We feed off the energy of our partners – our community partners, our product partners, our farm partners. After all, we choose to work with them because they’re as obsessed with their craft as we are with ours. One of those partners: Border Springs Farm.
When it really comes down to it, we’re proud of our food and we believe in knowing where it’s coming from. And we believe you should know, too.
We recently started working with Border Springs Farm on a one-of-a-kind partnership. CAVA is the first fast-casual restaurant group to attempt something of this scope, and we’re now the largest customer for Craig Rogers, the dedicated shepherd of the premier-quality local lamb that comes out of Border Springs.
If you drive southwest away from DC, winding through the hills and valleys of the Shenandoah, making your way past spots like Harrisonburg or Roanoke or Blacksburg — if you keep going for a few hours of scenic beauty, eventually you’ll make your way to Patrick Springs, Virginia.
Patrick Springs is only about a half hour from North Carolina, in the part of Virginia that you didn’t even realize was still part of Virginia. And in Patrick Springs, Virginia, you’ll find Border Springs Farm.
Border Springs Farm is the place Craig Rogers calls home.
When we pulled into the drive at Craig’s farm, we were welcomed not by Craig, but by Mishka and Emma. Our welcome party came ambling over to the car doors, sniffing for snacks, hesitantly reaching their noses up to fit into our outstretched hands. This welcoming party had a lot more hair than we expected. These gentle giants were two of Craig’s dogs.
In a few minutes, Craig made his way up from the Lambstock Pavilion down the hill from his home, arms outstretched and a big smile on his face. We felt at home as Craig guided us down the hill to the covered pavilion, and we felt at home as Craig’s friends offered us early release local Virginia wine, and we felt at home as we learned that they had raised the chickens that provided the eggs for our spinach salad and had raised the goats that provided the goat cheese, too. We felt at home as we devoured the delicate ribs that Craig had smoked with applewood, just for us.
The sun sank low in the sky, and the wine switched to local cider and then back to wine again. We finished our meal with homemade orange sorbet, and our new friends kindly pointed us up the mountains to our accommodations for the evening. We wanted to get a full night’s rest, because we had a busy day to look forward to.
The sun rose slowly over the Blue Ridge Mountains, and the sky practically glowed blue on a perfect-weather day. Once again, we pulled into the drive at Border Springs Farm — but this time, there was another furry sentry waiting for us.
Craig’s top dog at his Border Springs business isn’t a human being. Meet Brit: She’s a nationally recognized sheep and cattle herding dog, with championships under her belt and a quiet twinkle in her eye.
“I could never do what I do without the dogs,” Craig told us. “They show up every day never once complaining. Actually, Brit sometimes complains about not having enough work to do.”
The very reason Craig fell into this unexpected career turn was because of the dogs.
“When I was thinking of retiring, we were making a decision on whether we would live at a country club or something — or on a farm. When I was a professor at Virginia Tech, I saw a sheepdog trial, like in the movie Babe, and I thought it was just the most amazing thing I had ever seen. I was just enamored.”
“Within three days of closing on this house, I had six sheep and a trained border collie.”
He doesn’t like to talk about it that much, but this is not Craig’s first profession. He boasts an impressive career in academia, with tenure as a collegiate dean and a Ph.D. under his belt. But he insists these credentials aren’t any good in this more recent venture. Actually, he says they can even hurt his cred.
Whatever passion he might once have showed for teaching and guiding young minds — it’s hard to believe he could ever have poured more passion into that venture than he does into his calling as a lamb shepherd. Sure, he’s analytical about his practices, and he’s strategic in his business decisions; but more than anything, he simply oozes passion. Passion for the state of the grass on his land. Passion for the flock of 2,000 sheep he has cultivated from that original six. Passion for his pal, Brit.
“This is the most fun thing I’ve ever done. This is what’s important to me.”
We make our way down the hill on one of the 1,000 acres that encompass Craig’s flock’s territory. He owns 100 of those acres and leases the rest.
We watch Brit do an outrun, whereby through a series of commands and whistles from Craig, Brit expertly dashes back and forth behind the nearby band of sheep, guiding them calmly into a group and directing them past the nearby pond into the tree cover, where they seek shade from the warm morning sun. Brit hops into that pond for a quick dip after the physical exertion. As we look across the water to the wooly gaggle of sheep, we notice a single white head peeking out of the pack panting a bit and looking slightly less top-heavy than his counterparts.
We’re pretty sure Ben thinks he’s a sheep. Rather, he’s a companion dog, Craig explains. These Border Springs employees aren’t trainable sheep dogs. They’re the protectors. Their task is to keep coyotes at bay.
“They will go and introduce themselves to all the sheep,” Craig says. “They want to know what they’re protecting.”
We’re just a few minutes’ walk from the barn where the youngest flock-members reside for the first few weeks of their lives. Craig notes that he averages about four ewes and their babies per acre of land, and that the swaths of land closest to the house are for breeding, lambing, and the infirmary — but they’re not the most commonly trafficked land for his crew.
He guides us through feeding the youngsters, and then Brit herds the band into a pen so he can prepare to check their tagging. We watch Ben go trundling into the pen along with the rest of his adopted family. We even learn so-called sheep jiu jitsu, Craig’s approach to inverting the sheep when he needs to shear them or trim their hooves. This might be a brief visit to Border Springs Farm, but we’re definitely getting a full scope of what goes into Craig’s passion and business.
You can tell this man has poured years of time and energy into learning his craft inside and out. He tells us that although the shepherd’s task is to take care of the flock, the true job is to care for each individual. He knows his sheep — their personalities, who was sick recently, who’s too much of an athlete and as such won’t make for the most tender meat.
Yes, this is a livestock farm and Craig’s in the business of providing the best lamb in the country to acclaimed chefs like Brian Voltaggio of DC, Richard Blais of Atlanta, Sean Brock of Charleston, and most recently, Dimitri Moshovitis of CAVA. Craig’s in the business of raising the absolute best breeds and hybrid breeds of lamb. He’s in the business of optimizing the seasons in which the ewes birth their offspring, and he’s always thinking about that coveted two-lambs-per-ewe ratio.
But this is about more than the best lamb on the East Coast.
Each and every animal on this farm has its own story. In addition to the dogs, there are cats. There are horses. There’s a donkey, Marshall, who “was supposed to protect the sheep, but fell in love with the horses.”
Craig knows this enterprise he has built is a business. And it’s a business that he’s very good at. But this is also about love for the animals, and you can quite simply hear it in his voice.
As we made our way back up the hill toward our car, readying ourselves for the six-hour drive back to DC after a less-than-24-hour introduction to the business of raising sheep, we asked Craig to share his favorite spot on the farm. He said first, that he loves whichever field has lambs being born.
But second, and most importantly:
“It’s where I was when you all showed up this morning. I’ll go out and sit in the field over that hilltop, because I get to look out over the mountains, and the sheep are normally down at the bottom or over the hill. I’ll have a cup of coffee (or a cold beer in the afternoon), and I’ll just watch.”
And as we pulled out of the driveway after saying our goodbyes, we saw Craig hop on his bike, with Brit by his side — and we watched him set out for that favorite hilltop once again.