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The eco-halal revolution

Clean food for Muslims

By Nadia Arumugam
November 4, 2009

On a brisk November day, Zaid Kurdieh is busy ensuring his chickens are comfortable. With temperatures well below freezing and snow on its way, Kurdieh — an organic farmer in the upstate New York town of Norwich — is moving his flock from open pasture to a heated greenhouse.

“They will simply collapse under the weight of the snow,” he says, with the concern of a worried father.

Raised on organic feed supplemented with organic vegetables, greens, and what they find scurrying through the pasture, the chickens may miss the bountiful surroundings of warmer months. But with the icy spell and frozen ground, they no doubt appreciate the toasty environment of their new home.

With the birds safe inside, Kurdieh turns to his next task. Tomorrow is market day, and he still has to prepare chickens for sale at the Union Square farmers’ market in Manhattan. In the slaughtering facility on his 35-acre farm, Kurdieh lifts chickens collected by his workers the previous day and places them into a series of metal cones. They hang upside down with their wings folded back, their heads and their necks exposed.

One of Zaid Kurdieh’s free-roaming chickens.

Up till now, Kurdieh’s routine has been similar to those of other small-scale organic chicken farmers. But his next action sets him apart. With a razor-sharp knife, he slits the birds’ necks one by one with a single, decisive cut, each time quietly reciting a blessing.

Kurdieh is Muslim, and the chickens he slaughters are halal,or slaughtered according to Islamic tenets. Meat sold as halal is permissible for Muslims to consume. If a meat product is free from pork, which the Koran forbids, and if it has been ritually slaughtered in the zabihah way — a process governed by a set of precise rules set down by Islamic law and tradition — it meets the basic criteria for being halal.

Most Muslims believe that consuming meat that meets this requirement fulfills the onus placed on them by their religion toward this part of their diet. Where the meat comes from and how it was reared is largely considered irrelevant.

But not for Kurdieh. He interprets Islam in a way that renders the environment and the manner in which an animal is raised from birth until death paramount. For him, it’s not enough that the meat is emblazoned with a halal certification stamp. He believes that food should be produced according to the the complex and often neglected Islamic principle of tayyib, which he defines as meaning “wholesome” and “pure.”

This concept, Kurdieh says, is the foundation upon which he has constructed his ethos toward food. That his chickens are fed on a purely natural diet, allowed to grow at a healthy rate, and given bug-filled pastures to explore are as crucial for him as the “Bismallah Allah-u-Akbar” he whispers before that final cut.

And Kurdieh is not alone. He is part of a growing movement of Muslims seeking to revolutionize the production and supply of halal meat in the U.S. This drive for a more transparent and environmentally sound approach to halal meat reflects the natural juncture of Islamic dietary principles and the increasingly popular but almost entirely secular sustainable-food movement sweeping across the country.

Halal goes industrial

Of the eight million Muslims in the United States, 40 percent buy halal meat. But until the early 1990s, it was still relatively difficult for those Muslims to buy halal meat commercially. Today, however, the number of U.S. businesses that supply Muslim grocers and even some non-Muslim supermarkets with mass-processed halal meat products, such as chicken nuggets and hot dogs, is growing; according to industry experts, the halal market now is valued at $16 billion per year.

Kurdieh argues that the meat products these businesses retail to the Muslim community defy the natural order of life, directly contravening the wholesome and pure principles dictated by tayyib.He’s appalled, for example, by the fact that feed given to commercially raised chickens legally contains animal byproducts such as ground animal meal and dehydrated blood.

“Chickens are not vegetarian by nature,” he admits. “Watch a group of chickens running around; if a mouse passes though them, they devour it. That’s natural. But it’s another thing to feed them other dead chickens, or pig flesh. A chicken is not naturally going to find a pig and eat it!”

Certification boards have matched the growth of the American halal industry. The 80 or so current certification boards in the U.S. — such as the Islamic Food and Nutrition Council of America(IFANCA) — charge companies fees to undertake audits of production facilities and inspect documentation on products and manufacturing. The products of certified companies bear a symbol meant to reassure Muslim consumers that these items fully comply with Islamic dietary laws.

IFANCA guarantees that the meat it certifies comes from animals raised on “clean food” or vegetarian diets for the last part of their lives. (Before this period, there is no restriction on feed containing animal byproducts.) Dr. Muhammad Chaudry, the president of IFANCA, says he’s satisfied that this final period of cleansing complies with the precepts of Islam. As evidence, he tells the story of an animal in Islamic tradition that fed on filth but was considered halal and fit to eat after it had been purged over a period of time.

Zaid Kurdieh. (Photo courtesy Leah Koenig)

Chaudry stresses that there are no mandates in Islam asking Muslims to abstain from commercially raised livestock. “My definition of tayyib may be different from his definition,” he says when presented with Kurdieh’s point of view.

