The University of Maryland Extension talked with Shane Hughes, farmer and owner of Liberty Delight Farms, to learn more about livestock farming in Maryland. Liberty Delight Farms is an all natural meat producer in Reisterstown, Baltimore County.
Q: Thank you for speaking with the Beginning Farmer Success Program. When did you start farming and how long has Liberty Delight Farms been in business?
A: This land has been in my family for generations. On my dad’s side, my grandmother was born on the land, and her parents and my cousins who sold me the land. This land was originally a land grant from King George, there is a lot of history here, and the land served as a livelihood for my family’s earlier generations. However, over time farming was not a full-time job for them. I grew up on another farm in Carroll County. But, I left, went to college, got an accounting degree, and worked in the corporate world for about 19 years. When my cousins decided to sell it, I told them I wanted to buy it and have a farm. At the time, I did not think it would become Liberty Delight Farms. I just liked the space and raising a few cattle, but I had no intention of making farming my full-time job.
When the financial crisis hit in 2008, I worked in finance at Legg Mason. I realized I was done with the corporate rat race and needed a year to figure out what was next. So, I told my boss I would take a year off and play on my farm. At that time, I had about 15 head of cattle for breeding Simmental cattle and selling them. Now 14 years later, I have 300 head of cattle. Liberty Delight farms finishes about 200 hogs a year and 400 chickens a month, and we raise rabbits. Farming is my full-time job.
Q: How many acres is in operation?
A: The main farm is just under 100 acres, and is dedicated to pasture, woods, and buildings for the animals. I lease another 600 acres where we raise the majority of our animal feed.
Q: What do you feed your animals?
A: The pigs and chickens have a grain-based diet, but the cattle are primarily grass-fed. We raise a lot of alfalfa and mixed grasses. Orchard grass is the primary feed grass. From start to finish, our steers and heifers get about four to five percent of grain in their diet. We do wet baling, high moisture bales, dry bales; you name it. We operate according to organic principles. However, we are not certified organic. I made that decision when I started. The bureaucracy was not worth it for me personally. Our clients know our animals don't get antibiotics, hormones, or growth stimulants. If an animal gets sick, we will treat it, but there is no daily routine use of antibiotics or grafting. Our feed is all natural and raised on the farm with minimal chemical fertilizer. In fact, the animals generate enough natural fertilizer to use on our crop grounds.
Q: How do you manage nutrients from animal manure?
A: We have covered barn structures to stockpile the manure. The state and nutrient management program requires us to stockpile manure from December through February. In the winter, waste accumulates because animals tend to spend most of their time inside, away from the cold, so it is necessary to have sufficient space to stockpile it. When the ground is ready for crops in March, we start dispersing the manure on the ground for natural fertilizer. With 600 acres, we have enough land to sufficiently spread the manure each year and continue spreading as it accumulates from March through November. That is basically our nutrient management program. Each year you have to write out and resubmit your plan.
Q:What resources or programs have been beneficial to your farm’s management plan?
A: We have worked with the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS). They helped us build the barns. These two big barns you see out here, one for feeding and the other for manure stockpiles were financed through their cost-share programs.
Q:Conservation practices are becoming increasingly more important for Agriculture. Are there best management practices that you've adopted through the years?
A: Yes. Working with NRCS, we fenced off the streams to keep the cattle out. I have about six different pastures where I can rotate cattle. All the pastures share or have access to natural flowing streams. We have two areas where we divert the stream water into the pastures. The water is piped underground and comes up into a big round concrete drinking trough and then overflows into the stream. Stream water is good for cattle because there are many natural vitamins, minerals, and iron in the water nature provides. Even in the winter, as long as there is a constant flow of water, it doesn't freeze. The cattle have stream crossings where they can drink directly from the flowing water, but those areas are graded and have concrete slabs under them, so the cattle are not causing erosion. We have Liberty Reservoir right down the hill, so I'm under a microscope to ensure that the nutrients aren't entering the watershed and the reservoir 200 yards away. We were fortunate to have employees with construction backgrounds allowing us to build everything ourselves, but cost-share programs have been very beneficial in implementing conservation and nutrient management infrastructure.
