From pasture to perfect cut
What drives a successful knife manufacturer from Solingen, Germany to the high desert expanses of North East Nevada, USA? Just passion – and over 3,000 cattle!
‘Isn't it wonderful?’ Harald Wüsthof makes a sweeping gesture across the expanse of the landscape. Green pasture as far as the eye can see, across to the distant mountains on the horizon, and down in the southeast to the snow-covered peaks of the East Humboldt Range. Welcome to Deeth, Nevada. This really is the middle of nowhere: the closest town, Wells, with a population of just under 1,500, is about 30 km or over 20 miles away and it‘s a good 53 km (33 miles) to Elko, the county capital. The nearest major city, Salt Lake City, is about 3 hours by car.
The middle of nowhere
Harald Wüsthof, one of the two managing directors of the eponymous premium knife manufacturer from Solingen, Germany, has found his personal happiness here with Gwen Spratling-Wüsthof. Together with the other members of the Spratling clan, they run a ranch across 130,000 acres, the equivalent of 526 square kilometres (over 200 square miles), which is almost the size of Chicago or a third the size of London.
‘It is all so very different from Solingen,’ he says with a laugh. ‘And it‘s why I enjoy being in my second home just as much as in my real home: it’s the perfect combination.’
In Solingen, you have to climb a steep hill for a similarly broad view and the valleys are deeper. Together with the abundant rainfall, this landscape was exactly the advantage needed by local industry in the northern Rhine region of Germany to develop a world-famous City of Blades. Streams and rivers were dammed up and the power of the water was used to operate grinding stones, small hammer mills and other mechanical establishments. This is how the ‘Kotten’ were created, the simple factories of the time – today we would call them workshops; around 1814 there were about 120 of them, including WÜSTHOF's Kotten in the Weinsberg valley.
But even then, people were struggling with limited space. Diligence, craftsmanship and perseverance, the driving forces of expansion, soon meant that the Kotten and the valley were just too narrow. So in 1867 the company moved to new premises in Solingen and the product range was expanded to include pocketknives. Then in 1881 Robert Wüsthof, just 23 years old, travelled to North America, laying the foundation for success on the American market with his high-quality forged knives from Solingen, Germany.
Today Harald Wüsthof, who runs the family business together with his cousin Viola Wüsthof, is responsible for the American market. That's why his move to the ranch in Nevada is not quite as adventurous as it first seems – if you ignore the fact that love is always an adventure. He met Gwen during a household goods fair in Chicago where, as a passionate knife manufacturer from Germany, he quickly got into conversation with the owner of a well-established steelware shop with a large specialist knife department. The two immediately realised that, in addition to mutual attraction, they had a lot in common: the same uncompromising attitude towards product quality, the same idea of entrepreneurship and sustainable business, the same attitude towards tradition and progress and how to bring both together. And the same refreshing impartiality in tackling things. The cowgirl with the steelware shop and the forger of premiun kitchen knives: the perfect match.
We raise first-class cattle for first-class meat. And that requires first-class knives. A bad knife can ruin the best steak. When you have put so much energy, love and, above all, respect into raising animals, you also want your product to be processed and appreciated in the best possible way and with the same respect.Gwen Spratling-Wüsthof
Like Harald, Gwen represents the 7th generation of her family; the Spratlings on her father's side and the Cockrells on her mother's side, all with eventful family histories. The Spratlings have always worked in agriculture and have been involved in cattle breeding since long before their voyage across the Atlantic from England: after emigrating to the USA in 1880 the family moved to different western states, mainly Utah, California and Nevada.
And now let’s focus on North-East Nevada. Here it is not anything like as hot as in the better-known south of the seventh largest state of the United States of America. The climate is still close to that of a desert, the sparse rainfall (just under 300 mm or 12 inches) is evenly distributed throughout the year. At around 1,900 metres (over 6,000 feet) above sea level it rarely gets extremely hot: the average high temperature in the short summer is just over 30 degrees Celsius (86 Fahrenheit), with a peak of 38 degrees (100 Fahrenheit), temperatures that are no longer rare across northern Europe. But because there are no large lakes to store the heat and the sea is many miles away, the land cools down again at night: even in July the thermometer can occasionally fall below freezing. In the cold winters, lows average -12 degrees Celsius (8 Fahrenheit) with extremes of under -40 (-42 Fahrenheit}.
