This is the first installment of a new monthly column featuring producers of interest in the Washington area, with recipes that highlight their ingredients.
You could say there are two sides to Craig Rogers. In his plaid flannel shirt, corduroy jacket and outback hat at Washington food events, such as D.C. Central Kitchen’s Capital Food Fight or a media dinner at Bibiana, he’s Farmer Rogers, looking conspicuous among the gastroscenti who sup on his lamb, a favorite among many of Washington’s top chefs. But when he begins to speak, Doctor Rogers — the former college dean and patent-holding inventor with a PhD in mechanical engineering — comes through loud and clear.
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.