In our newsletter, we highlight county, state and federal resources for farmers, so it is always nice to speak to farmers who have had firsthand experience with these programs.
A quick story. When I was starting, our experience raising cows was old school, and the farm was small and not on anyone's radar. It was a beautiful sunny late winter day, so I decided to spread manure. A couple of days later, I got a knock on the door. Somebody turned me into the state! That is how I learned that you couldn't just spread manure as you like. There are rules and regulations, and you need to stockpile. I'm like, well, where am I going to do that? So that's how I got turned on to the cost share program. So the gentleman from NRCS came in and told me about programs where they help you build a barn and storage area. That got the ball rolling. As I continued to grow and acquire more animals, I would call up and say hey, I need another barn! To have somebody from the state and the USDA come out and see what's going on and help you identify what you need and the different programs available is invaluable. This stuff is expensive, you still have to pay taxes on it, but you do not have to foot the entire bill.
Q: It sounds like with conservation guidance, best management practices, using manure to replace chemical fertilizers and local feed production you have been able to reduce your farm's environmental impact.
A: Yes, we take care of the animals so they can take care of the land. The carbon footprint is very low. Our meat travels less than 50 miles in its lifetime. Animals are born and raised here on the farm, go to a local slaughterhouse, come back and go to markets throughout Maryland, DC, and Northern VA. Commercial beef might be sold in Texas, shipped to Kansas to get raised, then to Montana to get slaughtered before returning to Kansas for packaging and distribution. It just goes all over the place before it reaches the table.
Q: How do you address challenges with the limited slaughter facilities for small scale livestock production?
A: It's frustrating. I've been doing this for 14 years; when my first few animals were ready to be processed, I called around, and there were waiting lists four and five months out. Luckily a couple of weeks later, I did get a phone call from a butcher shop with a cancellation and was able to get them in, which was necessary because the animals were getting bigger and fatter. I am very fortunate because this particular butcher shop is a small family-owned shop, and I built a solid relationship with them. As my business started growing, I was able to help their business grow. Before you knew it, I could get a slot with them weekly. I'm probably half of their business. I am already scheduled through 2023, and they are booked solid.
But it is a challenge for all farmers, especially during COVID there were even more limitations. I'd open my own butcher shop if I were ten years younger. I'm not going to, but there is a huge need for that, especially for small local producers. I hear stories from guys down in southern Maryland that drive two and three hours one way to get an animal processed. It is time-consuming and costly. I advise beginning farmers to seek out the smaller family-run butcher shops and develop relationships with them.
The other frustration for small producers is that even small butcher shops have the same regulations as large commercial slaughterhouses. As small producers, we have to fit into a system that doesn't always apply at a small local level. For instance, while unloading at the butcher shop, an animal got spooked and jumped on top of a steer, causing him to break his leg. A perfectly healthy animal was 15 feet away from the butcher shop, and they couldn't process him for meat. One animal loss is a hit for a small farmer and a huge food waste. That doesn't happen much, and I know they got a job to do, but it is frustrating.
Now we process the rabbits on site. I have a poultry and rabbit processing, license from the Maryland Department of Agriculture for food quality assurance. I had to take the class, pass the test, and have an asset plan to be able to process on the farm.
Q: Who is your target client and how does your business get its product services into customer's hands?
A: Prior to Lauren, my wife coming on board, I had a generic website, and my business was basically word of mouth. I got into a few restaurants, and people would get introduced to our meats, find us at the farmers' markets, and buy our products to cook at home. Then I met Lauren, and we got married, and her background was in advertising, so I asked her to come on board. I needed help running the business; she blew everything up with social media, advertising, and radio. We flyer at the markets, have a mailing list and have 4000 followers on Facebook. We send out blasts all the time. Pre- covid we had events at the farm. But the farmers' markets are our opportunity to talk with our clients. For home delivery, we target zip codes where families eat at home. We are not trying to target the 20-somethings living in condos and ordering in. They're not interested in buying steaks and chicken and fixing it. We also consider this when deciding what farmers' markets to do. That works well for us.
