GREENSBORO BEND — Ray Shatney hollered as his wife, Janet Steward, watched, waited and grinned.
“Come on, girls! Come on!”
Then they appeared, first one by one, then in clusters, from up over a small hill, until the green field where Shatney and Steward stood contained about 60 of them.
Some had long horns — some shorter — and most had the long, wavy coat that makes them one of the most recognizable breeds of cattle in the world.
In tiny Greensboro Bend — population 232 — Steward and Shatney operate Shat Acres, one of the premier (and oldest) Scotch Highland Cattle farms in the U.S.
Shatney and Steward breed, raise and process a 160-head Highland herd in Greensboro Bend and also at their farm in Plainfield, where they live. They did not travel far on June 16, when they attended the Vermont Small Business Association’s annual award ceremony in Waterbury.
A few months earlier, Steward and Shatney learned that Shat Acres was the recipient of the SBA’s 2016 Family-Owned Small Business Award — an honor that earned them letters of accolades from Vermont congressmen Peter Welch and Bernie Sanders, as well as Chuck Ross, state agriculture secretary.
“Shat Acres Highland Cattle is the kind of hard-working and innovative family agricultural business that makes Vermont’s working landscape so vibrant and unique,” Ross wrote. “Your focus on community, sustainability, and your unwavering commitment to excellence, authenticity, and taste reinforce Vermont’s reputation as a hotbed of good food, a leader in the local food movement, and a world-renowned source of some of the highest quality foods and products available.”
Earlier this month, at Shat Acres, Steward said the award “made it all worth it. It meant so much. It was so gratifying. This is hard work, you know? Seven days a week, 12- to 14-hour days. To me, that award said “this is why we’re doing this.””
She called the awards ceremony “one of the highlights of (their lives). The event reminded us how fortunate we are to live in a small state like Vermont. There were so many people we knew, and it was wonderful to make connections with some people we had not seen for over three decades.”
SBA award nominees face a competitive process, according to Daniel Monahan, public information officer for the SBA in Montpelier. Each company must submit a narrative and financial statements that validate their staying power, growth, increase in sales, profits and net worth, as well as responses to adversity and contributions to their home community.
To be eligible for the Family-Owned Small Business of the Year Award, the company must have been family-owned for at least 15 years, with ownership that has transitioned to another generation.
“All that competed for the Family-Owned Business of the Year Award show an increase in sales and company growth, but what really stands out is Ray and Janet’s love for their animals. So much so, they referred to their Highlands as their workforce,” said Valerie Morse, SBA Vermont District Office deputy director. “During their acceptance speech, they thanked their Highlands. It’s that affection and commitment to their heritage that separated them from the pack.”
Morse added: “Local farms are vital to the small-business landscape because they supply the local-food movement, which is significant in Vermont. Greenfield Highland Beef is sold at Hunger Mountain Coop, Plainfield Coop, City Market and Healthy Living (along with others listed on Shat Acres’ website). Ray and Janet selling their beef to these local businesses strengthens the Vermont economy because it keeps money in the state.”
This was not Shat Acres’ first award. Steward and Shatney also raise champion breeding stock. Their bull, Raisin Cain, was the top-selling bull at the National Western Stock Show in Colorado last January. Raisin Cain’s dam, Cinnamon Raisin, was the Grand Champion Cow/Calf at that same show for three years — the only cow in history to achieve that feat.
Shat Acres sells its breeding stock all over the U.S. In August, Steward and Shatney will travel to Sauvie Island, Ore., and Bellingham, Wash., to visit Raisin Cain and other animals they’ve sold.
“When we started showing nationally, people could not believe that this little farm in Greensboro Bend, Vt., was producing these Highlands,” Steward said.
Shatney has 50 years experience with Scotch Highland herds in Vermont. His farm still has descendants from the first Highland cow registered in the U.S., and although the farm was — and still is — mainly a place for preserving the breed through genetics, there is a fairly new marketing concept on the menu: beef.
About eight years ago, Shatney and Steward started processing their herd for beef — and their timing was right. The locavore movement was skyrocketing, and Vermont was one of the leaders. With Vermont grass-fed beef in demand, Shat Acres could offer a grass-fed meat product that was also lower in fat and cholesterol, because the Highland’s long hair replaces the thick layer of fat found on other breeds.
In a short time, Shat Acres has grown from processing “just a handful” to 35 grass-fed animals a year.
For five years, Steward has chaired the American Highland Cattle Association’s Beef Marketing Committee. She claims Shat Acres has the only Highland herd in the U.S. that is not supported by off-farm income or outside capital. She and Shatney, sole employees of Shat Acres, partner up on everything, including distribution and delivery of their product to Vermont stores and restaurants.
“Janet handles the business and marketing end of things,” Shatney said. “I do a lot of the physical work.”
Shatney’s paternal grandparents, Arthur and Winona, established the family’s first dairy farm in nearby Greensboro in 1915. Ray Shatney’s parents, the late Carroll and Polly, assumed operation of the farm in 1940.
Carroll Shatney bought his first Highland cow for $50 in the late 1960s; it was branded but not registered, so he traced the brands to register it. In the 1980s, he and Polly moved from Greensboro to the current farm in Greensboro Bend, where he and Ray built their herd of Highlanders.
Ray Shatney and Janet Steward met in the early 2000s. They wed two years ago. She grew up on Long Island, not on a farm, and was an elementary school teacher for 30 years. She was Vermont’s Teacher of the Year in 2002 — and at one point in her life she was afraid of cows.
The horns on the Highlanders still intimidate Steward sometimes — along with some vets and visitors to the farm, understandably — but she and her husband treat their herd like pets. They rue every animal’s trip to the slaughterhouse every other Tuesday, even though they understand the necessity.
“I never slam a door and I never slam a gate (when they’re going to the slaughterhouse),” Shatney said. “I don’t force. I don’t yell, whoop or anything. If it takes a half hour to get one in the truck, it takes a half hour.”
Steward never imagined a time in her life that she would be designing barns, paddocks and marketing plans for the unique beef that she was raising. When she first tasted Highlander beef, she realized “This was an animal whose time has come,” she said.
Shatney and Steward are in their sixties. They have five daughters between them, but none of them have shown interest in assuming Shat Acres someday.
So for Shatney and Steward, a huge question remains: What will happen to this herd, its history and legacy? Will it continue? And, if so, under who — and how?
“It’s something we’re just starting to talk about,” Steward said. “We just don’t know yet.”
Some days, when the work is hard, and the days are long, Steward thinks back to the SBA awards ceremony, and what it symbolized. She then takes comfort in the pride she feels for realizing others appreciate Shat Acres’ commitment to its animals — and customers.
“Although what Ray and I do is a labor of love, we know it has to be run as a business or we will not be able to continue to do what we love,” Steward said. “At the awards ceremony, it was clear we were in the company of so many hard-working Vermonters who — in their own businesses — make the same commitment. We were honored to be part of such a talented and dedicated group of individuals.”