Cisco co-founder speaks at Valley Health luncheon

Sandy Lerner, founder of Ayrshire Farm in Upperville, speaks during the Business at the Bloom event on Wednesday afternoon. Rich Cooley/Daily

Local Virginia business owner Sandy Lerner spoke about taking risks and local food systems during her speech at the Valley Health Business at The Bloom luncheon on Wednesday.

Lerner is best known as a co-founder of Cisco Systems, along with her ex-husband Len Bosack. More recently, though, the Stanford graduate’s work has been focused in the Northern Virginia area.

In 1996, after selling her stake and leaving Cisco, Lerner bought Ayrshire Farm in Upperville. She has owned Gentle Harvest, a Virginia-based company with one store in Marshall that sells locally produced organic food and produce.

Lerner’s talk focused on her upbringing, as well as what she is doing now at Gentle Harvest.

A daughter of two immigrants, Lerner grew up on a small farm in Northern California. This upbringing, she said, made her willing to take risks. In addition to running the farm, her relatives owned small businesses.

Derrick Schultz, of Winchester, joins the room full of lunch-goers at the Business at the Bloom event Thursday at the Tolley Dental Tent. Rich Cooley/Daily

“People don’t have any idea of how much risk” it takes to start a small business, she said.

Lerner also said that growing up on a farm made her work at an early age, something she continues to value.

“If I didn’t do it, it didn’t get done,” she said. “And usually, that meant something went hungry.”

More recently, that work has helped her in another way. It made her familiar with the agricultural economy, bringing her toward her work at Gentle Harvest.

During her talk, Lerner advertised Gentle Harvest as an alternative to what she views as the unethical and anti-competitive practices of large agricultural organizations.

“It is a simple fact that agriculture is the largest monopoly in the world,” she said.

Lerner described her company as providing a local, ethical alternative to the mass-produced food grown by large corporations. Her goal, she said, is to create a local “food system” in Virginia where everything — from planting seeds to butchering animals to shipping and selling produce — is done by local independent companies.

“For millennia, food systems were local, and for a very good reason,” she said.

Lerner said her company has started to create such a system in the local area. She bought a slaughterhouse so she could humanely slaughter animals. Food in Gentle Harvest is largely supplied by local companies, from Virginia wineries to a Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, dairy producer.

After Lerner gave her 20-minute speech, she opened the room to questions. People mostly asked questions about Lerner’s views and visions for agriculture in Virginia.

In that question and answer session, Lerner lamented the treatment “specialty agriculture” and small farms receive under Virginia law, saying that at one point the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services only had one person working part-time on specialty agriculture.

“Specialty agriculture,” Lerner said, includes organic farms.

Contact staff writer Max Lee at 540-465-5137 ext. 155, or mlee@nvdaily.com