Readers of my website know that I’m a fan of good beef. I’m especially fond of Wagyu (pronounced Waa-gue) beef which means literally “Japanese Cow.”
I’ve been fortunate that Snake River Farms has been kind to provide their excellent aged and marbled meat for me to cook on several of my recipe blogs. I’ve also had the privilege to cook and taste a real Wagyu A5 grade brisket that was flown in from Japan by my student Phillip Cummins and I shared that story.
So when Donna and I were discussing our summer vacation plans for 2015, our conversation naturally drifted towards combining our vacation plans with a tour of a Wagyu cattle farm. Whenever we’re on vacation, we like to visit what we call farm-to-table places including unusual places like the Spam Museum. This time, Donna surprised me with a mystery stop on our roadtrip vacation to Crater Lake / Lava Beds / Oregon / Fort Bragg. Here’s the story . . .
Road trip to see Wagyu cows at Askew Farms, Oregon
By Donna Fong
About once or twice a year, Harry and I will take a week off just for ourselves. This year, we had a free week in mid-July and our choices were Alaska, Hawaii, Montana, Wyoming or somewhere closer. We choose “somewhere closer” to save some money and partly because places like Alaska deserve longer than a week’s time.
I’ve never driven north of Lassen though I’ve flown further on many occasions. I thought it was time to make that trip, especially since summer is the perfect time for a play in Ashland, Oregon. I’ve been a longtime patron of theater, dating back to 1990 when I saw my first play at the American Repertory Theatre in Harvard Square.
It’s been 25 years since my love of theater began and since then, I’ve developed some other hobbies too. I decided to schedule a visit to Askew Farms in Malin, Oregon. Both Harry and I are instructors in the CBBQA’s Advance BBQ Judging class. One of my sections covers Ranch to Table concepts around barbecue. When I was preparing for the class, I had learned that Wagyu cattle are being imported into the U.S. and being auctioned at places like The Lone Mountain Cattle Company in New Mexico. Since Harry and I cook Snake River Farms Wagyu beef brisket at competitions, I had a natural interest in seeing what a Wagyu cow looked like and what it was like to raise such a cow.
In the May auction of 2014, a farm in California had paid $27,500 for a seven-year-old female Wagyu of notable heritage. This farm wasn’t in the area we were visiting but I also read that Askew farms had purchased several full-blooded Wagyu embryos. We were visiting Lavabeds National Park anyways, so a trip to Askew Farms was not a big detour. I called up Bill and Laurie Askew and introduced myself and explained why a complete stranger was interested in visiting their farm. Fortunately, they are welcoming people who had successfully raised a number of Wagyu and invited us for a visit.
During that day, I learned a couple of things about Harry that I didn’t know after being in a relationship with him for 5 years. Number 1, Harry is afraid of going down deep holes in the ground called caves. Neither of us had visited unlit caves before so it was a new experience for both of us. We had to wear hard hats and carry big flashlights with us down these dark and deep caves, which could run for over a thousand feet. If you ever been in one, it is an entirely different world. I was enraptured; Harry, not so much.
We cut our trip to Lavabeds short and drove on to the farm. When we arrived, we found Laurie walking out of her home to greet us while two small dogs yapped from a dog cage in the front of the house. Laurie was in flip-flops and walked us comfortably towards a large combine, which was cutting down alfalfa in the fields. The alfalfa would sit after being cut and then turned into a blocks of hay. The hay would feed their Holstein cows up north whose milk eventually turned into Tillamook cheese. Laurie asked if we’d like to ride the combine tractor with their worker, Jayson.
Jayson hopped into the big tractor, and I followed on, trying not to embarrass myself in the process. I made it in but there was only one additional seat so Harry stood outside the driver compartment, while I sat down next to Jayson. This meant that the door had to be propped open while Jayson was chopping down the alfalfa crop. It didn’t seem like a big deal until I realized that everything outside was coming inside and that included the chopped alfalfa and mosquitoes.
Jayson is a trooper and never seemed bothered with our visit, even though I’m pretty sure we were messing everything up for him. The combine was too noisy for Harry to listen in on our conversation, but I soon learned that Jayson loved his job and loved cutting down the alfalfa with this high tech combine. The cut alfalfa would be left to dry and then at midnight, would be rolled (or baled) up by another combine that turned them into bales of hay. If you baled too early, the hay would contain too much moisture and might spontaneously combust within the next 6 weeks. In the process of respiration, the plant sugars are converted to water and CO2 which produces heat. Combine the heat with water and microbial growth and you can get a hay fire. It’s never happened to Jayson before and he’s glad for it.
I asked a few questions about critters getting caught under his fancy lawnmower and he says the birds that follow him usually clean up the mess he might leave behind. I wasn’t too sure if the birds were interested in skunks that got caught but Jayson said it was always someone else’s job to clean that up.
