Muslim American Goat Farmer!
By Tara Bahrampour
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 13, 2010
Mukit Hossain drove up to a large Centreville home one day last week, rummaged in his Jeep Cherokee and pulled out two plastic bags. Looking harried after spending two hours on Interstate 95, he hurried up the driveway and called out to the couple waiting inside.
On the granite island in their kitchen, he spread out packages wrapped in white paper and labeled “Hams,” “Neck” and “Ribs.” The lady of the house, Seema Khan, handed him a glass of water. “So, now, did you slaughter the goat by yourself?” she asked.
“Yes, I did,” Hossain said proudly.
It was his first delivery in Northern Virginia, made just a couple of weeks after he had e-mailed fliers to area Muslims informing them that he was selling naturally raised, humanely slaughtered, home-delivered goat meat that was halal, or in accordance with Islamic law.
What the e-mail recipients didn’t know was that Hossain was doing all the raising, slaughtering and delivering himself.
Like many of Hossain’s customers, the Khans had known him as a civic activist and telecommunications executive. Hossain, 49, who emigrated from Bangladesh in the 1970s, was living in the Cascades section of Loudoun County when he became concerned that his work on behalf of day laborers was affecting his business relationships and that his daughters were becoming more interested in designer labels than core values. By 2008, he was wondering about the path his life had taken.
“I thought, ‘There’s got to be something better I can do rather than run this corporate rat race,’ ” said Hossain, a compact and energetic man. “We were thinking about doing something with the land, and it occurred to me that there are close to 300,000 Muslims in Northern Virginia. The majority eat halal,” he said, and to the best of his knowledge, no organic halal goat meat was being produced in Virginia.
Abdullah Wasay, who manages Madina, a Middle Eastern market in Herndon, said the demand for halal goat meat is high, especially among Indian and Pakistani customers or those seeking especially lean meat.
“Ten or 12 years ago, there were only a few customers for goat, but now lots of customers are buying goat,” Wasay said. The store went from selling about 10 goats a week a decade ago to 50 now, Wasay said, although it has become harder to find high-quality meat as farms have been sold to local developers.
Although lamb is heavily consumed by Middle Easterners, Hossain said, “if you’re looking at Africa or anywhere east of Pakistan, goat is very popular.”
Still, when Hossain sold his four-bedroom house and moved his family to a 15-acre farm near Fredericksburg in late 2008, some people in Bangladesh questioned his sanity. He had never lived in a rural area, and goat farming was not how most would-be immigrants envisioned life in the United States.
“Some folks think I have completely lost it,” he said. “A friend said, ‘Why would you get a degree from Duke if you were going to become a farmer?’ ” Even his wife, Sabrina, an accounting student raised in Kuwait and Canada, wondered whether it was a good idea. (There was some precedent for Hossain’s decision: His grandfather, a prominent lawyer in Bangladesh, had at the height of his career given it all up to become a farmer. Everyone thought he had lost it, too.)
But as Hossain stood outside his barn last week, sucking on a Peterson bent pipe, he radiated contentedness. “This is the most peaceful job I have ever done,” he said as he watched two workers, including a Congolese refugee, build fences for his 67 goats and the additional 150 on their way from a another farm.
Most of the herd had been sired by Darth Vader, an imposing black Spanish billy goat with a crown of curled horns, and Señor, a sturdy-looking brown and white Boer goat. Hossain’s daughters, Maya, 10, and Hana, 8, have named many of the animals, although he tries to keep them away from the ones destined for slaughter.
As the fencing went up, Maya and Hana arrived home from school and pulled on cowboy boots. They collected eggs from the chickens in the barn and peeked in on a newborn goat with its mother.
The girls have changed since moving, their father said. “In the Cascades, when they were with their friends, they were talking about boyfriends and Gucci and the Gap and the latest brands,” he said. “Now it’s, ‘My friend Brianna’s horse just had a baby,’ or ‘So-and-so is in 4-H, and she’s taking her pigs and chickens to a fair.’ “
But farm life is not always easy. A day earlier, several goats had escaped from their corral and eaten poisonous holly. Two died; Hossain saved the rest by feeding them Pepto Bismol to soothe their stomachs and coffee to make them vomit.
“One thing about being a farmer is, you have to become a vet; you have to become an animal psychologist,” he said. You also have to become an economist and a marketer. You have to wake before sunrise (which Hossain said he does anyway for the Muslim dawn prayer), and, in his case, you have to understand what it is to produce an Islamically pure product.
“I wanted to create halal in every sense of the word, from the time it’s born,” he said, standing on a grassy field as a half-grown goat nuzzled his leg. He laughed and shook it off. “One of the things people don’t realize about halal is it’s not just the way they are slaughtered. It’s the way they are raised. If all that is not done as humanely as possible, what is the concept, really?”
Allowing an animal to become stressed or confining it in tight spaces goes against the spirit of halal, Hossain said. So does squeezing too much profit from the customer. “If the concept of halal is something that’s beneficial, trying to sell halal at an exorbitant price goes against that.”
Hossain said he has seen organic non-halal goat meat for $12 to $14 a pound; he sells his meat for $3.75 to $4.75 a pound, about the same as commercially produced nonorganic halal goat meat. “Philosophically speaking, the whole concept is, as social beings we have some responsibility — it’s not just cutthroat I’ll-make-as-much-as-I can.”
Hossain learned halal slaughter from an imam. “The knife has to be extremely sharp so you don’t put the animal under undue duress,” he said, explaining that when slitting the animals’ throats he tries to cut the jugular vein and the nerve that goes to the spine in one smooth motion. The technique can also enhance flavor; some aficionados say they can taste the difference in an animal that was not afraid before it died.
One of the most important requirements, Hossain said, is to invoke the name of God before and during the act.
In 2006, he worked with area Jewish leaders to push legislation in the Virginia General Assembly that makes it a crime to call a product halal or kosher when it’s not.
Still, even humane killing is killing.
“It’s not pleasant,” he said. “There is a psychological and emotional toll in every slaughter, and I have taken the responsibility to do this. It’s a responsibility to the animal and also a responsibility to the consumer. I’m telling them that ‘I’m giving you halal’ and I need to ensure that it is halal. . . . If I leave this part to somebody else, I don’t know exactly what the process is going to be. It’s one part that I really, really want to do myself.”
That might work as long as he has only a handful of goats to slaughter each week, butchering them to each customer’s specifications. But during his first week in business, a wholesaler asked whether Hossain could provide him with 800 goats a month, much more than the 200 a month he had aimed to sell.
“I think there is a tremendous amount of pent-up demand,” he said. If the demand becomes too overwhelming, Hossain said, he might talk to an imam about getting help. He plans to hire a delivery driver to relieve him of some of the commuting.
With an initial investment of $200,000, the farm has not broken even, but Hossain said he is optimistic. In addition to Northern Virginia, he has tapped into Richmond’s Muslim community and refugees from goat-eating African countries.
“The refugee community loves goats,” said Munira Marlowe, who runs Imani, a center for refugees in Spotsylvania. “And it’s very popular in Latin American countries.”
The farm, which Hossain named Netoppew after a Powhatan word for “friends,” has also given his family less tangible benefits.
“I think that here, there’s not as much sense of keeping up with the Joneses,” Sabrina Hossain said. “I think this is the healthiest decision we’ve made.”