Using any method other than intensive farming, says Chaudry, is unrealistic on a large scale. “There is no way that you can feed the seven billion people in the world by free range any more,” he argues. “We would become vegetarians, and certainly we would then run out of vegetables also.”

But Kurdieh thinks otherwise. He studied agriculture and business at the universities of Wyoming and South Dakota and worked for Cornell University’s cooperative extension program, helping farmers set up business plans, before starting his own farm in 1998. Fifteen years ago, he became so disillusioned by the provenance of commercially available halal meat that he vowed not to feed himself or his family meat that he had not sourced and slaughtered personally. And in 2006, he decided to extend this service to his customers and the wider Muslim community.

“When we thought about what livestock to raise, we decided on chicken, because it is the worst type of meat you can buy,” he explains.

One man’s meat

Meanwhile, a handful of other young, professional American Muslims, equally frustrated by the lack of transparency in the commercial halal meat industry and by the intensive farming methods these enterprises support, began trying to build an alternative halal food system based on a local economy of farmers and growers.

In 2004, 34-year-old Yasir Syeed, who lives in north Virginia and works as a sales and marketing executive, started looking into where his food was coming from.

“It is not about just about eating what has been slaughtered correctly,” he says. “God sets the bar much higher. It is also about eating what’s good and pure.”

After seeing a video on factory farming, he decided that he no longer wanted to feed himself or his young family meat raised in this way. In part, this decision was born out of concern for their own health. But more significantly, he was appalled at the treatment of livestock in that environment.

“I feel that every piece of meat has a story, and I’m the final chapter. I want that story where the animal had a life that was pleasurable at the very least,” he says.

For Syeed, all this resonated strongly with the principles of Islam, particularly on the importance of animal welfare, which he says is addressed recurrently in the Koran and reflected in the profound mercy extended by the Prophet Mohammad toward animals in numerous instances.

Reading Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma was pivotal for Syeed. He was particularly struck by how the increasingly commercial organic-food industry seemed strikingly similar to factory farming in terms of how its livestock was treated. So even when Syeed found organic halal meat in the freezer cabinets of local Muslim grocery stores, he didn’t feel satisfied that it met his criteria of how meat should be raised.

So he called up several small-scale farmers in Virginia whose operations he had vetted online. He explained that he would like to personally hand-select livestock that he would slaughter himself in the zabihah way and have the farms butcher the meat for him.

Some were more responsive than others. One farmer turned him down definitively after discussing the proposition with his pastor. “I told him I wasn’t going to be throwing blood around or anything,” Syeed recalls with a laugh. Nonetheless, the farmer said that he felt uncomfortable having someone of a different religion carry out the slaughter.

Syeed soon struck up a relationship with Polyface Farm in Swoope, Virginia. He went there regularly and, on his return, doled out convenient packs of pre-cut meat to friends and relatives.

Requests began to pile up. Two years ago, Syeed decided to partner with the farm, turning his expeditions into a side business that, he hopes, will one day become a full-time enterprise. He set up a website through which people could place their orders, and Green Zabiha was born.

Through word of mouth, recommendations from friends, and by sending out emails to the listserv of an online community of young environmentally savvy Muslims in Washington, D.C., called D.C. Green Muslims, Syeed has accumulated about 100 regular customers, many of whom placed orders in September for free-range, organic Thanksgiving turkeys.

In 2001, the Muslim arm of a Chicago-based interfaith organization, Faith in Place, which works with religious congregations to promote sustainable farming, formed a grassroots cooperative. Local Muslim groups had been asking for meat that was tayyib as well as halal and zabihah.

“Our products are tayyib because we ensure that animals are treated with humanity, raised in respectful environments, and fed a natural diet free from antibiotics, hormones, and other such additives,” the organization promises on its website.

Turkeys at the Kurdieh farm.

Qaid Hassan, who now manages the cooperative, was a volunteer for the community-based business before he joined the staff. Unlike conventional co-ops, members don’t have to pay a membership fee; they simply order specific cuts of chicken, lamb, turkey, and beef from the website or over the phone. The meat is then shipped directly to individual members, or to group drop-off sites.

Hassan sources the meat directly from a local farmer about an hour south of Chicago, who raises all his animals on open pasture. “We brokered a good relationship because he was interested in reaching out to the Muslim community,” says Hassan. “He understood that there were specific mandates embedded in Islamic law about the slaughter of meat, and he was committed to re-setting the local food system.”

A halal CSA

At the farmers’ market, as the last of his customers rifle through the remaining medley of organic produce, Zaid Kurdieh receives a call on his cell phone from a young Muslim woman he does not know. Candice Elam and her husband live in Union City, in northern New Jersey. Since finding out that she is expecting their first child, Elam has become increasingly concerned about the quality and provenance of their food. Though they already belong to a local cooperative that distributes organic, locally grown vegetables and fruits and cage-free organic eggs, Elam wants to ensure that their meat is also raised and slaughtered according to the same sustainable principles. Having heard about Kurdieh’s organic halal chickens, Elam hopes they can work together to start a CSA supplying her local Muslim community with meat.

