Island-grown beef: it's what's for dinner
Locavore, a word in high currency across the Sound these days, refers to someone who buys and eats locally raised food. Even school children are getting a slice of the action at some mainland Rhode Island schools, while lovely produce at the island Farmers Market has made vegetarian locavores here happy the last couple of summers. Now, island carnivores get their turn.
The Block Island Depot, owned by Cindy and Stan Geer, is now being supplied with frozen beef and fresh eggs from the island farm of Joe Sprague, Cindy's brother.
Sprague has been farming and raising cattle for many years. “I grew up with cows,” he said. “The only thing that’s always been in my life, all 56 years of it, is cows.”
Many island denizens know Sprague. He might have dug the foundation for their new house or garage, or brought over a load of gravel. But first and foremost, this white haired, mustached middle-aged man is a farmer. “I’m addicted to farming,” he said. “You can’t stop yourself from farming.”
He got his first cow from his father when he was six, a calf in exchange for cleaning out the manure troughs all winter. Now he has a heard of 65 with 20 of them still expected to calve this summer.
In the past, Sprague would truck the cows to cattle auctions and sell them off there, but often the price of beef would be low, and some years he just about broke even on them. Other farmers would take their cows home if the price wasn’t right and bring them elsewhere, but taking them back to Block Island and off again meant another chunk of cash out of Sprague’s pocket, so he would accept the low price.
About two years ago, on a trip to Vermont , Sprague asked a farmer there how he made a living with his herd of 300 cattle. The answer was that he sold his own, and that got Sprague thinking again about doing it.
At about the same time the slaughterhouse opened, Rhode Island Beef and Veal opened in Johnston, and that slaughterhouse made it possible for area farmers to produce and sell their own meats.
Before they set up shop, though Sprague considered the idea from time to time, there had been no way to do it in Rhode Island. A cow could be legally purchased by someone and then butchered, but selling beef at market was not possible.
But now, there was a way.
Rhode Island Beef and Veal has a federal inspector on site, according to Sprague, and the meat is quartered there and put into a refrigerated truck that brings it to a packing plant in Westerly. The steaks, roasts, and hamburger portions are Cryovac packaged and frozen, then brought here via a Belmont Market refrigerated truck. Sprague joined the Rhode Island Raised Livestock Association to gain the required licensing.
Without the middlemen taking a cut, he hopes his labor of love will finally turn a profit.
The Sprague Farm has a total of 44 acres, part of which was the original family farm and part of which he purchased from his neighbor. In addition to the cattle, Sprague raises chickens and grows potatoes. The old “Pit” on West Side Road now has cattle grazing and the potato crop growing. In addition, some of the cattle herd roam the Lewis Farm, one of the expanses of meadow that Sprague pastures.
Though he does have help working the farm, thus far Sprague’s children haven’t indicated they would like to make farming their vocation like he did. “My dad,” he said, “was drinking coffee at the kitchen table one morning and asked if I went mowing. Then he said, ‘Keep it up and it’ll be expected of you.’” Sprague saw his son Abel out plowing recently, and told him the same thing.
Joe Sprague’s beef is neatly and generously displayed in a big new standing freezer at the Block Island Depot. Prices by the pound are ground beef, $7.99; London broil, $8.99; sirloin steak, $14.99; ribeye semi-boneless, $12.99; and tenderloin, $17.99. The store also carries some rib roasts and stew beef, and even liver.
This reporter has sampled the hamburger so far, and can attest to its juicy freshness, as well as the good feelings engendered by supporting this local venture and, by extension, the view of Sprague Farm she enjoys every time she drives down West Side Road.
Local Sprague Farm eggs are also on sale at the Depot for $3.50 a dozen, and Cindy Geer says she now carries Rhody Fresh Milk from a cooperative of eight farms.