Pete Eshelman plays old tapes of New York Yankee games to his cattle while they eat a specialized diet in the finishing barn just a stone’s throw from the open, grassy pastures where his full blood herd is raised from calves.
Something about the roar of the crowd and the drone of announcers in those decades-old games crackling over the speakers is soothing, Eshelman said.
“They don’t like the Red Sox, though,” the Hoosier farmer jokes.
Eshelman raises Wagyu — a special breed of cattle with genetics from Japan that produces beef known for its fat marbling and rich flavor — on a farm just west of Fort Wayne. His cattle, compared to other breeds, are raised with a high attention to detail.
His Wagyu may not appreciate the Red Sox but they don’t, Eshelman explains, receive massages or drink beer as some myths would say.
From home plate to cattle gates
While Eshelman doesn’t offer flights of craft brews to his cattle, he does make sure each lives a stress-free life. And those old Yankees tapes aren’t played on a whim, either.
They’re another part of Eshelman’s story.
The Yankees drafted Eshelman in 1976 as a leftie relief pitcher and first baseman. But an injury sustained in the minor leagues quickly derailed his playing career, and principal owner George Steinbrenner hired him for a job in the team’s front office.
Eshelman moved into management in 1977. It was the Yankee’s 75th anniversary season and concluded with the team’s 21st World Series title. Reggie Jackson was slugging homeruns — an unparalleled three in as many swings, and five overall in the series. Billy Martin was managing, with Thurman Munson behind the plate. The pitching staff included Ron Guidry, Doc Ellis and Catfish Hunter, and reliever Sparky Lyle won the American League Cy Young award that year.
It was also a time of social upheaval.
The Son of Sam killer was on the loose. Much of New York lost power in the midst of a July heatwave. And the Bronx was literally burning after the city cut spending on municipal services such as firehouses. Smoke from one of the thousands of fires was even visible on the ABC broadcast of game 2 of the World Series.
“People say I was (Steinbrenner’s) right-hand-man,” Eshelman said. “No, I was just his go-fer. I was a young guy but learned a lot.”
Eshelman drew inspiration from his time with Steinbrenner who just had a desire to win all the time, he said. Losing was painful to Steinbrenner and one of the things Eshelman learned was to always strive for excellence.
From a young age, Eshelman had dreams of playing in the big leagues. And while that didn’t work out, his Midwest values were cemented at a young age — long before he ended up wearing a suit and tie while living and working in NYC and Boston.
He was born in New Orleans, but his family moved to Dayton, Ohio, when he was 7 years old after his father moved into a corporate position at L.M. Berry, which was eventually bought out by BellSouth. Company founder Loren Berry, attributed as the father of the Yellow Pages, was originally from Wabash, Indiana, and believed Dayton was soon to be the hub of innovation.
While in Dayton, Eshelman drew inspiration that fueled his dreams of a MLB career from the Cincinnati Reds and New York Yankees.
But there was something else that struck the young Eshelman in Dayton. His family would often go to farmers’ markets and he was enamored with how farmers grew their own food. It would take a few years, and a dream deferred, but that early interest and admiration for farming would eventually lead to Eshelman’s unique Wagyu experience in Indiana.
“There was just something about it and I, one day, wanted to have my own farm, raise my own food and share it with people. Share that lifestyle,” Eshelman said.
Rooting down in Roanoke
Eshelman’s appreciation of the Midwest and agriculture ultimately brought him to Indiana from Boston where he first started in the insurance business working with Lloyd's of London.
He moved to Devil's Hollow, close to Fort Wayne, Indiana, in 1986 with his wife, Alice, and three children. Lincoln National, an insurance company, had recruited him to bring sports insurance to the organization. Three years later, the family's interest in farming and agriculture led them to purchase some farmland about a mile and a half from Fort Wayne.
“I always admired farmers and I admired our founding fathers, you now, a lot of their values came from working on the land,” Eshelman said.
But farming was yet to come for Eshelman.
Eshelman wasn’t too keen on working for a big company and eventually opened his own sports insurance company, American Specialty, in Roanoke. He also began fixing up properties in the heart of the small town.
“A rational person would have located in New York City, or Los Angeles or Las Vegas, but I had little kids and young wife and she loved Fort Wayne,” “Eshelman said. “We were very comfortable and had great neighbors and there are great people here. We said this is a great spot on the planet to raise a farm and grow a business.”
In the mid 1990s he built out a private dining room in an old bank in Roanoke for his high-profile clients who preferred a little reprieve from locals seeking autographs and photographs.
The dining room became such a hit that in 2000, Eshelman opened it to the public and turned it into the fine dining establishment he named Joseph Decuis. He uses the same name for his farm.
The name comes from one of Eshelman's ancestors who first moved from France to what would become Louisiana in the 1700s. Joseph Decuis, the grandson of the French immigrant, worked hard to hunt and farm food for his family. Meal times became a way for the family to connect with each other and the friends they made. Eshelman hopes to carry on this tradition of bringing honest work to the dinner table for everyone to enjoy, so the restaurant carries the farm-to-fork tradition on so many generations later.
It was at the restaurant that Eshelman was first introduced to Wagyu. They decided to test the meat on the menu and the flavor and tenderness hooked Eshelman.
“That was,” he said, “life transforming.”
How is Wagyu beef raised?
Eshelman’s taste buds carried him to Texas to meet with Gary Yamamoto who raised Wagyu. It was there Eshelman learned that Japanese farmers exported the Wagyu genetics to America. He also kept hearing the name Shogo Takeda, a Japanese Wagyu farmer, over and over again.
So Eshelman and his brother, Tim, who had also moved to Indiana, traveled to Japan to meet with the celebrated Wagyu farmer.
