It's a June afternoon as Shane Hughes, dressed in jeans and a lived-in-looking white T-shirt bearing the logo of his cattle farm, Liberty Delight, and the slogan "All Natural Beef," collars a 6-month-old male calf.
"This is Rockstar — I usually name 'em all," Hughes said, to the delight of his guests — Spike Gjerde, celebrated chef and owner of the popular Baltimore eatery Woodberry Kitchen, and about a half-dozen of Gjerde's staffers.
"You guys may end up with Rockstar at Woodberry Kitchen in about two years," Hughes told Gjerde, one of his oldest and most reliable customers.
"This little guy has had a rough life," he added.
"It was a hard birth for Rockstar's mom," he said. . "She ended up paralyzed, and unfortunately she died. When we found him he wasn't in real good shape himself. But we nursed him back to health, though he's still got a bad abrasion on his shoulder where one of the steers stepped on him. Fortunately that's healing up. I'm bottle-feeding him twice a day. He'll be OK. He's a tough guy."
Spike Gjerde, previously of Spike & Charlie's (which he ran with his brother) and the former Joy America Cafe at Baltimore's American Visionary Art Museum, is one of the Baltimore area's most respected and influential chefs.
The reason he and his employees are out at Liberty Delight Farms in western Baltimore County and traipsing around on a sweltering Thursday afternoon, dodging cow pies, is to get a lesson in sustainability, which is a guiding principal at both Woodberry Kitchen and Liberty Delight.
"Ultimately, one of the reasons for you guys to be here is to see what it takes to raise the best beef," Gjerde tells his crew. "So much goes into what Shane does. I hope you won't leave here without a sense of whenever beef is on our menu, you'll know where it came from and all the work that went into raising it."
Gjerde believes in buying from local producers like Hughes, not only because it's an environmentally sound practice, but also because it provides the best product.
If you ask him where's the beef, or at least where's the best all-natural, additive-, steroid-, antibiotic-free beef, Gjerde will provide a short list of farms that includes Liberty Delight.
"Shane is a guy who's really doing it right, and every time I come out here and and talk to him I get fired up," said Gjerde, who met Hughes several years ago at a Maryland Department of Agriculture grower-buyer conference, and has been buying beef from him since. "And generally, I think the flavor of his beef is amazing.
"He's right up there among the best beef providers in the area, and there's no better way for these guys running my coffeehouse to learn that same sense and philosophy that he has and that we have at the restaurant," Gjerde said.
Gjerde is not alone in his appreciation of Liberty Delight's Maryland- and Baltimore County-grown products.They run the gamut from filet mignon, brisket and beef jerky to ham, bacon, bratwurst, baby back ribs, and also Liberty Delight's own line of dog food and dog treats made from the meaty, chemical-free leftovers.
Woodberry Kitchen is one of Liberty Delight's eight restaurant customers. The list includes Dogwood Restaurant and Baltimore Burgers in Hampden, Martha & Mary's restaurant in Reisterstown, three area private schools — McDonogh, the Notre Dame of Maryland University and Garrison Forest — as well as Union Hospital, in Elkton.
"I'm getting calls these days from restaurants through word of mouth," said Hughes, 44, an accountant-turned-farmer. "I'm not doing any cold calling like I used to."
Hughes also does a brisk business on weekends at Baltimore's Waverly Market, at farmers markets in Rockville and Bethesda and through his website, http://www.libertydelightfarms.com http://www.libertydelightfarms.com.
Trend toward natural foods
Hughes and Gjerde are on the cutting edge of a movement that has gained momentum in recent years due to salmonella outbreaks, inhumane conditions in farm-factory slaughter houses , and the piublic's preference for non-chemically enhanced foods.
Fuel — or rather, fat — has been added to the fire by recent documentary films such "King Corn," "Supersize Me," "Million Calorie March" and "Food, Inc." that sometimes tell us more about our food supply chains than we perhaps care to know.
Hughes sees himself as a grassroots alternative to the Perdues, Smithfields, Monsantos and Tysons of the world. He has a favorite saying: If you put a fence around something you better treat it right, and feed it right.