Kurdieh listens to her ambitious plans with interest; after all, he was already seriously considering raising lamb, goat, and even cattle on his farm. But his reaction is not the one she had expected.

“The average Muslim is not interested in where their meat comes from,” says Kurdieh, shrugging his shoulders. “They don’t know where it comes from and they don’t want to know. All they care about is that it is cheap.”

And so his response to Elam was a cautious one, warning her that it would be difficult to convince local Muslims to pay more than three times the price of a standard chicken from the local halal butcher.

Kurdieh isn’t pessimistic, just pragmatic. “It’s better that they are self-educated, because otherwise they question whether I’m telling them the truth or simply pulling their legs to peddle something,” he says about trying to convince fellow Muslims to avoid industrial meat. Given enough time and activist Muslims, he muses as darkness slowly falls over Union Square, the mainstream halal industry will eventually conform to sustainable principles.

A goat on Zaid Kurdieh’s farm.

The seed of such a transition is perhaps being planted not all that far away. In a converted garage in nearby Queens, Imran Uddin, a 27-year-old Muslim who runs a popular halal slaughterhouse, is putting the finishing touches on his new USDA-approved processing plant.

Three years ago, Uddin abandoned an advertising career to take over his father’s slaughterhouse in Ozone Park. Providing New Yorkers with pasture-raised, free-range halal goat, lamb, chicken, and such exotic poultry as pheasant and quail — all of which he slaughters on site — Uddin is uncompromising when it comes to upholding the ethical standards he feels are set definitively by his faith. He frequently visits the farms in Pennsylvania and Texas where he sources his poultry and livestock.

Up till now, Uddin’s business, Madani Halal, has only sold freshly slaughtered meat directly to customers. But from his new $3 million processing facility, just steps away from his slaughterhouse, Uddin will slaughter, process, and package halal chicken cuts for retail in halal stores and mainstream supermarkets along the East Coast and beyond. Uddin aspires to take his sustainable, ethical practices to the wider commercial stage, setting a precedent for other halal meat businesses to follow.

Uddin believes that the many problems endemic to the commercial halal meat industry have come about because many of the businesses are non-Muslim owned. For him, the only way for Muslims to ensure that their meat correctly fulfills the precepts of Islam is to take control of their own food system.

“If I went into the kosher industry, I’d be shut down in a second,” Uddin argues. “This is my obligation, my responsibility.”

Ten months after taking that phone call from Elam, Kurdieh is just two weeks away from his first delivery of organic, pasture-raised halal lamb, goat, and chicken to the nascent Al-Ma’ida CSA that Elam is still struggling to organize.

Neither can remember whether it was Kurdieh who softened to the idea or Elam who convinced him of the need for such an initiative, but both agree that their meeting at the Brooklyn Food Conference in April cemented their joint commitment to the project. As Kurdieh predicted, the challenge of transforming enthusiastic supporters into paying members of the CSA has been a sobering process; so far, the CSA only has 12 members.

But Kurdieh is undeterred. He’s got more on his mind right now: whether his lamb will be ready for slaughter in time for that first delivery.

A native of Malaysia, Nadia Arumugam is a New York City-based food writer and cookbook author.

source: http://www.culinate.com/articles/features/the_eco-halal_revolution

 

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Q & A with Zaid of Norwich Meadows Farm: “The cycle of life is organic.”

What follows is a snippet of my question and answer session with Zaid Kurdieh of Norwich Meadows Farm. All other questions and answers have been incorporated into the previous article about the farm.


Q: Can you talk about why you pursued the organic label for your farm?

Zaid Kurdieh: Before I started farming, I had worked for the USDA, Cornell and a whole bunch of other places. I studied agriculture. When you study agriculture, especially [about] the pesticides, [you learn that] these are poisons and they act on us, animals, and life forms in a very negative way. Yes they do a job, but they are toxins. A lot of pesticides used on insects are neuro-toxins, meaning toxic to your nervous system.

The cycle of life is organic, it’s not chemical. We have destructed and pushed nature out of balance by using these things. Even intense organic is much closer to nature than a very pesticide-chemical type of system. This has been my philosophy for a long time; it’s not new. I spend a lot of time on paperwork. Here’s how I look at it: I don’t know all of the research, so [I] need a set of guidelines. I like that set of guidelines even though it has problems. Everything has problems. Show me something that doesn’t have problems. I think [the label and inspections] are important because we’re human—there is the specter of getting in trouble.

Q: Did you pick this land simply for economic reasons or were there other reasons?

ZK: I moved here for a job with Cornell. Four to five years into that job I started the farm and the farm kept on expanding. So far so good. It’s been a lot of sacrifice on the part of myself and my partner. We’re 10 years in and we’re just starting to see some returns.

Q: Why was it important for you to bring Egyptian herbs to this country?