Q: So what do you think keeps customers coming back?
A: Our quality and customer service. We're not the cheapest guy in town, and I don't want to be. Besides having a good product, I tell my employees that work in the farmers' markets that they are an extension of Liberty Delight Farms. It is not really a sales position because people who go to farmers' markets are there because they want to be. Still, it is a customer service position because most of our farmers market business is 60% to 70% repeat business. So they're there because they trust us and know the quality of our products. And now, with rising costs, we hear that we are sometimes cheaper than the grocery store. But we have had to raise our prices too due to inflation. But it's good to know we are not way more expensive.
The trend for local food and reducing food’s carbon footprint has been a huge advantage. Fifteen years ago, that was just gaining ground. With the publicity of how animals were treated in feedlots, the growth hormones, and the environmental impact, local farmers gained support as it started to become more public. When I started, I would let restaurants know I had a farm, but why would they buy from me if they could go to Sysco and get ground beef for $0.50 a pound? But then the restaurants started latching on to the movement toward local. So I was able to ride that wave without having to do a lot on my own. I got hooked up with Woodberry Kitchen in Baltimore, and that was a huge success because his restaurant was starting, and that whole concept was just taking off.
That was an excellent growth opportunity. We grew together in that aspect. I attribute it to a big chunk of the success here and getting the word out. Spike, the owner, had great publicity and had a great product, and did a great thing. You have to have some luck, but with hard work, dedication and commitment, you'll get some good breaks along the way too.
Q:How many people are on your team?
A: I have about nine full time on payroll. About seven to nine part time working the markets. There are only two of us, including myself, doing the farm work and the animal work. When we start doing heavy field work and bailing hay, I have a guy that I can call to work. Lauren runs all the marketing and sales with another full time marketing person, and there are about four people working in the warehouse, packing and inventory control. We have delivery drivers five days a week. We have grown from me doing everything, of course when I was doing everything I had 20 animals and sold them at two farmers markets. It didn’t happen overnight.
Q: Do you have any advice for farmers just getting started?
A: With my accounting and business background, I have audited small businesses and seen people run family businesses into the ground by living above their means. As a young farmer starting, you have to invest the money you make back into the business. When money starts coming in, you can't go on fancy vacations, buy a new truck, or go out to eat every night. To be successful, you have to grow your business and use that money to upgrade. I started with tractors that I didn't know would even start in the morning. But you slowly improve. You can't expect to go out from day one and have all brand-new stuff.
Also, you can have the best product in the world, but no one will know if you're not publicizing it. Part of reinvesting in the business is having a marketing budget. Spend money on advertising and take the time to talk to your customers. As the owner, you have to be the face of your business.
Q: What is your favorite thing about farming?
A: I love the animals. I am partial to the cows, though. My grandfather and uncle had a farm when I was a small boy. We would go over there all the time. A calf was born, and I told my grandfather I wanted to raise the calf. Now my grandfather was a big guy. I remember he spits his tobacco out, takes his hat off, and says, "Boy! If you're going to take care of that calf, you better raise him and take care of him like you want to be treated". Well, I like to eat and be warm, comfortable, and cool, so that stuck with me. Now I want to farm as long as I can, but when it is time to retire, this will make an excellent farm for young farmers just starting out.
Thank you for speaking with the University of Maryland Extension Beginning Farmer Success Program and sharing your farming story and best practices with our readers. I want to add that Lauren launched an onsite market in 2020. The market carries Liberty Delight Farms meats, eggs, value-added products, including jerky, dog food, and treats, and a diversity of products from LGBTQ, women, and minority-owned farms and businesses across Maryland. The market offers an excellent opportunity to learn about and support local businesses and enjoy time on the farm.
Shane is a Baltimore County Farm Bureau board member and Treasurer of the Maryland Simmental Association. You can find out more about Liberty Delight Farms at https://www.libertydelightfarms.com.