PULLMAN, Wash. — Wagyu cattle donated by Centerville rancher Max Fernandez are helping Washington State University maximize a gift from another Max: retired industrialist Max Baxter.
Max and Thelma Baxter donated their Flying-T Ranch outside Centralia to WSU’s animal sciences department in 1996 to further research on the Wagyu beef breed, known for its extreme marbling and tender beef.
Fernandez, a retired oil exploration manager for British Petroleum, gave the department $44,000 worth of Wagyu crossbred cattle this past winter. The animals, now in Pullman, eventually will form the nucleus of a research herd at the ranch.
Right now, however, proceeds from the sales of calves from that herd, are helping pay some of the bills at the ranch, according to Jerry Reeves, professor of animal sciences. “It gives us another start on Wagyu cattle which will help us fund our research projects at the Flying-T,” Reeves said.
Reeves and other scientists at Washington State University have been cross-breeding Wagyu , a Japanese breed, with traditional U.S. cattle breeds for almost a decade. The goal of the project is to help U.S. producers find a niche in Japanese supermarkets where the highly marbled beef commands premium prices.
“I’m really glad I gave those cows to Washington State,” Fernandez said. “I hope they continue doing research with them.”
Fernandez, who spent most of his career exploring for oil in South America, now divides his time between his ranch and a home in Anchorage, Alaska, where his wife has one more year to teach before she retires. Two grown daughters also live there.
Anchorage is almost halfway around the world from Punta Arenas, Fernandez’s Chilean birthplace. The city, the southernmost on the world, overlooks the Straits of Magellan. Before the Panama Canal opened in 1914, Punta Arenas was a thriving port. It later prospered as the center of Chile’s wool trade and that’s something Fernandez knows a lot about.
“According to our family history,” Fernandez said, “the family has been sheep herders since the year 1300.” His branch of the family emigrated to Chile from the Asturian-Basque region of Spain. He came to the United States in the early 60’s to get an education.
Fernandez bought his ranch in south central Washington about 15 years ago. “It took me a couple years to find this place,” he said. “One of the reasons I bought it was the wind. It reminded me of the south part of Chile where I came from.”
He has holdings in Chile as well as Spain where members of his family still belong to the Mesta, an open range association dating back nearly 800 years. “Americans think the open range concept originated here,” Fernandez said. “It’s much older than that.”
He decided to run cattle on his ranch because they were easy to manage and he had no trouble finding help. After retiring, he made the transition to sheep. “Cows were only temporary, something to keep the place going,” Fernandez said.
“If the opportunity arises again,” he laughed, “maybe Dr. Reeves will have a bunch of sheep over there too.”
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