Historic Watson Farm
A Heritage Herd and a Caring Couple
The Perfect Fit
BY JOHNETTE RODRIGUEZ
PHOTOS BY CAROLE TOPALIAN
Far removed from Wild West images of herding cattle on the Texas plains, Jamestown farmer Don Minto calls to his Red Devon herd, in their pasture overlooking Narragansett Bay, “Let’s go, let’s go, let’s go.” And they obligingly moo back at him, in great bursts of cow harmony.
“I can lead them [to different grazing areas] with my voice,” Minto explained, on an allterrain-vehicle tour of Watson Farm, where he and wife, Heather, have been caretakers and farm managers since 1980.
When the Mintos first came to this 265-acre property, one of four Rhode Island properties owned by Historic New England, they had a few years of homesteading behind them and college degrees well suited to their future life (plant and soil science, museum education). They also had enough energy and drive to pursue their dreams of building a self-sustaining farm, along with educating school groups and other farm visitors about the history of the property as well as its agricultural significance within the tiny Ocean State.
Among their most lasting achievements at the farm will definitely be the re-introduction of Red Devon cattle, a heritage breed that was the first to come to America from England, in 1623, possibly pastured on this very land in those early colonial years. The Mintos chose the breed partly because of its docility.
“It’s great to see city kids or kids that have never touched a cow be up close with them,” Don commented.
But primarily, they valued the Red Devon for its ability to convert grass to beef. “Heritage breeds are more sustainable,” he emphasized. “Everyone said we couldn’t do it. We thought we could improve the land but we needed cows that would help us do that. The English system of husbandry was pastoral, and these cattle are part of that story.”
The 100 head of cattle and 70 of sheep are rotated each day, from one measured space to another, marked out by one or two slender pieces of electrified polywire cord (run by a solar generator). The cords are easily reeled in and the space changed for the animals in a matter of 10 minutes.
“It’s management intensive,” Don admits, “but sustainable. We look at every paddock as a solar panel; we look at how high the grass is. By moving them, we keep it growing.” The Mintos utilize the 165 open acres on the farm (the rest is woods and swamp) for pasture, gardens and hayfields, and they’ve strived to make the pH of the soil healthier by bringing it from an acidic 4.5 to a neutral 7. They’ve reached 6.8 in the approximately seven years since the Red Devons became their primary herd, due to careful monitoring of the pasture growth, plus spreading finished compost, fish gurry and lime on the soil.
But as the Mintos “grew” the beef, they were having an increasingly hard time getting it processed so that they could sell it. The infrastructure to support the few local places that still did parts of that processing had decayed.
“The ideas and the coming together as farmers sprang out of necessity,” Don explained, about his role as one of the founders of the Rhode Island Raised Livestock Association in 2005. “We banded together to try to change the system and make it better. We wrote mission statements at our kitchen table—trying to figure out how to solve the issue.”
And they did. They found the necessary funds to upgrade operations in Johnston (for processing) and in Westerly (for cutting and packaging), which now have approximately 70 farmers using the combined setup. And with the growth of farmers’ markets, grass-fed beef has gained in popularity, as have Red Devons. The Mintos now sell their breeding stock as far west as Minnesota and Nebraska.
“With Red Devon cattle, the fat is dispersed intramuscularly, not on the outside of the meat,” Heather explained. “It almost ho mogenizes in the muscle, and when you cook it, that gives it a distinctive flavor.”
And the Mintos have given flavor to this historic property, raising three daughters (and now two grandchildren) with a deepseated love of protecting and nurturing natural resources. They also provide farm visitors with a deep sense of stepping back in time with the menagerie in the barnyards: bleating lambs, squealing piglets, purring barn cats, squawking chickens and ducks (including the graceful Chocolate Runners) and an ever-avid border collie, Boo.
“We never take this land for granted,” he added, looking past hayfields to Dutch Harbor.
“We love what we’re doing. It’s been our lifeblood.” eR
Johnette Rodriguez is a food, travel and arts writer published in Yankee, Saveur, The Boston Globe, The Providence Phoenix, the South County Independent and The Westerly Sun.
455 North Rd., Jamestown, RI
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