This woman-run farm in Springfield raises some of the best beef cattle in the country
Wagyu beef is prized for the thin ribbons of buttery fat that run through the steaks, giving it a flavor and texture like no other meat. These cattle originated in Japan, and there aren’t a whole lot of farms in this country that raise 100% pureblood Wagyu cows.
One of those farms is in Windsor County. On a recent misty fall morning, a bucket loader was out front, hooking up a dedicated high speed fiber-optic cable to a barn that’s more than 200 years old. It was a few days before the annual auction at Vermont Wagyu in Springfield, and the farm’s owner Sheila Patinkin was helping the workers figure out how to wire her barn for the big day.
There are less than 5,000 full-blood Wagyu in this country, according to the American Wagyu Association, and a couple hundred are raised right here in Springfield.
“If I watch my genetics, yes, I can provide top genetics in this country to other Wagyu breeders. I can’t say that I produce the best of the best. But I strive to be up there producing some of the best.”Sheila Patinkin
During last year’s auction, Patinkin’s system crashed, and so she called VTel out here to boost her bandwidth for the important sale, which she says makes up about a third of her company’s annual revenue.
“Last year we got a 10-minute interruption, and when you’re broadcasting around the world, you don’t want that to happen in the middle of an auction,” she said.
Cattle ranchers from across the country were expected to tune in, and about 60 animals will be sold during the auction, mostly pregnant females, some of which sell for more than $10,000 apiece. And every single one has the paperwork that shows a direct lineage to one of the first female Wagyu cattle that came to America from Japan in the 1990s.
“If I watch my genetics, yes, I can provide top genetics in this country to other Wagyu breeders,” Patinkin said. “I can’t say that I produce the best of the best. But I strive to be up there producing some of the best.”
Patinkin is 69, and this is her fourth career after raising four kids, working in business and marketing, and almost 20 years as a pediatrician. She had a medical practice in Chicago, and after her husband passed away suddenly, she wanted to move back to Springfield, where she grew up.
She found a farm that had about 150 acres of grassland, and she thought having some cattle would be a good way to manage the land and to maybe make some money raising and selling the animals.
“The initial steps were, let’s deal with the problem of the hayfields," Patinkin said. "And then once we started doing that, I think I became fascinated with the genetics of the Wagyu, with the animals themselves. But I think as we started getting into it, there weren’t too many people doing this, and we became better and better at what we were doing. And there’s a pride in what you do, and realizing that we’re doing a pretty good job of it.”
"As we started getting into it, there weren’t too many people doing this, and we became better and better at what we were doing. And there’s a pride in what you do, and realizing that we’re doing a pretty good job of it.”Sheila Patinkin
And Patinkin has turned out to be pretty good at raising cattle and running a farm.
With a background in science and genetics and deep roots in Vermont, word spread quickly about the super-premium meat that was being raised at a woman-run farm in Springfield. She delivered her first side of beef to a restaurant in New York City in 2012, and the business grew over the next few years.
Then COVID shut down all of her restaurant clients.
“COVID hit, the restaurants closed, I thought, 'That’s the end of Vermont Wagyu,'” Pantikin said. “I didn’t think we were going to have a future.”
Vermont Wagyu was selling very little meat directly to the consumer before COVID. It was mostly going to restaurants. And so they had to quickly learn about e-commerce, packaging individual cuts, and methods for sending a perishable product across the country.
Patinkin found markets for her steaks, which can sell for more than $100 a piece, in cities like San Francisco, Miami, and New York. Today direct sales make up 80% of her business.
“I didn’t have plans to make it what it is today, but COVID changed all of that,” Patinkin said. “We were forced into it. We really had to build it, really had to develop the marketing side of it. So we were lucky in that sense. If you’re going to make, I guess, lemonade out of lemons, that really happened to us with COVID. And it took off, and it continues to this day to be growing and thriving. I think we were up 25% over last year.”
Patinkin says grazing beef cattle among Vermont’s green fields holds promise for the farms that are struggling in the dairy industry. Vermont Wagyu is renting barn space and grassland from two nearby dairy farms that have closed over the past few years.