STEADY GROWTH: Debra Hopkins, owner of Hopkins Southdowns farm in North Scituate, feeds a lamb. The family-run sheep farm has been run by the Hopkins family for 40 years. They sell meats, primarily, but also wool products.
The emergence of Rhode Island as a haven for chefs and farm-to-table restaurants has contributed to steady growth for Hopkins Southdowns.
The sheep farm, in North Scituate, is spread out over 40 acres and has been in the Hopkins family for generations. Its conversion from vegetable farming to a livestock operation started in 1980, when Donald and Debra Hopkins married and began their business.
They primarily produce lamb for consumption in restaurants, although the business also contributes to a regional pool of sheep farms that produces wool for woolen products.
As the business name implies, their specialty is Southdowns, an old English sheep that is prized for its marbled meat, which produces a tender, mild-flavored lamb. The farm also has a smaller number of Dorsets, which have their lambs in different seasons.
When fresh lamb is the business, lambing season needs to be spaced out through the year.
Debra Hopkins, who manages the business operation, said her family-run farm maintains a herd of 80 breed ewes and five stud rams, with as many as 100 lambs at any one time.
The farm had 38 lambs in the fall, and in February and March, another 60 ewes were due to give birth. The lambs are raised on the farm's 12 open acres of pasture until they are slaughtered and processed, at licensed off-site facilities, at age 6-8 months. The lambs are slaughtered at Rhode Island Beef & Veal in Johnston, then sent in refrigerated trucks to Westerly Packing Co. in Westerly for cutting, freezing and vacuum sealing.
The farm sells all parts of the sheep, and whole carcasses, including internal organs often used in sausage dishes.
Although the farm participates in weekly farmers markets in Pawtucket and Providence, it reaches many of its clients through Farm Fresh Rhode Island.
The Market Mobile app allows customers, mostly restaurants and institutions, such as Johnson & Wales University, to select what cuts and quantities of meat they want, and when. The farm has the product delivered to the Pawtucket headquarters of Farm Fresh RI, and the nonprofit then distributes it to individual restaurants, Hopkins said.
Among the restaurants on the patron list for Hopkins Southdowns: Nick's on Broadway, Gracie's and The Dorrance in Providence, Castle Hill Inn in Newport and Ocean House in the Watch Hill section of Westerly.
Hopkins Southdowns also has established its own working relationships with chefs. Many have visited the sheep farm, to see the lambs, inspect the condition of the facilities and have a closer relationship with the farm.
Although the business does not disclose its sales, it has seen steady growth for several years, Hopkins said.
"The chefs oftentimes are more conscious of the quality of the product, and where they are coming from," Hopkins said. "They like to feature farm-to-table [dishes]." •