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.
"The animals here are treated very humanely," he said. "We don't pen 'em up or keep 'em confined in a 5-by-5 box or make them live on concrete. They have lots of room to roam around and exercise and just hang out.
"And they are strictly eating what Mother Nature intended them to eat. I feed 'em well, no hormones, antibiotics and I use very minimal fertilizer and spray on the crops they eat," said Hughes, who raises his own corn and hay on Liberty Delight's 80 acres and the 300 additional nearby acres that he leases.
With that, Hughes clapped his hands. "C'mon boys! C'mon, boys! Let's eat!"
A dozen or so 1,300-pound steers came up a stony pasture slope.
"That's Uno; he's my pet, he's No. 1," Hughes said. "It's gonna be hard when the time comes to get rid of him."
"All our cattle are raised here locally," Hughes said. . "We use a local butcher shop and our end users are local. It's usually a very minimal distance — about 30 miles — that one of these steers travels from the day he's born till the day he ends up on somebody's plate. Their food is also raised locally, which is good and green and has a minimal impact on the environment."
That's exactly how the "4.4-Mile Burger" on the menu at the Harryman House, in nearby Reisterstown, got its name. That's how far it is from Liberty Delight to the restaurant, which often offers special entrees based on various cuts of Hughes' beef.
"The flavor itself definitely sets it apart, as well as the juices in the burger," Thomas Casey, chef at Harryman House, said of his 4.4-Mile Burger.
"Our restaurant has been here for 25 years, so it's a balance we have to meet," said Casey, who also buys meat and poultry from local businesses, including Farmer Tom's in Reisterstown and Ferguson Family Farm in Parkton.
"We have customers who come in looking for a price point or looking for Harryman House staples. Then we have customers who are looking for locally grown things and some more innovative things."
There are two reasons why more farmers haven't made the transition into the organic, no-additives niche — time and money. Farming the chemical-free way is labor intensive and entails considerably more overhead.
For instance, Hughes said poultry factory-farms like Perdue can raise a 4-pound, market-ready frying chicken in 38 days by keeping them tightly confined and stocking them with growth stimulants. It takes Hughes about 60 days to raise the same chicken on a chemical-free regimen. That's 22 additional days that Hughes's chickens have to be fed and cared for.
Back to his roots
Hughes has a rugged look that comes from spending long days outdoors. But up until a few years ago, he earned a living working with spreadsheets and computers in an air-conditioned office.
He was born and raised in the Taneytown area of northern Carroll County and spent most of his spare time working on his uncle's farm.
Back then, his uncle and his grandfather would tell him, "You can take the boy out of the country, but you can't take the country out of the boy."
But after graduating from Francis Scott Key High 1986, he headed for Salisbury State University on the Eastern Shore, where he majored in accounting.
"I wanted a real job, where I could sit in the air conditioning all day," Hughes said.
After graduation, he spent seven years working as an accountant, then moved to Legg-Mason where he spent 13 years in financial services and ended up living in Annapolis.
Around that time, he realized his grandfather and uncle were right. But there was no going back to his uncle's farm; it had been sold. Fortunately, one of Hughes's elderly cousins still owned a farm near Reisterstown close to Liberty Reservoir. That farm eventually became Liberty Delight.
While still at Legg-Mason, Hughes and his then-wife bought a lot on his cousin's farm and built a 7,000-square-foot mini-mansion and moved in. He wanted to get back to his roots and began raising beef cattle as a hobby.
"The last couple years at Legg Mason just got to be a real rat race and headache," he recalled. "So around 2008, when the markets got real bad, I started ramping up the cattle. By then I felt like I was done with the corporate world and the corporate world was done with me. I was offered a severance package and I took it."
That's when he began farming full-time. Single again, he rented out the mini-mansion, and moved into a small nearby farmhouse with his cousin.
With no background in sales , he began marketing his beef. He made cold calls to local restaurants. He contacted area farmers markets. He set up a website. He started going to Maryland Department of Agriculture-sponsored buyer-grower conferences, like the one where he met Spike Gjerde.
When he was a boy working on his uncle's farm one of the things Hughes liked least was that the work never ended. Now, it's the same at Liberty Delight. The chores — baling hay, planting and harvesting corn, grinding feed, building fences, fixing equipment, feeding his steers, hogs and chickens, and overseeing the construction of a massive new barn — seem to require more hours than there are in a day. Saturdays and Sundays are long days, too, when Hughes is up and out the door by 5 a.m. on his way to the farmers markets.
"I enjoy the freedom and the lifestyle and being outside all day, whether it's 100 degrees in July or 10 degrees and snowing in January," he said.
"And I really like it when somebody comes up to me at a farmer's market and says, 'That steak I bought from you last week was the best I've ever had,' " he added with a grin as he headed off to spend the rest of the afternoon baling hay. "There's nothing better than that."
For more on Liberty Delight Farms, go to http://www.libertydelightfarms.com