ZK: The farmers who work on my farm, farm 80 acres [in Egypt]. If they have a steady year, they make $2,000 net. The people who make the money are the brokers. We decided to cut out the middleman. We’re selling it retail and gaining customers. [Eventually] we want to sell wholesale because 80 acres of herbs is a lot of herbs. We’re even talking about introducing CSAs to Egypt and doing that kind of stuff.

Q: Your religion [Islam] plays a major role in your relationship with land and animals. Can you talk more about that?

ZK: Cheating and not cheating. It goes beyond not cheating people, but not cheating the land. It’s a basic tenet of our religion; waste is one of the biggest no nos. Waste, using things beyond their limit. Lands have limits. [We try to follow] those type of guidelines and in some cases, tenets. The religious guidelines are broad on certain things such as not wasting. In certain areas we have specific instructions. How do you deal with farming the land? With animals there are very specific things, because it involves something that has a soul and therefore has rights. So an animal has the right to life; the larger animals have to live a minimum of six months. Our feeding regimen follows the guideline of what they would naturally eat. A chicken is a carnivore; if a mouse runs across its path, they will attack, shred, and eat it. I don’t feed my chickens any animal products, but there is a small amount of shellfish because of an amino acid chickens are deficient in.

The other big place where religion plays a role is ethics. If I’m selling a tomato and I know that that tomato has a defect, I have to tell my customer. It’s not, let him discover it when he goes home. If they buy it knowing [about the defect], then I’m in the clear. That’s something we frequently do at the market; we’ll tell people or reduce the price so people know. Sometimes we get people saying “I don’t even want to know that”, but we’re going to tell you anyway. I think people appreciate the honesty. I want to do it because it’s the right thing to do.

Q: Do you have any mentors in your field?

ZK: Yes and no. Obviously Joel Salatin; we borrow from his ideas. There are some farmers I look up to and I know do a good job, so I learn from them. I really don’t have anyone in particular because I just don’t have the time to read. When I read, I read very specific information, technical stuff. There are some great farmers who have been doing this for a long time. I borrow from them and learn from them.

Q: How has the weather been for the upcoming summer season?

ZK: It’s been very good this year, but [still] very variable. The summer weather was nice but the snow was stressful on plants. Plants are like humans, they don’t like hot cold, hot cold. Overall, things have been pretty good.


Find Norwich Meadows products:

Sundays:  Stuyvesant Town (when market opens), Tompkins Square

Mondays:  Union Square

Fridays:  Union Square

Saturdays:  Union SquareTucker Square

Norwich Meadows is also a new vendor at the Fulton Stall Market, open on Wednesdays and Sundays from 12-6.

Happy Marketing!

-Meaghin

sourcehttp://whatisfresh.tumblr.com/post/653477360/norwich-meadows-visit-part-two

 

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“We’re going to feed you what we eat.”

Norwich Meadows is a 50 acre certified organic farm, four hours Northwest of New York City. Our long drive gave us a fairly accurate picture of the trek that farm-owners Zaid and Haifa Kurdieh and their workers make to the city two to three times each week. The Catskills were breathtaking, but the drive was exhausting—and we weren’t carrying produce or trying to make it to our destination by a certain set time.

Also, our trip was not without its own bumps: we returned with a cracked windshield and a speeding ticket—things that each farmer can accumulate any time they leave their farm to come sell at a farmer’s market. However, when I stepped on the farm, I forgot the annoyances of the trip and my creaky legs and tight muscles. The farm was buzzing with activity and life.

Before taking me on a tour of the farm, and in between the screeches of his daughter’s visiting parrot, Zaid Kurdieh chatted with me about his farm’s past, present, and future. Some people are lucky enough to work a job for which they are perfectly suited. Zaid is one such person: running Norwich Meadows combines his love and prowess for agriculture with his innate entrepreneurial sense. As he said, “I guess I’m sort of an entrepreneur. I love agriculture and I love business.” Zaid is a man with an inherent sense of purpose, unwavering in his beliefs and guided by a strong code of ethics. It was impossible for me NOT to feel inspired.

“As far back as I can remember, I was always intrigued by growing things. When I was a kid, I was always planting something. Most of it failed, but I was planting something. When I got to the age of 16-17 and was contemplating ‘what am I going to do for college’, I basically considered two things: one was industrial engineering and the other was agriculture and business. In my Masters program, I wrote a paper about my future farm. Of course, my future farm looks nothing like the farm I have now.”

The Kurdieh’s journey to managing a 50 acre (and growing) farm has been a steady one. Zaid’s business and marketing sense have established Norwich Meadows as a thriving farm with varied customers. They reach their customers through their updated website, numerous restaurant partnerships, community supported agriculture (CSAs), a consistent market presence, a focus on varietals, and even a partnership with an international farm. Despite these enormous undertakings, Zaid’s calm and focused demeanor keeps the farm on track.

