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Meat and Greet – A Halal Tale

| 16/06/2008 | Reply

With a halal slaughter facility, a Morrisville farmer becomes an unlikely cultural ambassador

The
small custom-slaughtering facility at Morrisville’s Winding Brook Farm
is spic and span, save for a tiny puddle of blood that gleams on the
drain in the middle of the painted concrete floor. Two electric hoists
hang from the ceiling. Not knowing better, one might think they were
pieces of exercise equipment for pull-ups or some other kind of
strength training. In fact, they’re used to haul animal carcasses
aloft. On the wall hang a number of knives and a hacksaw. The former
are used to slaughter and skin goats, sheep and the occasional veal
calf, the latter to cut their meat into usable portions. The air smells
reassuringly of bleach.

Just a few steps away, the farmyard explodes with life. Ducks,
chickens, geese, guinea hens and a striking blue peacock run amok, and
two farm dogs patrol the premises, located on a well-traveled stretch
of Route 100.

Farmer Arthur Meade, bearded and wearing well-worn work clothes in
various shades of blue, is eager to explain how a white, “guess you’d
say” Baptist farmer from Maine ended up with a business in rural
Vermont that enables Bosnian and Somali Bantu Muslims to slaughter
animals in the way prescribed by the Koran. The term for the method is
“halal,” which means “permissible” in Arabic. It involves slitting the
animal’s throat while speaking the name of Allah.

Halal meat isn’t easy to come by in the Green Mountains. “These
people have a right to participate in their religious convictions,”
Meade suggests. “And there’s no place in the state to do it. I allow
people to practice their beliefs in clean, safe conditions. They bless
the animals. It’s a little bit of home.”

Although Meade sells 25 or 30 animals per month to folks who are
prepared to process them on site, most of his business is of the more
common variety. He fattens up traditional livestock breeds, sends them
away to a slaughterhouse in Troy, Vermont, and sells the resulting
steaks, chops and roasts to acclaimed local restaurants such as Claire’s [1], Michael’s on the Hill [2], The Bee’s Knees [3], Hen of the Wood [4], Blue Moon Café [5] and Kismet
[6]. He also offers cuts at the Hunger Mountain Co-op and at
Morrisville’s year-round farmers’ market. All his meat is
state-inspected, he assures.

Meade never tried to carve out a “custom slaughter” niche. He
stumbled into it nearly a decade ago, when a Bosnian trucker driving
down Route 100 spied the grazing livestock and stopped in to ask if he
could butcher his own lamb. “The answer was no the first two or three
times,” Meade says. But it wasn’t long before he acquiesced, and his
customer base ballooned. “In that community, once you do something for
one it just grows,” he says. “I never solicited business; it’s purely a
word of mouth.”

Just a few months ago, though, Meade wouldn’t have been able to
speak candidly with a reporter about this aspect of his business: It
wasn’t legal. “A couple years ago we did a Free Press article that got
us a raft of shit,” he recalls. The legal requirements for a custom
slaughter operation include washable walls and potable water. At the
time, Meade wasn’t sure the demand for halal meat was worth the funds
he’d need to invest to operate aboveboard, so he allowed his customers
to keep coming on the sly. “I can butcher anything I want on my own
farm for my own personal consumption. I was trying to play a little
stupid,” he admits.

But he wasn’t pulling the proverbial wool over anyone’s eyes. “I’m
on Route 100 in Morrisville,” Meade says. “I’m pretty visible. It’s not
a good idea for [customers] to walk out of here with a lamb over their
back on the stick.”

Meade’s side business earned him a slew of letters from the meat-inspection specialists at the Association of Africans Living in Vermont
[7] (AALV). The farmer asked Wright to find out from his contacts in
the African community just how meaningful the slaughter operation was
to them.

Before he got Meade’s call, Wright knew next to nothing about
Winding Brook’s business. “I was aware that people traveled out of the
general Burlington area to acquire fresh goat meat that was slaughtered
in the halal fashion. I was not aware of the specific location or the
name of the farmer who raised the goats or provided the slaughter,” he
explains. “I talked to several people, and everybody seemed to know
[Meade] and said really good things about him. It gave me the
understanding that this was in the African community’s best interest.”

Abdullahi Hassan, a Somali Bantu who came to Vermont in 2005,
certainly thinks so. Although he’s found sources of frozen halal meat
imported from Australia and U.S. states with larger Muslim populations,
every two months he travels to Morrisville to choose a goat from
Meade’s farm.