“It was one of those things where the experience was something extraordinary and you just get really passionate about what it is,” Eshelman said.
He taught the brothers how to properly raise Japanese cattle from husbandry to feeding.
The brothers bought Takeda’s genetics and quickly converted tracts of land they owned in Indiana to wild pastures and barns to raise Wagyu.
Suddenly, at the age of 53, Eshelman was a full-time farmer. And he dedicated himself to a quest for a new kind of perfection, applying a lesson learned from Steinbrenner years earlier.
“If you're going to put an effort into something, make sure that you're going to strive to be the best in the world,” Eshelman said. “That's why I kind of converted that into our restaurant and the farm: If we're going to raise Wagyu, I want to be the best in the world.”
History of Wagyu
Wagyu beef is a prized protein for chefs and diners alike. A prominent feature is the marbling effect seen by the intramuscular fat. This is achieved by feeding the cattle a large amount of grain before the slaughter. While this technique can work on other breeds, the genetic profile of Wagyu cattle makes for more marbling.
The tender marbling is also shown to be healthy. A 2016 study shows the intramuscular fat of highly marbled Wagyu is a heart-healthy dietary fat that "might be able to reduce risk factors for cardiovascular disease." Eshelman likens it to the healthy fats of salmon.
Wagyu cattle were not, however, always a prized food source. Japan has a long history of being a vegetarian country. The cattle mainly were used as draft animals to plow fields.
It wasn’t until Western influence in the 19th century that Wagyu cattle became a more prominent source of food for the country. Today, Wagyu are highly regulated and mandatory testing is done on cattle to determine full blood genetics.
Eshelman’s pursuit of Wagyu perfection started with the best genetics.
“I was with the New York Yankees, and to be a major league ballplayer, you have to have the skill and talent to throw a major league fastball,” Eshelman said. “The same thing is true of Wagyu. You have to have the genetics that are authentically traced back to Japan.”
Fewer than 173 live Wagyu cattle were exported from Japan before the practice was banned in 1997. Genetics, however, are closely monitored in the country and are now sold in tiny "straws" of semen used for breeding to maintain bloodlines.
Eshelman’s stock comes from Takeda, the eminent Wagyu farmer whose cattle come from the Shimane and Hyogo prefectures in Japan. Prior to Japan’s ban on Wagyu exports, Takeda set up operations in the U.S. where females carrying his genetics are raised.
This is how Eshelman acquired Takeda’s genetic line cattle. After visiting Takeda’s herd in Japan and learning how to best care for the cattle, he bought two bulls and seven females about 16 years ago from the Japanese farmer’s herd in Iowa.
Eshelman’s Wagyu are kept on two farms, the main one near Columbia City and a satellite farm in Roanoke.
In Columbia City, Eshelman’s farm sprawls across county roads where the herd grazes in an open pasture before making their way to the finishing barn. That's where the cattle are fed with a special Japanese-inspired diet before being processed.
Today, Eshelman has about 100 females and usually has no less than 60 any given year. In total, about 300 head roam his farms near Roanoke and Columbia City.
“We harvest about 40 head a year,” Eshelman said, “and use everything, nose to tail.”
The Wagyu on Eshelman's farm are a dark brown, almost black with a peaceful temperament as they amble about the open pasture. The female's short and curved horns, stark white against the dark coats, are kept intact though the slightly more aggressive males have their horns removed.
Each Wagyu cattle provides 17 center-of-the-plate cuts, but nothing goes to waste. Trimmings are made into ground beef. The fat gets rendered to use for cooking oil and soaps. Bones are used for broth and when each is spent, they’re made into charcoal for cooking fires. Hides are made into leather products such as belts, purses and vests and European mounts are made from the heads.
Eshelman even produces a jerky that was a big hit when he sent it overseas to U.S. soldiers. Some sent back letters showing appreciation for the various toiletries and sundries included in the package, but made it clear the jerky was their favorite: “Please, just send the Wagyu.”
The farm's products and more are sold at the Joseph Decuis Emporium next-door to the restaurant in downtown Roanoke.
Most of Eshelman's beef winds up as the centerpiece of the restaurant's farm-to-fork experience, where the full-blood Wagyu steaks are often served with a selection of mashed potatoes and sautéed vegetables also grown on the farm. Eshelman grows upward of 150 different types of herbs, vegetables and leafy greens to supply the restaurant's demand. Spinach, onions and cucumbers grow in a hoop house on the farm's property and an assortment of herbs grows in raised beds.
Other amenities at the farm include a barn converted into an indoor entertainment area with seating for around 200 people. A commercial kitchen is available to feed the guests, including nearby schools and churches that hold events there. Attached to the barn is amore intimate bar with an exhibition kitchen. There's also an outdoor entertaining area with covered pavilions and the draping tendrils of hops forming a curtain around a small sitting area.
Eshelman calls it all “heaven.”
“The goal is to create the finest Wagyu we possibly can on a world class basis,” Eshelman said. “It’s not a volume type thing for us, but quality, so we raise enough and harvest enough annually to support the restaurant and retail store.”
Experiencing Pete’s perfection
Joseph Decuis Farms offers private tours where Eshelman and the farmhands help educate groups on Wagyu. Weddings and other events can also be booked for an ultimate farm-to-fork experience.
The Joseph Decuis restaurant is open Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights for dinners. And the emporium is open Tuesday-Saturday from 10 a.m.- 5:30 p.m.
Find more information on booking and reservations at josephdecuis.com
Karl Schneider is an IndyStar environment reporter. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @karlstartswithk
IndyStar's environmental reporting project is made possible through the generous support of the nonprofit Nina Mason Pulliam Charitable Trust.
This article originally appeared on Indianapolis Star: Former pitcher raising Wagyu cattle at Indiana farm near Fort Wayne