Zaid cares for plants like he would his own children, in a way that is both tender and aware. When I first arrived at the farm, I drove to the main area of Norwich Meadows, where the 30 hoop houses stand, thinking he’d be there. One of his employees directed me to his house, where he was ‘taking care of his babies’. Zaid and his wife Haifa’s children are now adults; the worker was referring to the greenhouse behind their home. The greenhouse sits on the site of their original half-acre farm where Zaid nurtures and cares for fruit and vegetable seedlings. As I snapped a few pictures, he was quick to comment that he had had the watermelon seeds soaking for too long (a half a day too long) and he really needed to plant them.

The Kurdiehs started the farm in 1998, long before the neighboring houses in their development were built. They used “an acre here and a half acre there”. Two years later they partnered with Yusuf Harper and bought the farm down the road. In 2009, they added an additional field and this year they’re renting a farm in New Jersey as well. “My head should be examined”, Zaid wryly remarked. This year on their farm in New Jersey, they’ll plant fall and winter crop and next year they plan on having workers at the farm.

Norwich Meadows Farm grows over forty fruits and vegetables, with multiple varietals of each product. They harvest over fourteen varieties of lettuce and nearly forty varieties of tomatoes. Each variety is selected for its flavor and taste: they aim to sell the most flavorful varieties of each product. Zaid explained, “We’re trying to grow produce that tastes better. We want our tomato to taste better. The flavor of a fruit or vegetable is a function of the nutrients it takes in. A lot of things are out of our control [like low sun], so we try to work with the things that are in our control.”

Zaid refuses to grow a variety simply for its transportability. For example, Norwich Meadows grows yellow watermelons, which are known for thin rinds and general fragility. When Norwich Meadows transports these varieties, they inevitably lose some, yet are willing to make that sacrifice due to the watermelons’ amazing flavor.

Along with their enormous quantity (and quality) of produce, Norwich Meadows has raised and processed both broiler and layer chickens since 2006. The birds are marketed as Halal, meaning that each animal is raised ethically and is processed by a Muslim. The Kurdiehs are weighing options for how to raise and sell more meat within the constraints and limitations of New York state slaughterhouses. Zaid shared that a few years ago, they raised some goats, a sheep, and a steer. The animals had to be sent to Vermont for processing. They sent a 1200 pound steer and got 280 lbs of hamburger back. In addition, an entire sheep disappeared. Needless to say, they’re back to the drawing board.

Zaid is well aware that agriculture is a risky business. This awareness prompted Zaid, his business partner, Yusef Harper, and his wife to become community focused. “Our philosophy is to start a community around our farm…to specialize in food.” Beyond growing and selling their food at farmers’ markets, Norwich Meadows is involved in other important food relationships: CSAs, restaurant relationships, and a successful partnership with a foreign farm. Each growing season, the farm’s ten seasonal workers come over from an Egyptian organic farm. In exchange for their time and labor, Zaid and Yusef are helping market the Egyptian farm’s certified organic dried herbs.

Zaid emanated pride when speaking about his relationships with some of the best restaurants in New York City. He works with restaurants that are on the top of anyone’s list of sustainable and aware dining establishments, including Gramercy Tavern and Blue Hill. Zaid’s relationship with Michael Anthony of Gramercy Tavern is a very important one; it not only opened the door for Zaid to begin sourcing to other like-minded restaurants, but it continues to bring necessary validation for all of the hard work Zaid and his staff put into growing flavorful food.

Many people try to practice what they preach—Zaid eats what he preaches. He’s proud of his products and thinks that they are some of the “best around”. When he and his wife have extra time after a farmers’ market, they enjoy dining at their clients’ restaurants. “It gives [the chefs] a sounding board; it gives us ideas. You meet all kind of people, including our customers from the market.”

Norwich Meadows is always open to new restaurant partnerships with restaurants that are mellow and easy to work with. “We do a really good job—I think our stuff is really good…we’re looking for people that have an appreciation of something that’s better.”

In addition to their restaurant sourcing, Norwich serves a gamut of customers at several markets around New York City (see a full list HERE) and twelve CSAs. Zaid and Haifa thrive off their customer interactions. “It’s part of our culture to be friendly. It’s not a show, it’s the way we are. Here’s our philosophy: if I take a penny from you, unjustly, I will go to Hell for that…and I believe that. I’m not cheating because I don’t like hot places! That’s our reason for being fair. Another reason beyond that is we’re going to feed you what we eat.”

Happy Marketing!

-Meaghin

sourcehttp://whatisfresh.tumblr.com/post/637885224/norwich-meadows-visit-part-one

The following article appeared in the winter issue of Gastronomica, a journal of food and culture. “Gastronomica uses food as an important source of knowledge about different cultures and societies, provoking discussion and encouraging thoughtful reflection on the history, literature, representation, and cultural impact of food.” – http://www.gastronomica.org/

 

 

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Reaping the Faith

Haifa places a head of purple garlic in my hand—an unexpected gift—then offers me a slice of crumbly blue cheese. I smile, feeling more like her guest than her customer. It is a Sunday afternoon on the cusp of early fall at the Tompkins Square farmers’ market in New York City. Heirloom tomatoes rest heavily in their plastic flats, their skin mimicking the startling red of watermelon flesh and the flamboyant orange of fresh apricots. Haifa’s husband, Zaid, chats with another customer while he weighs firm, plum-colored eggplants.

