Offroad with Sandy Lerner (Gentlewoman Farmers, Part 1)

“I am not someone who gets stuck in the rut,” Sandy Lerner had told me as we talked about the impressive range of her interests and activities during a drive across her farm – from computer programming to novel writing to organic farming. But then the former cofounder of Cisco Systems forced her four wheel drive off the road into a field. And here we were: the gentlewoman farmer, a reporter and a photographer – stuck in the rut.

But Sandy Lerner would not be Sandy Lerner if she could not pull herself out of this mess. She shifted gears, let the wheels spin and steered the car backwards, inch by inch. Minutes later we were back on track, continuing our interview for Business Punk, and driving past pastures with heritage breed horses and pigs, towards her farm house across from the barn building she uses as a silversmith studio.

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© 2014 Kate Warren

The 59 year old former tech entrepreneur belongs to what the Wall Street Journal has dubbed a new generation of “gentleman farmers”. Sandy Lerner was included in the article’s list of “the rich and famous trying their hand at (what else?) organic farming” – from the TV entertainer Oprah Winfrey growing kale and carrots in Hawaii, to George Malkemus, president of designer shoe brand Manolo Blahnik, who co-owns a dairy farm in Connecticut with his vice president.

This much is certain: Ms. Lerner’s Ayrshire Farm has left a mark in Northern Virginia. Visitors can buy meat and produce at her Home Farm Store in Middleburg, and Sandy Lerner also owns the Hunter’s Head Tavern in Upperville which offers a delicious farm-to-table menu and a European style beer garden atmosphere.

What makes Sandy Lerner’s rural life stand out is that she is driven by more than a vision of a healthy planet and a healthy diet. She may have made her fortune in inventing the future of modern communication. But if she could travel back in time, she would leave the time capsule in England in the 19th century, right before the industrial revolution.

With its rolling hills and sprawling estates, the Virginia landscape has a British flair. And once you enter Sandy Lerner’s world, drinking Early Gray tea between the copper pots and pans in her cozy kitchen, where one of her furry cats is taking a lazy morning nap, you might feel transported to the film set for a Jane Austen novel. Kate Warren captured the atmosphere in her detail loving photography.

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© 2014 Kate Warren

The setting is no coincidence: Not only has Ms. Lerner read “Pride and Prejudice” more than 100 times in her life, but she authored a sequel to the book, which Austen connoisseurs credited with having hit the exact right tone and style. For “Second Impressions” she used the pen name Ava Farmer. Wonder what that means? Try “A Virginia (VA) farmer”.

Why Jane Austen? She was a creative and intelligent woman stuck in a man’s world. Just like Ms. Lerner when she started out in the tech industry – which she will tell you was quite a macho business back in the 1980s. To this day she shows up on panels giving women advise on how to stand their own ground in a venture capital driven start-up world.

Sandy Lerner’s own ambitions are a lot less abstract these days: “I want to grow wheat, oat and barley and harvest, grind and cook it on the same day,” she told me as we stood in front of the open hearth in her living room. “That’s my goal.”

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