy the spoils of fame from what has traditionally been a blue collar profession. The problem with Rogers’ approach, as I see it, is that he’s too straightforward about his quest for notoriety. In the too-cool-for-school world of chef-dom, this is off-putting.

Rogers bristles at the notion that he’s “everywhere,” as more than one person has put it to me, or that he’s too much of a self-promoter. Sitting in a field surrounded by sheep, it’s hard to see him as anything but a guy trying to build a successful business. “Once people come out here to the farm, I stop getting calls from their restaurants asking for the shipping department,” he says, alluding to the fact that he’s the shipping, marketing, sales and lamb-birthing department. “I want these guys to see where their food comes from. I’m asking people to come enjoy my hospitality. I’m inviting you to a party in my back yard. Lambstock is about community, not self-promotion.”

***

On my last night in Atlanta before moving to Los Angeles, I attended a dinner that was part of the Atlanta Food & Wine Festival. It was held at a mansion in one of the city’s wealthiest neighborhoods, and as I pulled up the circular driveway I saw an odd sight. On the perfect green lawn in front of the castle-like house, a makeshift pen with six or seven sheep was set up. Rogers was standing beside them in full Scottish shepherd regalia: kilt, jacket, hat and shepherd’s crook.

Like so many culinary extravaganzas these days, the dinner was supposed to honor the farmers and producers who make all our fancy eating possible, or so goes the farm-to-table mantra. At the end of the multi-course, boozy meal, which took place under twinkling lights in the mansion’s manicured jewlbox of a garden, Rogers was invited to say a few words. He stood tall in his kilt, and in front of 200 or so of Atlanta’s (very tipsy) one percent, he launched into a 20-minute lecture on the history and misunderstanding of the shepherd.

‘It’s always been the disenfranchised who end up doing the shepherding work. We’ve never had the romance of cowboys.’

He’s talking about Thomas Jefferson (who brought the first Merino sheep to the Unites States). He’s talking about slaves (who looked after Jefferson’s sheep and moved out West during emancipation). He’s talking about the birth of Christ. “And when the angels came to the shepherds in the pastures to announce the coming of Christ to indicate that this was the good news for everyone, they were referred to as mere sheep herders!” Rogers is fired up. I don’t think many of us know what the hell he’s talking about.

At Lambstock, I ask him why he thought it was important to stand up in front of all those people and try to explain to them the struggle of the shepherd. He sighs. “Look, here’s the thing with the shepherd shtick,” he says. “Even today, shepherds out west do not wish to be called shepherds, it’s such a derogatory term. It’s always been the disenfranchised who end up doing the shepherding work. We’ve never had the romance of cowboys. If anyone were to actually take a look at the history of shepherding, and how horrible humankind had been to a single profession, and it’s generally because it’s been a profession of the displaced. So if you could learn somehow to create respect for shepherds then you could create respect for anyone. Cowboys have a voice. I don’t know who’s the voice for the shepherd. And I just think it’s an incredibly honorable profession. So if a bunch of rich people are going to eat my lamb and then offer me the stage? That’s what they’re going to hear.”

***

When you arrive at Lambstock and drive down the long shady driveway of Border Springs Farm, one of Rogers’ “volunteers” meets you with a golf cart to help transport your tent and belongings out to the field. Apparently word has gotten out that I’m a journalist working on a story, and one of his volunteers approaches me on a golf cart as I sit and watch the Lambstock guests arrive.

“That Craig. He sure likes to talk, don’t he?” the guy, who’s name is Steve Godfrey, says ominously. Godfrey’s farmer’s mustache conveys none of the irony of the ‘staches and mutton chops of the arriving chefs. “Come talk to me later and I’ll tell you about the real Craig Rogers.” Before I can answer, he’s driven off.

The juxtaposition of Godfrey and the chefs, some arriving with extra swagger on motorcycles, reminds me of something Rogers said to me once. “A lot of people in the food community talk a really good game. But it makes zero difference to the people living and farming in Patrick County, Virginia. I’d like to see those people’s lives changed for the better by this food movement.”

Later, I track Godfrey down and ask him to make good on his promise of an explanation of the real Craig Rogers.

“Four years ago today, the doctors decided they had to take my heart out and put it back together,” Godfrey says, at first quietly but then with a fierce edge. “Craig come down while I was in the hospital and looked after my livestock and tended to my wife and kids. When I came home, he came and stayed with me for a week. Cooked my lunch, helped me get dressed.” He pauses, to steady his voice. “That’s what kind of guy he really is,” Godfrey says.

He looks down and walks off. As he goes he calls out over his shoulder, “He still talks too damn much, though.”

(All images by Peter Taylor Photography, courtesy Border Springs Farm.)

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