Like many small-scale organic farmers, Zaid and Haifa Kurdieh favor the direct farmer-to-customer relationships that markets like this one provide. Twice a week during the growing season they make the 450-mile roundtrip drive from Norwich, New York, to deliver produce to two farmers’ markets in lower Manhattan and Brooklyn as well as to community-supported agriculture operations (CSAs) in Manhattan and the Bronx. Recently, the Kurdiehs started a CSA in upstate New York, at their own Norwich Meadows Farms, where members pick up produce directly and spend time working in the greenhouse or fields. The couple began their business partly in response to the faceless, industrial food processing and packaging industry that has dominated the United States since the mid-twentieth century. However, one important characteristic sets Zaid and Haifa apart from similar small-scale organic farmers: their faith. They are religious Muslims.

Zaid’s grandfather had owned a farm in Palestine, where he cultivated oranges and raised sheep, but he and Zaid’s grandmother lost their land in 1948 when the State of Israel was founded. Haifa’s grandparents also lost their farm that same year and were relocated to Jordan, where Haifa was born. When she returned as an adult to the site of her grandparents’ farm, she found it populated by Israeli settlers. “When my grandmother died,” Haifa recalled, “she still had the deed to the land.”


Haifa Kurdieh with a produce display from Norwich Meadows Farm.
Photograph by leah koenig ©2007

The Kurdiehs’ family history had particular resonance for me. Since 2004 I have organized CSAs within the American Jewish community to encourage families to put their purchasing power behind local, organic farms. The program is called Tuv Ha’Aretz, a Hebrew phrase that means both “good for the land” and “good from the land.” In addition supporting local farmers, Tuv Ha’Aretz works to strengthen Jewish community values in general and to reframe the notion of what is “fit” (the literal translation of kosher) to consume. Given the interest in faith and farming that I shared with Haifa and Zaid, I was eager to speak with them and understand their response to the burdens of recent history.

Zaid, who was born in the United States, said he realized as a high-school student in the early 1980s that he had inherited his grandfather’s interest in working the land. While his father and uncles had chosen professions in medicine and engineering, Zaid decided to study business and agriculture at the University of Wyoming. After earning a master’s degree in business administration at the University of South Dakota, he spent several years in that state, working to help large-scale farmers develop business plans and meet credit needs. As time passed, he met and married Haifa, and they moved east with their two young children. Zaid went to work for Cornell University’s cooperative extension program, helping farmers with their business plans. It was in 1998, during his time at Cornell, that he and Haifa decided to start their own farm. After so many years of working in the agriculture business, Zaid wanted the opportunity to work the land himself. He and Haifa wanted to grow food organically and sustainably while incorporating Muslim values and practices into their work.

When I asked Zaid how Islam has influenced his farming philosophy, his response quickly made me realize how narrow my question was. Zaid grew up in a traditional Muslim home. Apart from a self-described rebellious stage during his teens, his life and worldview from earliest memory have been steeped in Islamic tradition. Like devout people of all faiths, Zaid does not see boundaries between his secular interests and his religious ones. Everything that Zaid does, whether farming, conducting business, or interacting with friends and family, is rooted in his spiritual beliefs. Islam doesn’t simply influence his philosophy of farming—it is the foundation of his entire life. Zaid and Haifa’s faith-based approach to farming at Norwich Meadows Farm has become an extended form of religious practice, another way to live their faith.

Specific Islamic laws guide food production and consumption. The Qur’an categorically divides human action into acts that are either permissible (halal) or forbidden (haram), with some gray areas in between. At its most basic level, Islam decrees that all foods are permitted for human consumption except for those identified by the Qur’an as haram—namely, pork products, alcohol, illicit drugs, flowing (excess) or congealed blood, carnivorous animals with fangs, birds of prey, and the meat of animals and birds that have not been ritually slaughtered. The Kurdiehs believe that these tenets also encourage responsible steward-ship of the land and animals. Their farming techniques, carried out with considerable effort and soul-searching, are a logical extension of these precepts.

Many religious Muslims keep halal simply by avoiding food and drink that fall into the haram category and by buying only halal-certified meat. But, as Zaid explained to me, there is an additional, more-complicated Islamic principle that many devoted Muslims strive to follow. It is called tayyib, a word that translates as “good” or “pure.” In order for a particular food to be considered tayyib, it must be created in a wholesome manner. Although the concept of tayyib far predates the emergence of industrialized agriculture and factory farms, it is clearly relevant to the present realities of the mainstream American food industry. According to Zaid, produce that has been sprayed with pesticides, for example, or harvested by poorly paid migrant workers, would not be tayyib. Neither would fast-food cheeseburgers or sodas filled with high-fructose corn syrup and preservatives.