At this point, I was getting a little worried about Harry. He’d been hanging on the door and was getting dirtier by the minute. I thanked my lucky stars that I hadn’t had an allergy attack yet. The allergy shots were paying off. I asked Harry if he was okay and to my surprise, Harry was absolutely thrilled. That was the second thing I learned about Harry that day. He had dreamt that he could ride such a machine but didn’t think it was possible. He was in heaven; me, not so much.
After 20 minutes of riding the combine, we jumped off and joined Laurie inside her home. Talk to any farmer on the west coast, south of Eugene and the topic eventually turns to water. Even this far north, Askew Farms had to be creative about how to use water and how they share water. Harry works for the Metropolitan Water District so it was a familiar story to him. I didn’t expect the signs of our drought to be this bad this far north but it was. All hopes of fishing a remote lake or the big Trinity River were abolished when we realized what poor shape we were in. I now know enough fishermen and farmers to understand that most of them are stewards of water, rather than hungry consumers of water that feed our food sources.
At another property, Bill and Laurie showed us their Wagyu calves which were the embryos that I had read about on the Lone Mountain website. The embryos were implanted into Angus cows and were about 5 to 6 months old. Unlike their surrogate mothers, these full-blooded, 100% Wagyu calves have horns, are lighter in the rump and legs and grow much slower. Their chests seem bigger and they have longer legs. In regards to their temperament, they seem shy, hanging closely to their mothers. The four that we saw in the field were a dark gray to black color.
We stood in the dried yellow field dotted with cow patties. There, Laurie told us the story about how they moved 9 years ago to this area from the central valley. They promised themselves to quit being dairy farmers and got rid of all of their cows. Mind you, Bill Askew has produced some of the most prestigious Holsteins in the world. His bulls and cows have ranked in the top 25 of the most genetically important cows out there in the Holstein world. From his stories, I kinda got the idea that he’s like movie star’s agent. When people ran into him, they’d ask about his cows by name, but forget what his name was. When one of his bulls, Reece, passed away, it made the Holstein world news.
So Bill walked away from all of this, moved north and started growing hay. But it didn’t take long for them to realize that they missed their cows. There are cat people and dog people. The Askews are cow people. A herd of 10 developed into a herd of 110 cows. Then Bill got persuaded by his late friend into dabbling with Wagyu and here we were.
I looked at these Wagyu calves, which were named by Japanese school children (through a family friend) and was a bit disappointed. They weren’t massive behemoths of marbled red meat. They were still shy and skinny juveniles. Laurie describes her husband, a former urbanite from San Bruno, as a cow whisperer. She said he has a way with the cows, which she does not have, though she is a 3rd generation dairy farmer. He calls out to them as “Ladies!” and they come walking into the barn. Laurie seems a bit embarrassed by his strange call, reminding Bill that the neighbors can hear him. It is a warm and loving relationship they have together.
I ride with Bill in his truck on the way to their third property. Inside the front seat, a mosquito rests on his face. He swats at another mosquito on the window. I thought about telling him about the one on his face but figured he was just use to it by now and kept quiet. I, myself, was scratching my city legs for days.
During the ride, he goes into the details of Artificial Insemination (AI), and how surrogates and donors need to be in the same hormone states for all of this to work. The success rate is about 60% but on his first try, only one calf made it. He was disappointed, given his success in the past. Having a background in Biochemistry, I was impressed with Bill’s knowledge of biology and reproduction. I tried to imagine him wearing a long glove and artificially inseminating a cow.
We drive up to the third property and pass by the newly purchased baler that Jayson would be using that night to bale the hay. Inside the barn is the lone full-blooded Wagyu calf (named Nozomi or “Hope”). She’s inside barricaded from the rest of the herd because of an illness but should be feeling better soon. I was reminded that being a rancher, in this case, was not much different from being a parent.
We were met in the front by Jayson, who was done with field and his fiancée, Andrea, who cares for this herd of cows. Andrea is a registered nurse by day, and by night, caretaker of these half Angus-half Wagyu cows. Angus cows were inseminated with Wagyu semen. The heifers wore tags on their right ears to identify them from the bulls. These calves looked similar in weight distribution but were much prettier than their 100% Wagyu counterparts. In fact, they were gorgeous. The fully black coats shined in the afternoon sun and they had this peaceful steady demeanor. They seemed a little fatter as well. These were the cows I was hoping to see.
Andrea pets one and says that whatever problems you may gather in a day’s work, it is lost when you spend time with a cow. I think she is right. Our party poses for a picture, though the shyness of these cows makes the effort difficult. We promise to return one day with our smokers, when the Askews are ready to barbecue. Until then, we hugged our new friends and continued on our journey in the Pacific Northwest.