by Susan Z. Ritz
Published Spring 2012 in Vermont's Local Banquet
On an early January morning in Springfield, the snow-covered pastures of Spring-Rock Farm sparkle in the sun and a small herd of cattle dot the fields like black velvet buttons. From a distance, it’s hard to tell that these animals are anything out of the ordinary.
They are, however, Vermont’s first herd of 100 percent Wagyu cattle, a Japanese breed that is prized for its succulent, heart-healthy, high-end cuts of beef, found in the world’s foremost restaurants and steakhouses. According to Spring-Rock owner and farmer Sheila Patinkin, they are the caviar of the beef world, yielding filets and steaks so tender you can cut them with a fork. The magic, Sheila explains, is in the intramuscular fat, which delivers not just superior taste and texture, but also a good dose of Omega-3 fats, the fatty acids found in salmon and nuts that are essential to brain development and the prevention of cardiovascular disease. It’s no wonder that discerning chefs and diners alike are willing to pay top dollar for the famed Wagyu (also known as Kobe) beef, which is attracting the attention of a few Vermont niche farmers like Sheila and her neighbor Mary Beth Fischer.
Six years ago, after her husband unexpectedly passed away, Sheila Patinkin returned home to family and friends in Vermont from Chicago, where she had lived for more than 30 years. A pediatrician who went to medical school while raising four children, she knew little about farming but a lot about hard work and determination. When she found a farm for sale just down the road from her alma mater, Springfield High, she immediately felt at home. Originally known as the Fletcher Farm, it was established in the 1790s in the Parker Hill settlement and is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Today it consists of 100 acres straddling the Springfield-Rockingham line (hence the farm’s name, Spring-Rock), with idyllic views of the Connecticut River and New Hampshire beyond. A large lilac bush planted in 1790 by Mrs. Fletcher, the original owner, still flourishes just outside the kitchen window of the restored farmhouse.
Once on her new land, Sheila, now an energetic 59, began to look for ways to make her new farm both economically and environmentally sustainable. “I thought maybe raising sheep would be fun. They would look beautiful, not big and intimidating,” she laughs. Then she met her neighbor Mary Beth Fischer, an experienced farmer and livestock handler. Mary Beth, who has raised Simmental and Angus since 1983 and now also has her own herd of half Wagyus, convinced the newcomer that cows were the way to go. Sheila's father-in-law had raised Red Angus on his farm in Illinois, so she was not unfamiliar with cattle, but she wanted to explore the idea further.
She took a trip to visit a cousin on his ranch in Montana and he enthusiastically suggested that she invest in Wagyu, a breed he himself was raising. “I spent the whole day touring his farm, asking a thousand questions. Then he served me a Wagyu hamburger and I thought, wow, these are really good! I’d eaten a lot of different kinds of beef on my father-in-law’s farm, but always thought beef was beef. These were completely different.”
Back home she discovered that Wagyu, which means Japanese cow, were originally bred in the late 1800s in Japan as draft animals, crossing Asian and European cattle including Holstein, Simmental, Swiss and Angus until the breed was well established and closed to outside bloodlines in 1910. The breeding produced an animal with the high endurance and quick energy needed to pull carts and plows or serve as pack animals. Their power derived from the deep intramuscular monounsaturated fat that makes them so highly sought after today.
Sheila's cattle are rich chocolate brown, deep-chested, and small-rumped, resembling their distant cousins the Holsteins. Their stature makes them good breeders that give birth easily to relatively small calves with an average birth weight of 65 pounds. “Also,” Sheila says, “unlike most American and European breeds of cattle, the Wagyu have gentle, docile temperaments. Out West you never handle the beef cows except to castrate them. They’re totally wild. My animals you can get up close to, touch them. They’ve gotten even more friendly over the years.” Mary Beth, who began breeding her own herd of half Wagyu-half Angus just before Sheila, thinks it is more a chicken and egg thing. She believes the cows are quieter because they are handled so often on small farms. Touching does seem to be a key ingredient for the Japanese farmers who are said to massage their Wagyu with beer and sake to develop the shiny, healthy coats that signal superior meat to the Japanese market.
As Sheila learned more about the breed, she also discovered that acquiring stock was no easy task. Except for a few bulls released to the U.S. in the 1970s and again in the 1990s, Japan has slammed the door shut on exports of livestock, embryos, and semen of this breed they consider a national treasure. Today, there are only 200 registered U.S. breeders, mostly in the Northwest and Texas, with a total of only 3,000 to 5,000 head of cattle compared to the U.S. Angus herd that totals 30 million. Most of the western Wagyu are actually crossed with Angus (the USDA allows beef with 50 percent Wagyu to be sold as American Wagyu or American Kobe). Because there are so few, a full-blooded heifer for breeding can cost between $5,000 and $13,000, and some go for as much as $30,000, as compared to $2,000 to $3,000 for an Angus breeder. Low supply, high demand, and the superior quality of the meat all play into the high price that customers pay for Wagyu on their plates. Sheila plans to sell her 100% Wagyu beef for prices ranging from $6 to $8 a pound for hamburger up to $50 a pound for high-end steaks, considerably less than Wagyu is advertised for online, but certainly more than you would pay for conventional prime Angus.
