The Color of Food, by Natasha Bowens, (New Society Publishers, 2015) teaches us that the food and farm movement is about more than buying local and protecting our soil. It is about preserving community, digging deeply into the places we’ve overlooked, and celebrating those who have come before us. In this excerpt, we meet Yasin Muhaimin who lost everything in hurricane Katrina. He and his wife Elaine worked to rebuild their lives as farmers, finding joy and fulfillment in their work.
Thinking about the resilience it takes to bounce back from struggle and trauma, I steer Lucille toward a region of the country that is still digging deep for the strength to overcome one of the worst hurricanes in our history. Hurricane Katrina impacted millions of lives in the South and dispersed families across states, leaving them with nothing to rebuild their lives. The Southeastern African American Farmers Organic Network put me in touch with a family who used their resilience, faith and passion for clean food to find new life after Katrina.
The chicken in his hand clucks wildly as I ask Yasin Muhaimin about his farm.
He swiftly puts the chicken’s neck through the metal cone used to hold it in place upside down and expertly slices its neck. Three more birds with the same fate sit in the adjacent cones. Yasin recites a takbir, a required halal prayer, under his breath as he slaughters each bird:
Bismi Allah, Allahu Akbar [With God’s Name, God is Greater]
His cousin Booga then picks the chickens up and puts them into the hot water tank and then into the defeathering machine that spins the birds around until they are bald. We stand in this outdoor chicken slaughter facility in Yasin’s expansive backyard. He continues working efficiently, and, over the sounds of clucking, he tells me the story of how he and his wife Elaine started Yard Bird Farm.
“We’re from New Orleans. We’re city people. We never would have dreamed that we would be farmers one day,” Yasin chuckles. “I worked for the public school district in New Orleans. I had some real estate investments. We were doing well. Then Hurricane Katrina hit.”
“We lost everything. We lost three homes. We lost 100 schools in the district due to damage. I had every intention of getting back to work to get back on our feet, but the governor called a freeze on hiring. Because of the loss of so many schools, there was no work, so they forced me into retirement.
“We had a family to feed, we needed to find work, and we needed a space for our family. There were six of us. We had no choice but to leave New Orleans. I had relatives up here, and they took us in for two months while we figured out what to do. Having all this land up here and being around farmers — my cousin raises goats near here — really got us thinking about farming to make a living, and also to have our own food. “The hurricane was a wake-up call. It allowed us to see how close we are to dying. When the power went out in New Orleans, that meant no more food on the shelves. Even the city’s food reserves and food in storage was ruined. There was something like a million chickens in cold storage that all went to waste. It was a scary time.”
The Louisiana Farm Bureau Federation reported on Hurricane Katrina’s damages to food storage and farmers, which included the dumping of thousands of gallons of milk and the entire contents of grain elevators along the Mississippi River. Katrina devastated dairy, timber, cattle, vegetable crops, sugarcane and the fishing industry with a financial loss of around $814 million.28 But the hurricane also closed grocery stores, restaurants and routes for food to be transported into the city, quickly demonstrating how delicate the infrastructure of the food system we rely on really is.
“So when we found this house for sale and it had enough land,” Yasin continues,
“we thought maybe we could sustain ourselves on this land. Southern University is nearby, and they really got us into this. The Ag Center there provided some training and introduced me to other farmers in the area. At first we tried everything — from mushrooms to chickens. We were cutting logs and trying to inoculate; we learned so much. But there was some serious market interest in pastured poultry. So we decided to focus on that.
“We had to use all of our savings to get this land and start this. I’d lost my credit rating. Everything just went away with the hurricane. I couldn’t borrow anything.
I went to the USDA and had the same problem. They were very nice and helpful up to a point, but once they saw that I had all these judgments filed against me — I mean I had no money. There was nothing they could do, they couldn’t loan me anything. So we took all we had in savings and put it into this.”
One of the biggest challenges for beginning farmers is accessing capital, credit opportunities and affordable land. Though the USDA’s Farm Service Agency (FSA) offers loans to beginning farmers, current loan rules often disqualify even experienced farmers with good credit, and small loans are hard to come by. And for real estate transactions, FSA loans take too long to process — up to 30 days to qualify and up to a year to receive funds. And often the loan limits don’t meet the high cost needs of buying land and funding the infrastructure needed equipment, building materials, irrigation, etc.) to get started. “I’m no longer interested in loans or credit at all,” Yasin says, “I’m not interested in support programs. We try to do it all on our own. And it came out alright; we’ve been here now for seven years.”