Perfectly adapted cattle
The Black Angus and Hereford cattle breeds are perfectly suited to this climate. Introduced to the US by the English, they cope very well with the conditions in northern Nevada. But there is always room for improvement. At the family ranch the two are crossbred; the gene pool of the herd is carefully controlled using bulls raised on the ranch for breeding. The result is animals that thrive in the mountainous climate of the high desert and produce excellent meat.
Breeding is one criterion of success, attitude is another. From late spring through to autumn the cattle graze on the vast grasslands and the move to the summer pastures is always a big event, creating images straight out of a Wild West film: a huge herd of over 3,000 animals, cows and their calves, plus around 70 bulls, accompanied by cowboys. Except that this is not a film, it's real and really is a lot of work: catching wandering cattle, attending calvings and branding the calves. The whole family has to get involved.
Careful treatment of nature
The family farm treats its land just as carefully as its cattle: part of the summer work involves moving the herd regularly to other pastures to avoid overgrazing. Hay production is also in-house and labour-intensive, beginning with watering the grass pastures in spring to hay harvesting in summer, but it means that in the winter there is enough hay to feed the animals without having to buy food in. Incidentally: the cattle spend the winter outside, but closer to the farm, so that feeding them is easier.
It's good to know exactly what our animals eat. And we can only be sure of that because we produce it ourselves. So we have real control and are 100% sure that the end product is truly natural.Gwen Spratling-Wüsthof
Truly natural - the quality argument
Truly natural – ‘verified natural beef’ or VNB – is an important quality argument for really tasty, high-quality beef, especially for the European market. The cattle are also officially certified by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as NHTC (Non-Hormone Treated Cattle), enabling a steak to be traced back to the animal it came from and ensuring that cattle are treated strictly separately, for example at slaughter. Just some of the reasons why this meat is so highly valued by steak lovers in Germany.
The taste is simply incomparable!
‘The taste is simply incomparable’, enthuses Harald Wüsthof. ‘You can just taste that we treat the animals well, that they had a good life.’
Nowadays this means species-appropriate husbandry. Cattle are grazing animals, specialised in converting grass into meat. ‘We do not use any chemicals, there are no pesticides or hormones in our farming,’ says Gwen Spratling-Wüsthof.
Speaking of species-appropriate: how does ranch life go with running a world-renowned knife company? ‘Perfectly,’ says Harald Wüsthof and laughs: he is on the road a lot, so he knows the Solingen – New York – Deeth route by heart. And there's the internet and telephone. But most importantly, he is not a solitary fighter: he shares his work as managing direcor of WÜSTHOF with his cousin, Viola Wüsthof. And the staff in Germany, he continues to enthuse, work independently anyway. ‘You don't have to say much, they are all so passionate about their work. The old-fashioned style of management would be completely out of place: today it is more like western riding, with loose reins and blind understanding between horse and rider.
He sure knows what he’s talking about because the breeding of American Quarter Horses is another area of expertise at the ranch. Cowboys tamed the Wild West with the help of this breed, as the compact, agile animals are great sprinters with a docile, calm nature; they are friendly and sensitive, do not spook easily and take well to training. Some even have that famed ‘cow sense’, meaning that they can outmaneuver cattle without guidance from their rider.
The horses are used for work and in competitions too: some members of the Spratling Ranch regularly compete in regional and national events. This is, of course, primarily for fun, but it is also very useful as when people see what a horse is capable of this boosts the breed’s reputation. Placing well in class therefore also supports a strong sales pitch.
‘This is really more for the younger generation,’ says Harald Wüsthof. ‘We both take it a little easier.’ Calmer? Gwen and Harald have just bought a piece of land with a large orchard, more than 100 trees, over 80 years old: apples, pears, cherries, apricots and plums. They are currently restoring it. They also want to keep sheep and goats here. So there is still much to do in the vastness of North East Nevada.