Eventually, Sheila bought one steer from Washington State, but her herd really began in 2009 when she acquired 13 embryos and implanted them in Jersey surrogate mothers. “They’re great mamas. They raise the babies as their own and even have milk left over for us to use on the farm,” she explained. After adding another herd from Washington, she now has 28 heifers. This year they produced a crop of 19 calves, including a set of twins. Ideally, she’d like to grow her herd to 24 head, giving her one a month to sell to restaurants, a female to sell as livestock, and a couple of heifers left over for breeding.
Using this three-pronged strategy of selling embryos, livestock and meat, Sheila, with the help of her assistant, seventh generation cow handler Phil Ranney, hopes to make Spring-Rock Farm economically self-sustaining by 2013. Their success will rest on both nature and nurture. “The ‘wow’ in the meat comes from how we breed and how we feed,” Sheila says. As a pediatrician, she specialized in genetics, and this has helped her choose embryos and semen for artificial insemination from cattle that have consistently yielded the well-marbled meat and gentle temperaments that make Wagyu such a valuable breed. Currently, she is building her own embryo stock, which will be advertised for sale this year. By selling embryos and calves and sharing her own expertise, Sheila hopes to build a vibrant and profitable Wagyu community in northern New England.
Raising livestock for sale as meat is another challenge. Sheila and Phil have restored the farm’s neglected 10 acres of pasture through carefully planned rotational grazing, slowly replacing buckthorn and milkweed with a rich cover of clover and legumes. Initially the cattle are grass fed, but as they get closer to slaughter, at two and a half or three years, they are put on a diet of grains and corn for the final six months to improve the marbling of their meat. “We don’t need to feed them beer or sake like they do in Japan,” Sheila says. “Here we have good pasture and I’m learning more all the time about the best grain mixtures to get the highest grade beef.”
A chart of marbling scores on the barn door shows just how the meat will be graded according to fat content. The chart is from Australia, where most of the world’s Wagyu are presently raised. “The USDA only recognizes three levels of prime marbling,” Sheila notes, pointing to the chart’s first two pictures of bright red beef slabs. “But Australians have 12 grades.” She moves her finger up the chart to a piece of pinkish meat deeply interlaced with an intricate network of white Omega-3 fat. This is grade eight, and Sheila hopes her particular methods of breeding and feeding will yield this grade or above.
Finding restaurants to buy the beef, however, has been more of a challenge than she imagined. “It’s amazing with all the hoopla going on about direct farm-to-table, it’s really hard to get their attention.” Because Sheila is selling very high-quality, expensive 100 percent Wagyu, her search for markets has concentrated on New York City rather than the local Vermont market. After many frustrating cold calls to New York’s three-star Michelin restaurants, she is finally in discussion with a network of chefs who are showing preliminary interest in her product. Chef Mike Anthony of Grammercy Tavern recently committed to trying half of her first steer. The other half will be carved in the kitchen of Chef Greg Lang at the Killington Grand Resort Hotel on March 21st, where an educational carving session with a butcher is planned.
Sheila looks forward to the day she can sell her high-end beef locally. In the meantime, to promote sales of Wagyu in Vermont, she is helping neighbor Mary Beth Fischer market her half Wagyu, half Angus cattle in Vermont. Mary Beth had been able to sell her grass-fed Angus and Simmental to local customers but had yet to break into Vermont restaurants with her Wagyu. The two farmers thought lower-priced ($6 a pound hanging, for retail) but still excellent above-prime cuts of 50 percent Wagyu would do the trick. The women held a Wagyu tasting for a number of Vermont chefs a couple of years ago, using steaks, roasts and burgers from out-of-state producers because they didn’t have their own product yet. A year later Mary Beth finally got an order from The Inn at Essex’s new executive chef Shawn Calley, who had found her card in a drawer not quite emptied by his predecessor. Since then he has ordered two sides of her beef and proudly offers it to customers in his restaurants. In the informal Tavern, he serves up pub-style Wagyu steak and chips, burgers, and shepherd’s pie. He serves the finer cuts in his high-end restaurant Amuse, where he offers only locally raised meats. “I walk around with the beef before I cook it, show the diners what they are eating to educate them about the marbling. I cook it right in front of them and they come away saying it was amazing.”
That doesn’t surprise Sheila and Mary Beth. They already know they have a superior product and they are proud to bring the wow of Wagyu to Vermont farmers, chefs and diners alike.
Susan Z. Ritz is a freelance writer, creative writing teacher, and community activist who lives with her husband in Montpelier. She tries to eat locally as much as possible and is grateful that she lives in the midst of such abundance.