Hassan says many urban Somalis buy their meat from butchers, but
those who now live in Vermont tend to have a more traditional
lifestyle. “Most of them were farmers since they were born,” he says.
“They were living on the banks of the river and they were producing
their own food.” Consequently, they “like fresh meat that they’ve
slaughtered; they don’t want the meat to stay for a long time in the
freezer.”

Freshness aside, it’s also comforting to sup on familiar foods such
as goat, sweet potatoes and bananas. “The kids that come here at 5 or 6
years [old], they can adapt and be a new American generation,” Hassan
says. “Me and the others, we never forget our cultures, so we like to
have our original food. Somali Bantus like to have gardens. This food
from cans, we don’t like this food.”

The passion Wright encountered when he inquired about Meade’s
business convinced him to get involved. “There’s the cultural
significance and the religious necessity of it,” he muses. “There’s
something very significant in being able to put your hands on what you
will be eating. It’s not wrapped in a gazillion layers of plastic.
You’re seeing that animal and slaughtering it yourself; you’re taking
it home to your family.”

Wright admires Meade’s tolerance, too. “He went more than out of his
way to accept our community,” he explains. “He’s willing to be open at
all hours with little or no notice.”

With Wright’s assurance that his business was “significantly
important to the community,” Meade finally committed to getting the
appropriate permits and permissions to appease the ag department.
Because Winding Brook is a “bona fide farm,” he says, the operation is
exempt from certain Act 250 regulations that would have made compliance
financially unattainable. With Wright backing him up at a hearing, his
fine was reduced to a mere $500.

“He went to bat for me,” Meade says. The farmer already had an
implementation grant from the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board to
help build the facility, and had resolved some water-quality issues
through Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). We were able to
incorporate wastewater disposal and composting of my renderings, so
that everything is properly taken care of for the environment,” he says.

At the same time, a savvy business move Meade made in 2006 is
helping the bottom line: “I’d called up the food-stamp people and said,
‘This is probably the stupidest question you’ve ever been asked, but
can somebody use food stamps to buy a live animal?'” he recalls. “The
guy said, ‘As long as it leaves dead.'” On the first of the month — his
busiest day by far — Meade’s customers pay with a little help from
Uncle Sam.

The folks in state government couldn’t be happier with the way
things turned out. Says Quenneville, “Now we can even tell people when
they come looking that there’s a place that can meet their needs for
the custom slaughter of animals.”

Meade says Quenneville “told me the agency was really happy to see
that I was legal. They treated me very fair in the process of doing
this,” he admits.

* * *

Now that the law is off his back, Meade is settling down to
business. The gruff former industrial-arts teacher and plumbing-supply
salesman acknowledges he’s had to adjust to the business culture of his
clientele. “I’m here most of the time, so I may have created my own
monster,” he says. “With the language barrier, they don’t tend to call
ahead much. They’ll call and say, ‘You got big goat?’ and I’ll say yes.
But you don’t know exactly when they’ll show up. Sometimes I get
frustrated because somebody will call and say, ‘We’re on the road,’ and
three hours later they’ll call and say, ‘We’re just leaving.'”

Additionally, Meade has to haggle over the price of each sheep and
goat. “They find the animal that suits their needs,” he says. “The
younger goats go by the pound; the older dairy goats are per head, but
there’s no real fixed price . . . and there’s a significant amount of
negotiation,” he explains. “It’s just part of doing business with this
community. I always try and make sure they’re happy with what they
bought, and knowing that there are financial restrictions, I try to
oblige. If I have animals that aren’t as fat and juicy as some other
ones, I price them accordingly.” Customers don’t have to pay extra to
use Meade’s slaughtering facility. “It’s a fringe benefit,” he says.

But he won’t deal the deathblow for them. Meade says he’s “never
wanted to operate a slaughterhouse, to slaughter animals myself, as
Arthur Meade. What I want to do and am doing is offering a clean, safe
environment for people to process their own animals — sheep, goats,
veal that they’ve bought from me — as long as the animals are treated
humanely. It won’t be the savior of the farm, but it’s one more thing
to put in the bag of tricks. It all puts money in the coffers.”

Later this summer, those coffers may grow significantly. Meade
recently heard through his grapevine that “there’s supposed to be
another 250 to 300 Arabic-speaking people moving in this summer,” many
of whom may be Muslims, he surmises.

Is Winding Brook Farm a sign of things to come in a state not known
for its cultural diversity? Meade sees Vermont as a hospitable place
for immigrants. “Maybe it’s just because we’re open-minded, and you
don’t get lost in the shuffle.”

George Wright thinks the farmer-entrepreneur deserves credit, too.
“There are a wide range of perspectives in the community about New
Americans,” he points out, “and this is somebody who didn’t fall prey
to those easy arguments and has seen people as people.”

Category: The Americas

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