Animals at Watson Farm
After the purchase of Conanicut Island in 1654 from the Narragansett tribe, the land was quickly dedicated to sheep farming. The first farmers on the island raised sheep to provide meat for the table and wool for clothing and blankets. However, because of the island's ideal conditions, Jamestown farmers soon became very prosperous by shipping breeding stock, mutton, and wool up and down the coast. The fertile open meadows were safe from natural predators and easily reached by water, which was the primary means of transportation.
According to Fat Mutton and Liberty of Conscience (Carl Bridenbaugh, 1974) “fleeces produced on the good meadows of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations were superior to those clipped anywhere else in New England.” So great were the profits from the Island’s flocks that early Jamestowners prominently displayed a silver sheep on their municipal town seal...This sheep still appears on the town seal and on the Jamestown flag.”
For two hundred years, Jamestown farmers continued to raise sheep on a large scale. In 1767, the sheep population of the island was 1,871. By 1875, the count had risen to a peak of 2,054. With the arrival of steam ferries came summer residents, hotels, and development, beginning a steady decline in the sheep population; 1,018 in 1885, and 398 in 1895. In the twentieth century, flocks on the island were fewer and fewer, with most sheep kept for old time’s sake rather than for profit.
By the time Historic New England received Watson Farm in 1979 there were no longer any sheep on the island. The farm managers started a small flock which rapidly grew. The flock today consists of forty white and natural colored ewes. They are a cross of Romney, Border Leisters, and Texel breeds. The flock is managed for their long wool and for stocky market lambs. Each ewe produces one or two lambs a year, with twinning being very common. The lambs stay at their mother’s side and graze through the summer. Market lambs are harvested in the fall and grass-fed lamb is sold at the Coastal Growers’ Market at Casey Farm as well as directly from Watson Farm.
Sheep Shearing Day is an annual spring ritual at Watson Farm and the public is invited to visit on this pre-season Open Farm day. The flock is brought in and each sheep is shorn. Handspinners and weavers demonstrate while visitors watch the wool fiber carded and spun into yarn and then woven into cloth. It is a great way to celebrate spring on the farm. The event is always held on the Saturday before Mother’s Day in May.
After the wool is shorn it is carefully skirted. This entails separating out parts of the fleece that are contaminated with chaff from the hay feeders or severely soiled from mud or manure. Proper management of the sheep through out the year keeps skirting waste to a minimum.
Next, the wool is packed very tightly into giant plastic wool bags that are sewn shut. The white wool is carefully kept separate from the browns, grays, and blacks of the natural colored wool. The wool from the Watson Farm flock is then shipped to MacAusland’s Woolen Mill on Prince Edwards Island. There it is washed, carded, and spun into white and natural colored yarns. The yarns are woven into cloth that is made into warm, 100% wool blankets.
The Conanicut Island Blanket, made from the wool produced at Watson Farm, is a model of how producers can make a value-added product from a relatively low value raw material. This model was so successful that the Rhode Island Rural Development Council and the Rhode Island Sheep Co-op started a statewide initiative to make wool blankets and “Rhody Warm Blanket” was created. The farm managers at Watson Farm also contribute wool to the Rhody Warm Blanket project. Both blankets are available at the Watson Farm.
Red Devon Cattle
Historic New England’s Watson Farm is home to about 100 Heritage Red Devon cattle which are raised on the farm for the production of 100% grass-fed and finished beef. The Watson Farm herd also provides quality Red Devon genetics for other farmers seeking breeding stock for the ever-expanding grass-fed beef industry. This breed was chosen for its docility, even temperament, good mothering ability, propensity to perform well on grass alone, and for its long and rich history as a heritage breed.
The Red Devon arrived in North American in 1623 on the vessel Charity at Plymouth Colony. Miles Standish of Plymouth was one of the first owners of Red Devon cattle. Three heifers and a bull of the “Red” type from Devonshire arrived and began playing a key role in the English colonization of the North American continent.
Back then, the Devon was favored for its hardy foraging ability in uncertain grass conditions; their rich milking ability favored the sustenance of both calf and the colonists' families, and their docility and strength adapted them for use as oxen. This tri-purpose breed played an important role in the fledgling new nation.
This continued until the twentieth century when the breed fell out of favor as industrial agriculture concentrated production into the “feedlot” system of production and these animals got too fat.
Today, the Red Devon is poised to be the breed of the future as it regains its rightful place on American farms and ranches. Conscientious farmers across the country are creating a widespread, sustainable, and healthy food movement that is localized and economically vibrant. A growing base of knowledgeable consumers are seeking wholesome, nutritious, local food. Farmers raising grass-fed Red Devon cattle are now at the forefront of this movement. This heritage breed of cattle, the Ruby Red Devons, will be an important part of our sustainable, healthy food system.
Watson Farm is a great place to visit and learn more about this heritage breed’s history and future.