Joe Sprague has been farming and raising cattle for many years. “I grew up with cows,” he says. “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 says, “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 herd of 70.
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.
Over the years, Sprague had thought about selling his own beef, but upon looking into it, always found the cost prohibitive. In the fall of 2010, however, he went up to to Vermont to buy a new bull, and asked the farmer there how he made a living with his herd of 300 cattle. The answer was that he sold his own beef, and that got Sprague thinking again. This time, there was a way to turn thought to reality.
About two years ago Rhode Island Beef and Veal opened in Johnston, making it possible for area farmers to produce and sell their own meats. The slaughterhouse 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, liver and hamburger is 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.
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 Lewis Farm from early spring to late fall.
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 says, “was drinking coffee at the kitchen table one morning and asked if I had gone 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 in the freezer-cooler at the Block Island Depot, owned by Joe’s sister Cindy and her husband Stan Geer. 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 Depot also carries some rib roasts and stew beef, and even liver.
After tasting the ground beef, I can tell you that it is full of flavor and juicy. I also can attest to the good feelings engendered by supporting this local venture and, by extension, the view of Sprague Farm I enjoy every time I drive down West Side Road.