Meat and Greet
With a halal slaughter facility, a Morrisville farmer becomes an unlikely cultural ambassador
Yussuf Hassan butchers a goat at Winding Brook Farm
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, Michael's on the Hill, The Bee's Knees, Hen of the Wood, Blue Moon Café and Kismet. 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 Agency of Agriculture, warning him his activities had to cease. "We had numerous meetings with him," recalls Meat Inspection Chief Randy Quenneville. But, Quenneville stresses, the goal was to make Meade comply with various state regulations, not to shut down his operation. "There was never a question that there's a need for [halal slaughter], and we'd like to see more people do it."
By early 2008, Quenneville and his cohorts were fed up. Their next chastising letter to Meade came with a $2000 fine. "It was pretty frustrating from our side," Quenneville recalls. "We didn't want to fine him to make him come into compliance — that's our last resort — but we've got to keep people on the same playing field. The fine could have been 10 times higher," he adds, "but we don't want your money. Put your money into your plant."
In Meade's mind, though, he'd already put enough money into his plant — at least when he compared it with the competition. "At that point I had seen a major deterioration of my business with the Bosnian community due to some other farms that were doing what I was doing, but with less than sanitary practices," he says. "I was uncomfortable putting any more money into it knowing I was competing with a market that was substandard to what I was trying to do."
Before deciding once and for all, Meade consulted George Wright, executive director of a Burlington-area nonprofit called Association of Africans Living in Vermont (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."