Halal in the Hills
Written onJune 01 , 2010
Art Meade is a 59-year-old livestock and poultry farmer with a thick Maine accent and a farm on Route 100 in Morrisville. He also happens to run the only state-licensed slaughter facility in Vermont that caters to Muslims who practice halal slaughter. This is the Muslim tradition of swiftly slitting the throat of a domesticated meat animal with a sharp knife; the animal is believed to be killed instantly and painlessly (though there is some debate about that). Muslims, who are directed by their religion to eat halal meat, can purchase such meat in Vermont stores, but some prefer to do the slaughter themselves.
Art has “a couple hundred” do-it-yourself slaughter customers at his Winding Brook Farm—mostly Somalis and Bosnians from the Burlington area—and he sells them 500 animals a year. Visitors go into the pens at the farm, choose an animal (goats are the most popular) and slaughter the animal in a small concrete structure. Art affectionately refers to his immigrant customers as “ethnics” and has become familiar with many of their customs and beliefs since first offering do-it-yourself slaughtering 15 years ago. Here are excerpts from a conversation I had with Art at his farm in early May. –Caroline Abels
On his customers: If you want to buy a lamb or a goat or whatever, I have no problem if you’re white or black or whatever, but the majority of my customers are foreign. In the 15 years I’ve been doing this, I think I’ve had only three or four Americans do their own animals, and most of them had some sort of an ethnic partner. Americans have just lost touch with where their meat comes from. If it doesn’t come out of a plastic bag, we don’t know what it is. But for most of my customers it’s still part of home, it’s very much a part of their religious custom, and they save a hell of a lot of money. If they have the talent to do their own processing, they can save themselves quite a few dollars.
On the early days: First I had Bosnians come. A lot of them are truck drivers and they’d drive by on Route 100 and see the farm and see the sheep and start asking if they could do this. For a long time I said no—I thought it would be a pain in the ass and I didn’t want to deal with it. I was already selling everything I had. Then finally one day—I probably ran out of money that day!—I said, “Yeah, go for it.” And I basically started out with, “Here’s a rope and a beam,” and they went into the tractor shed and pushed the manure away and we started killing animals. With the ethnic community, you say one thing and it spreads like wildfire, so we went from small to a little bigger, to a little bigger, then we put down some cement, put plastic on the walls. Then we had some company from Montpelier [the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, which said he was breaking the law by allowing this kind of slaughtering outside an inspected facility]. We put in the facility four or five years ago. Everyone said, “Just send them to the slaughterhouse.” Well, a slaughterhouse is not going to want someone walking in with their own knife, killing their own animal. And my customers like what happens here: the animals go into a big pen, they’re not pushed around, they don’t suffer. It makes the life of an ethnic family better.
On the language barrier: The Bosnians have enough English so that it works, and the Somalis have enough English skills to manage. With some of the words, it takes a while to figure out what they’re looking for: plastic, a box, a knife. But they haven’t been overly hard to speak with. I never see this very much with the Bosnian community, but with the Somali community they point to something and say, “$2.99?” That [negotiating] gets to be real hard. I’ve learned to start high. But I don’t make a large percentage on these goats ‘cause I’m dealing with a very poor group of people. If it wasn’t for food stamps, I couldn’t do this. If I increased my price, I’d lose them all.
On his business after September 11: It was very weird. I never saw a Muslim for over a month. And then I had some people say, “Well, how can you sell to these Muslims after this?” And I said , “I’m not going to stop selling to all Catholics and Protestants, because if you think of the number of people killed in Northern Ireland over religious wars, it far exceeded 9/11.” When I finally got some of them to start coming back, we’d start talking and they’d say, “We’re embarrassed. That is not what we’re about. We are a peace-loving group and we are just so ashamed to be associated with those radicals.”
On special occasions: Some of the folks, they are so—especially the Bosnians—so proud of their children when they graduate from college and high school. I mean, I love college graduations—that’s five or six lambs! And if they have a wedding, that’s always a big thing. And the birth of a son.
On the Muslim women who perform halal slaughter: Oh—get the hell out of the way! Some of them come with beautiful dresses on, and I have aprons for them, and I keep a couple of pairs of boots around that they wear. But then, get out of the way! They’re not squeamish at all. I probably have more men who are squeamish.