Zaid Kurdieh bagging produce for a customer at a New York City farmers’ market. 
Photograph by leah koenig ©2007

The problem is, not all Muslims agree with Zaid. The boundary between “pork product” and “non-pork product” is generally well-defined, but Muslims who want to be sure of eating only tayyib foods must consider the far broader physical, social, and even ethical implications of their eating choices. They must also know the right questions to ask of their food purveyors, such “Does this milk contain antibiotics or growth hormones?” As a result, keeping tayyib requires a higher degree of vigilance than merely eating halal does. Haifa told me about the stacks of letters she has received in response to the queries she has sent food companies, requesting information about products she was considering bringing into her home.

Haifa’s assiduousness is rare. Shireen Pishdadi, former director of Taqwa Eco-Food, a sustainable halal meat coop in Chicago, told me that not only do many Muslims fail to follow the principle of tayyib, they also have a myopic view of halal, concerning themselves only with “no alcohol” and “no pork.” Meanwhile, industrial production of non-pork products compromises the Islamic ideals that forbid cruelty to living beings and mandate that meat come from animals raised in sanitary and humane conditions and be properly slaughtered and handled gently after death. In recent years, some food companies, such as J&M Food Products Company in Deerfield, Illinois, have developed a system of industrial halal slaughtering with the intention of maintaining the integrity of halal while maximizing productivity. But these procedures are still evolving and are, at this point, voluntary. It is nearly impossible for Muslim customers to ensure that the halal-certified meat purchased at the grocery store upholds the standards legislated by Muslim jurists.

Zaid and Haifa, for their part, do not compromise. “The Prophet gave animals certain rights,” Zaid told me. “That’s why for the last fifteen years we haven’t eaten any meat that haven’t slaughtered.” Lately, Zaid has been slaughtering meat for others, too. In the fall of 2006 Norwich Meadows Farm launched its own usda-inspected halal poultry slaugh-terhouse. “I didn’t eat meat for six months after my family and I moved to the United States,” Haifa said, describing her dissatisfaction not only with American standards but also with the taste of industrially produced meat. These days, she helps Zaid butcher the chickens.

The relationship between faith and agriculture is hardly new, of course. Many of the laws in the Old Testament refer to buying and selling agricultural property, harvesting methods, the necessity of a sabbatical year for the soil, and God’s ultimate ownership of and control over the land’s productivity. These laws guided the agricultural practices of the ancient Israelites and shaped their perceived relationship with the land and with God. In Leviticus, God says, “If you walk in my statutes, and keep my commandments… then I will give you rain in due season, and the land shall yield its increase, and the trees of the field shall yield their fruit…and you shall eat your bread to the full….” However, if God’s laws are not obeyed, the land will wither and no longer be productive. Such a worldview made sense for an agricultural people whose livelihood depended on favorable climate conditions. Though less focused on specific agricultural laws, the New Testament is also rich with farming metaphors. Several of the parables attributed to Jesus begin with metaphors about planting and sowing, and the often-quoted axiom about reaping what you sow comes from one of Paul’s letters to the Galatians.

In the eighteenth century, Thomas Jefferson envisioned an American society structured around independent, hard-working yeoman farmers. While most scholars agree that Jefferson, a deist, rejected Christ’s divinity, the language he used in expressing that ideal was steeped in religious imagery. In Notes on the State of Virginia, he wrote: “Those who labor in the earth are the chosen people of God, if ever he had a chosen people, whose beasts he has made his peculiar deposit for substantial and genuine virtue.”

The third president of the United States was writing at time when America was at a crossroads: Should the country remain primarily agrarian or become urban and industrialized? A few notable contemporary farmers continue to espouse Jeffersonian ideals. Wendell Berry, the poet and activist; Joel Salatin, owner of Polyface Farm and the protagonist of Michael Pollan’s The Ominvore’s Dilemma; and Rabbi Shmuel Simenowitz, an Orthodox Jewish maple farmer who owns Sweet Whisper Farms in Readsboro, Vermont, all follow the Biblical notion that humans are obligated to be stewards of God’s land.

Still, the idea of agriculture as religious stewardship does not enjoy mainstream status in America, where farming is still a largely marginalized profession and sacred and secular values are often polarized. Farmers and city-dwellers alike buy frozen burritos and plastic-wrapped string cheese designed for convenience. These foods, though not inherently bad, do little to create a sense of wonder or amazement—let alone a feeling of divinity—about the intricate and vulnerable processes involved in growing and harvesting food.

Zaid believes that humans are obliged to sustain healthy relationships with both the divine and the natural worlds, or else we will suffer the consequences. “Farming gets riskier in societies where we disobey God—that’s why we have weather that’s unstable,” he asserted. “I think we’re contributing to [that instability] by what we do in the world, but I also think God says, ‘All right—no water this year. Let’s see how you react. Remember who gives you the water.’”

