On a perfect October afternoon in Jamestown, Rhode Island, Martha Neale leads me down the sloping hill of Windmist Farm with a snow white, day-old merino lamb in tow.
She’s dubbed him Murphy, and after just one day together, he follows Martha like a puppy, his long wobbly gait slightly askew, yet resolute. “They have to get going right away,” she explains, “to try and nurse, to follow mom.”
I’ve been a fan of Windmist Farm since the first moment I happened upon their farm stand, which sells wonderful grass-fed beef; pastured pork, lamb and goat; fresh eggs; cider; and turkeys. On this particular trip, I’m curious to know more about the cow, goat, and sheepskin hides that are also sold at the farm, and so Martha kindly agrees to take me on a tour.
We pass a herd of Belted Galloway cows pulling at the lush grass around them. In the farmyard, turkeys and chickens run free, while three wild American mustangs, adopted through a federal rescue program, help themselves to a large stack of hay. She chats affectionately with each of them in turn, as if to old friends, while I marvel at the fact that all of this is going on right at the foot of the Pell Bridge.
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Although Martha’s husband, George, has been keeping cows on the property since he was a boy, Martha credits reading Michael Pollan’s explosive 2006 book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, with helping to crystalize the role of Windmist Farm within the community. “My whole idea here is that I’m making food I can tell you about,” she says.
It only takes a few minutes of talking with Martha – or, better yet, watching her work – to realize how deeply she cares about the lives and dignity of her animals. She focuses on giving them the best treatment possible throughout their life. “Animals live in the present,” she explains. “’Am I ok right now?’”
And now that there are livestock processing facilities located within Rhode Island, local farmers can walk animals through their entire life cycle. Previously, they may have had to settle for selling them “on the hoof” at auction, a stressful process for the animal, and one that affords the farmer no guarantee of their subsequent treatment.
“I like the fact that we get our own animals back, that I can speak to how they lived, how they ate. I don’t think I could ever go back to not knowing that,” she says. “If you’re going to eat meat, you should think responsibly about it.”
Martha shows me where she is curing a dozen sheep pelts – one of them an exquisite, deep chocolate shade – recently returned from processing in Westerly. Each one is laid out on a hay bale beneath a thick layer of salt. To Martha, using as many parts of her animals as possible is a no brainer that makes her operations more environmentally and economically sustainable.
At $150 for a large, deliciously soft merino hide, a Windmist sheepskin may be more expensive than what you’d pay at some national retailers, but it seems like a steal to me considering the quality of life that these animals have. Plus, sale of the hides helps to preserve open space on the island. I consequently shudder at the thought of the price of a sheepskin I purchased at a big-box home retailer: just $29.99. How and where did that animal live its life?
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As the evening feeding hour approaches, we head toward the pastures. The sight of 42 lambs the size of Labradors galloping toward us, faces expectant at the thought of supper being served, elicits giggles from us both. Meanwhile, a large shaggy guard dog, who discourages preying coyotes from the area, looks on.
Just then, Murphy began investigating the back of my knee for the possibility of milk. I devolved into a fit of baby lamb talk, and completely lost focus on the interview question at hand. “It hasn’t gotten old for me, yet,” I say to Martha by way of apology. “It hasn’t really gotten old for me, either,” Martha replies.
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