As thunder rumbled in the distance and gray clouds formed over Trey Lewis' small farm in northern Baltimore County yesterday, he led two visitors to a field enclosed by an electric fence. On the other side sat a baby bison, not more than 40 pounds, with fluffy reddish-brown hair.
Several adult bison roamed around it. Upon hearing footsteps, the beasts glanced over and then galloped into a forest, where they stayed until the visitors made their way back up a hill and into Lewis' store.
"Sometimes if you get too close to them, they'll start pawing the ground, stomping their feet," Lewis said. If the visitor's not given to subtlety, he warns, the bison will often charge.
Lewis is inviting the public to come out to see the newest members of the herd. Visitors are likely to find the nine calves, all born within the past five weeks, adorable.
The baby bison may give the place the look of a petting zoo. But they are living on borrowed time.
In 18 months, they'll be rounded up into a trailer and shipped to a butcher in rural Pennsylvania.
Lewis, 25, opened the Gunpowder Bison and Trading Co. in January. He has more than 40 bison on his 70-acre farm in Monkton, where he recently converted a chicken house into a store that sells bison meat, toy bison stuffed animals, bison picture books and even bison-themed chocolate candy.
Bison - a North American species commonly called buffalo - aren't new to Baltimore County. Morris Meadows Recreation Farm in Freeland raises bison and sells the meat. And a herd of county bison gained international fame last year when they escaped, disrupted rush-hour traffic and roamed through the upscale neighborhoods of Green Spring Valley before being corralled in a tennis court by county police. The image of one bison leaping over the net was seen again and again on televisions from coast to coast.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture counted 27 bison farms in Maryland in its 2002 census.
Last year, a record 35,000 bison were processed under federal inspection, and that number is on pace to increase by 20 percent this year, said Dave Carter, executive director of the National Bison Association in Colorado.
Bison meat tastes much like beef, a little sweeter, but is leaner and lower in cholesterol. According to the USDA, a 100-gram serving of bison has 143 calories and 2.42 grams of fat, compared to 190 calories and 7.41 grams of fat for chicken, and 211 calories and 9.28 grams of fat for beef.
"Bison is really a part of the old health and wellness movement," Carter said. "People are increasingly realizing how long they live and how well they live is directly tied to what they're eating, and bison is becoming very well recognized for its nutritional attributes."
"People also see bison as a natural meat," he added - without the chemicals used to process beef.
Lewis, whose store is open Thursday through Sunday, said he typically serves 50 to 100 customers a week.
One of Lewis' newest customers is Padonia Station, a sports bar that began offering bison burgers on its "health" menu a couple years ago. The burgers have been so popular that the restaurant plans to start offering sliced barbecue brisket, said general manager Larry Leonardi.
"We've been running it a lot as a special. But they're selling so well, it's going to be a permanent menu item," Leonardi said. "I've talked to people who are skeptical. I say, 'Try it.' Nobody's ever come back and said they didn't like the flavor of it."
This week, the folks at Gunpowder Bison and Trading Co. sent out word that visitors should come out to the farm, off Monkton Road, and take a look at the first bison born there.
"They're cute and cuddly," said Angela Weishaar, Lewis' girlfriend, who helps him run the business. "But Mommy and Daddy don't want you near them."
Sun reporter Liz F. Kay contributed to this article.