by Pamela Thompson, Volunteer Writer
Silk Tree Farm is a labor of love a long time in the making. Tucked in alongside busy Rt. 165 in Exeter, you only must travel up the driveway a short distance to be transported back to another era. The homestead where proprietor Cathy Bardsley lives is original to the property and was built in 1752. She bought the former horse farm in 2019 and is steadily turning it into a premier livestock farm. The many outbuildings that were on site have been repurposed to accommodate her unique menagerie.
Cathy’s journey to becoming a livestock farmer began in 2008 when she bought her first goat, a Nubian named Shelby. She had taken a cheese-making class and found it meditative and rewarding. Having a goat in the backyard allowed her access to the milk needed to make cheese. From that modest beginning, this homesteader-at-heart now raises a multitude of heritage breeds including Red Wattle hogs, Spanish goats, Narragansett turkeys, Black Jersey Giants, Silver Appleyard ducks and Freedom Ranger chickens. Cathy is enthusiastic about raising heritage breed awareness, helping in her own way to keep these varieties thriving. There is also a peacock in the mix, which arrived under the guise of being a turkey poult. Cathy noticed a difference as the brood grew, and after contacting her supplier realized it was indeed a peacock! Pavo lives happily in the same pen with the turkeys.
Heritage breeds are pedigree varieties within a breed. Preservation breeding is an attempt to preserve these bloodlines within a species. In the case of Cathy’s Red Wattles, each sow and boar are registered with The Livestock Conservancy, of which Silk Tree Farm is a member. This helps in the protection of genetic diversity within the breed, which is on the threatened list and slowly making a comeback.
As with any livestock farmer, Cathy’s day begins with feeding her stock, and in her case, milking the goats. This twice-a-day chore is her opportunity to check in with the five current producers. The gallon of milk is then either refrigerated for immediate use or frozen for the next production run of goat milk products that are produced on site. Cathy is constantly experimenting, and a new undertaking is trying her hand at making goat milk mozzarella for family and friends.
Silk Tree Farm is the recent recipient of a $17,640 Rhode Island Energy grant for a 7.2 kW ground-mounted solar array. This installation is a welcome addition and will help offset the cost of running the six-and-a-half-acre farm, adding to the sustainability model that Cathy has adopted. The array will be installed on top of the massive indoor horse-riding arena. This cavernous building is currently used for storage, but several ideas are being considered for its repurpose. One concept is growing fodder for the livestock using a drip irrigation system.
In addition to selling her meats online, Cathy has a vast array of sustainably manufactured home goods that she produces on the farm. These include soaps, both bar and liquid, soy candles, shampoo, all-purpose cleaner and a nice assortment of party favor items that can be labeled or inscribed for event keepsakes. There is a small storefront in the works on the farm, all the products are available through the website silktreefarm.com (where Cathy also offers CSA shares and soap subscriptions) — and you can also usually find Silk Tree Farm at the Farm Fresh Providence Farmers Market for the wintertime season, November through April.
There is also a sizable vegetable garden on the farm. Cathy repurposed old horse fencing, fashioning it like Lincoln Logs to make raised beds and filled each with composted manure. She is growing everything from artichokes to zucchini. As a long-time gardener, I can say her first-year crop looks to be an enviable one. There will be plenty of produce to put up for the coming winter.
I spent a couple of hours at Silk Tree walking the property. What I came away with primarily is the passion, drive and energy that Cathy possesses. After several life changes and the purchase of this farm, Cathy admits that a healing process has taken place within her. For years she doubted herself and her abilities. It is impossible to tour this farm and not feel anything other than awe and respect for what this woman has accomplished. Cathy’s message to us all is: you can overcome fear, be unapologetically you, and achieve any dream.