All beef, no bull
Dr. David Baird’s raising cattle right in the ACE Basin
Even if you’ve never been to Plum Hill, I’d bet you can see it in your mind’s eye.
Take the long, straight stretch of Highway 17 south, past Red Top and Ravenel, even past tiny Jacksonboro — once, ever so briefly, the capital of South Carolina, but now little more than a wide spot in the road.
You’re now in the heart of the ACE Basin, nearly 550 square miles of abandoned rice fields, august hardwood forest and shimmering wetlands. This wild land was diked and leveed in the antebellum produce to produce countless bushels of rice, rice that made the Lowcountry unfathomably rich; it was where Harriet Tubman, all five feet of her, led the way through pluff mud and changing tides, becoming the only woman to lead a military operation during the War Between the States. All around is the famous story of Southern land saved by Northern money, plantations made valuable for sporting use by wealthy Northern businessmen in the late 19th and early 20th century, recognized for their natural allure first, then for their ecological importance in the late 20th century, and so vigorously protected and preserved today.
Its oak trees and tidal waters are a setting that’s so thoroughly and majestically marked with the beauty of our region that you might pick it as your backdrop if you were filming a movie set in our sunny South. Indeed, that’s exactly what Robert Zemekis did when making the blockbuster “Forrest Gump”; much of the title character’s “Alabama” childhood was filmed nearby; the famed “Forrest and Jenny” oak tree can even be seen just before you turn down Plum Hill’s driveway.
But we’re not here because of Hollywood or even the copious charms of the ACE Basin. We’re here for something much more special.
An older couple sits on the back of a side-by-side ATV, chatting with a fellow in orange Clemson ballcap as I pull up. My arrival marks their departure and they head off with a friendly wave. I later find out the couple are Harry and Jane Gregorie; while land has been subdivided among family members, protected in conservation grants and the like, I think it’s safe to say this is “their place” — at least by Locke’s argument of property rights belonging to those who work the land, as Jane (in her 80s), rake in hand, didn’t rest for a minute of my stay.
Dr. David Baird — the gent in the Tiger hat — is no slouch either. If I asked you to gin him up in your mind’s eye, I bet you could do that, too: Work boots, blue jeans, a dark checked shirt worn untucked. Though a general surgeon at Roper Hospital, he looks perfectly at home here in the country. That makes sense, as Baird was raised on a farm in the Pee Dee, near Darlington, and his love for what he does at Plum Hill is as natural as breathing and apparent as the Spanish moss swaying from the trees above.
This is where he raises his cattle.
We live in a nation where meat, beef in particular, is everywhere. The average American man eats just shy of five ounces of meat a day; the average woman well over three. Average annual beef consumption is a mind-blowing 55 pounds a year: One national publication recently declared we are living in “the golden age of meat.”
But just as most of us live at a great distance, physically and mentally, from our farmers, so to do we rarely spare a thought for our cattleman. Michael Pollan put it all so well in his bestselling The Omnivore’s Dilemma; feedlot cattle, raised on cheap corn and a slurry of antibiotics, live terrible lives and, in turn, provide an unhealthful product (albeit at a reasonable cost). Even animals that are Whole Foods-bound are often not substantially better off and require preposterously long supply chains to reach our plates.
Walking down the oak-lined drive, Baird notes the deficiencies of most of the beef people consume, in the terms any good doctor might — grain-fed beef is full heart-disease inducing saturated fats and offers scant vitamin and mineral content. Grass-fed cattle — the kind gently lowing nearby as we chat — are the opposite. Grazing at their own pace on bahia and rye, kept as a closed herd to avert any need for antibiotics, and generally living as cows should, makes not just for beautiful, pleasant cows, but for superior beef as well.
Lean, full of Omega-three fats — the good kind — and rich in vitamins, beef as Dr. Baird raises it is cow as its meant to be — a healthy part of one’s diet, that can be consumed without the ethical quandaries that arise when we think a little harder about our dollar-menu value burger than old Ronald McDonald might want us to.
A little time spent with David Baird — and his fantastic assistant, sometimes as a nurse at the hospital and sometimes, like today, as beef-brand-ambassador/business maven, Terri Whalen — is a good reminder of how people have traditionally, and should still optimally, approach their food. Baird not only grew up on a farm, but he and his wife, Dr. Becky Baird, wanted their four children to do the same. In the early 1990s he purchased 280 acres near Rantowles — named Live Oak — in part to ensure that the hard work and important values and lessons that come with farm life were imparted to his own progeny.
For what it is worth, Terri has no shortage of stories about how each of the four are a success, even if they might not have treasured the tough lessons of rural life as they were learning them. David, with a thin smile that seems to bubble up from some memory of his own youth, offers “no one loves living on a farm until they’re a bit older.”
Standing in the near-silence of Plum Hill’s 944 acres, with beautiful Angus cattle on either side of me and the Combahee River twisting and shining a few hundred yards away, one can reflect clearly and quickly. Baird’s cattle business — all these cows, descendants of the first tiny herd at Live Oak — connects clearly to that same reasoning that drives two successful doctors to raise their children, quite counter-culturally, in the country. Baird is doing the right thing, because it is the right thing to do.
There’s no crew of farm hands; there’s the family. (Plus Terri, though she’s quick to point out her work with the cows is decidedly not hands on. Perhaps this has to do with her Gamecock loyalties, we gently tease.) With only one of the four children at home, most duties are on Dr. Baird; he handles them with a sharp brain, strong and steady surgeon’s hands and three John Deere tractors at the ready. “Amazing what one person can do with the right equipment,” he says.
I have no memory of where it came from, but there’s an old line that’s long stuck with me: “A man who works with his hands is a laborer. A man who works with his hands and his head is a craftsman. A man who works with his hands, his head and his heart — no matter what his profession — is an artist.”
It comes to mind talking with David. From seeding the rye that’ll soon be their forage to setting up the fence wiring, his hands are hard at work out here. As for his mind, when the conversation twists to a recent vacation he enjoyed in France — a place where grass-fed cattle are the norm — he notes how the French have better practices for overwinter feeding, a method he’s adopted for his own cows. Intelligent improvement — plus more free time — allow the herd to grow, even with fewer hands to help.
As for heart? I ask him about getting on the other side of the fencing to take a few photos of him with the cows. In no time, he is seated on the ground, the young cattle surrounding him in a semicircle, their bovine expressions seemingly looking upon him like blissful followers of some Eastern mystic. A little later, as he points at cows dozens of yards away and relates some interesting fact or funny anecdote about the individual creature, I ask him directly — “If somehow, some morning, all these cows were missing their numbered ear tags, how many would you know exactly who are?”
Another thin, almost sheepish, smile. “Oh, probably most of them.”
Diners report this artisanship to be apparent in the product on the plate too; even by the rarified standards all cattle here meet, only the best of his beef becomes steaks, all expertly processed here in the area by Michael Cordray.
Here in the South Carolina Lowcountry, citizens understand the importance of our natural heritage, which is why organizations like the Lowcountry Land Trust (which has been instrumental in the long-term protection of Plum Hill) are so important. So too should we recall the importance of long-standing foodways, methods and scales of farming that are divorced from the corn-fueled feedlot and the industrialized slaughterhouse, but instead focus on humans, animals and their environment working in right relationship to each other.
You can see it happening in an incomparable Lowcountry setting; just ask Dr. David Baird and his herd of happy cows.
Go to their Live Oak Grass Fed Beef page on Facebook to place your order for a share of beef.