When the Kurdiehs started their farm in 1998 (with a business partner whom Zaid describes as “a hippie physician”), their original intent was to produce food that they themselves would want to eat—food that was both halal and tayyib to the fullest possible extent. As the business has evolved, they have not strayed from those goals. Today, Zaid is responsible for all farm-related matters and Haifa for managing quality control of the harvested produce. Haifa also assists wherever help is needed, from seeding in the greenhouse to harvesting, to being “front of the house” at the farmers’ markets. One job she does not relish is driving the tractor. “As you can see, I’m small,” she told me, “and it is very large. But I can do it if I have to.”

On first meeting Zaid, it is not immediately apparent that he—dressed in the work pants, long-sleeved shirt, and modest beard characteristic of many farmers—is a religious Muslim. Haifa’s traditional head covering (hijab), however, does set her apart. Although Zaid and Haifa do not seek to discuss their religion with their customers, they will answer questions if explicitly asked. They prefer to focus on teaching more universal ideas of healthy eating and local, organic farming.

I asked Zaid if he or Haifa had ever experienced discrimination from their customers. Zaid briefly demurred, then said that while many customers are naturally inquisitive, they are almost all ultimately supportive. In the weeks immediately following 9 / 11, at the height of racial profiling against Arab Muslims in New York City, Zaid and Haifa set up their usual farmer’s market stand near Borough Hall in Brooklyn (Zaid and Haifa sell their produce at multiple market locations across the city). As a precaution, the community of customers and local residents formed a rotating watch group to ensure that Haifa wasn’t threatened or harmed. Zaid did say that since 9 / 11 the police have stopped him more often during his long commutes into the city. And recently an aggressive customer chided Haifa for wearing a hijab and accused her of being subservient to Zaid. “That was one of the only times since 1998 when I asked a customer to leave,” Zaid told me.

Zaid credits New York City’s diversity for his customers’ tolerance. The greater difficulty with cultural difference, he said, actually occurs with the workers on his farm. Like most organic farmers, he and Haifa hire farmhands throughout the growing season. Too often, however, the helpers’ lifestyles have clashed with the Kurdiehs’ religious practices. The consumption of forbidden alcohol on the farm has been the most significant issue. Zaid told me sadly about a key worker who began drinking heavily, got into trouble with the law, and ended up losing his visa. Since then, Zaid and Haifa have been adamant about recruiting only Muslims who abstain from alcohol and observe Ramadan and other religious holidays and customs, as they themselves do.

Considering that such a pool of Muslim farm workers in America is nearly nonexistent, Zaid has for the last few years made an annual recruiting trip to Egypt. It is a complicated process requiring much time and lengthy paperwork—efforts that do not always yield results. In 2007, with ever-tightening immigration laws, Norwich Meadows Farm was short three workers. As a result, Zaid and Haifa had to compensate by working longer hours and, even with that measure, sacrificing the level of production they could have achieved with a full work force.

Lately, the Kurdiehs have been hiring Egyptian university graduates who have studied agriculture; unfortunately, the classes these workers have taken in conventional farming methods and monoculture do not prepare them for a hands-on farming experience. Nor are they generally familiar with the complexities of the sustainable agriculture techniques that Zaid and Haifa use at Norwich Meadows Farm. The workers face steep and sometimes unpleasant learning curves as they try to understand and execute far more complicated farming methods than they learned at university.

Homesickness and cultural acclimation pose other challenges, especially during periods of political tension back home. “ ‘We want to go home—we don’t like this country, Zaid was told after the battles between Israel and Hezbollah in the summer of 2006. Even during less politically charged times, the workers—many of whom have never before left Egypt—struggle to adjust to the isolation and xenophobia they face in rural upstate New York.

Nevertheless, Zaid is hopeful that his workers, customers, and, ultimately, the Middle East itself will benefit from his and Haifa’s work at Norwich Meadows Farm. Indeed, one of the Kurdiehs’ explicit goals is to reintroduce self-sufficient agriculture to his ancestors’ homeland in the Middle East by way of their Egyptian workers; Zaid imagines them transporting back home the lessons they have learned here about sustainable farming methods. “The Muslim world used to be self-sufficient, and it’s not anymore. That concerns me,” says Zaid. And that’s what he wants to change.
Zaid admits to the magnitude of his goals, as well as to the difficulty and frustration inherent in trying to measure his success. “Being a farmer can make a person hard—I don’t want to become hard-hearted,” he said. What keeps him and Haifa going season after season? In a word, faith. Zaid and Haifa are planting seeds—literal and metaphorical. With a farmer’s patience they sow, tend, and wait, full of belief that in time something beautiful will emerge from the earth.

REPRODUCED AND REPRINTED WITH THE PERMISSION OF THE REAGENTS OF THE UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA 
GASTRONOMICA
THE JOURNAL OF FOOD AND CULTURE, VOLUME 8, NO.1, PP. 80-84 

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