Yasin takes me on a tour of their small farm. In addition to the processing facility, they have a large brooder house, a large coop for their layers, a smoker where they smoke some of the chickens to sell, and a hoop house where they are growing vegetables for themselves and experimenting with specialty crops for market such as ginger, hibiscus and shiso, a Japanese herb that grows well in the area that they market for use in stir-fry.
“We’re sustaining our own access to food, and we’re also contributing to the clean food movement,” Yasin says as he surveys everything on the farm. “We sell our chickens direct to consumers through farmers markets. We do the first and third Saturday of each month at the Red Stick farmers market in Baton Rouge. I also sell to a halal store. As Muslims, we process our chickens by halal standards.”
Halal in Arabic means “permissible.” In terms of food, it means food that is permissible according to Islamic law. For meat to be certified halal, it can’t be forbidden (such as pork, carrion or blood). The slaughter of a halal animal is called zabihah, and there are certain guidelines to follow. Some of them include: pronouncing Allah’s name during slaughter, using a very sharp knife to ensure a humane slaughter, and feeding the animal a natural diet without animal byproducts.
“All our consumers want is a clean chicken. We plant our own grass, and we know what goes into these chickens. The feed we supplement with has no animal byproducts. Our consumers don’t want the antibiotics or the growth hormones. And we don’t need them. It takes about seven weeks for them to grow to size naturally.
“People say grass-fed animals without growth hormones take too long. But seven weeks is not too long. Seven weeks is fast!” Yasin exclaims. “With layers, you know, we have to go almost 16 weeks before we can get an egg from a hen. And we can get meat in seven weeks, that’s really great. Seven weeks is just 49 days. There are people out here with cattle farms, and they’re grass feeding them for almost two years before they can make a profit. But that’s the way it is if you don’t want to mess with nature.
“Even if you’re not worried about messing with nature, there is a direct correlation with the condition of our health and the food that we eat. If we’re eating growth hormones, it has a direct effect. If we’re eating excessive amounts of antibiotics and all the other chemicals they put into the food, then that has a direct effect on us. It affects us spiritually too. It’s just not necessary. There are models for running these chicken farms on grass without a problem at high levels of production. Chickens are foragers. They live on grass — that’s how they’re supposed to live.”
Yasin takes me into the brooder house where there are 100 chicks chirping under a warming red light. It is a large space, portioned off for the baby chicks in the brooder and the adolescent chicks wandering around on the ground. “We slaughter 100 chickens every two weeks,” he explains. “We do it staggered. We have 100 chicks in the brooder, 100 older ones on the floor, and we always have 100 adults out here on the grass. And we just rotate them through until they are ready for slaughter.”
“Slaughter laws are different in every state,” Yasin explains. “We can slaughter here on site. I have a state permit, and my limit is 20,000/year. We had to learn the whole process and set up our own facility. At first we started in our carport, but the inspectors said we couldn’t do it there. So we got this portable building for the cleaning room and built this open-air processing area. It takes about three minutes to process the chicken from slaughter to bald. We can do about five chickens at a time. We usually do about 40 a day on slaughter days. Then they go to the cleaning room and Elaine does the evisceration. We had to learn that whole process too.”
I head into the cleaning room where Elaine is doing the processing. “Careful while you walk,” she calls out as I enter the little room with slick linoleum floors that is adjacent to the open-air slaughter area. There’s just about enough room for four people to work inside; there’s a large, clean countertop where Elaine works and a large metal sink beside her. She’s wielding a sharp knife and has a bandana over her hair. As she expertly eviscerates each chicken, I ask her what her first thoughts were about learning the process.
“There’s things that I’m doing now that when I came here I never thought I’d be doing,” Elaine answers. “Sitting on a lawn mower cutting grass, up here in the woods, pulling weeds out of a big old garden like that, walking through the woods in the day and in the night — I come from the middle of the city!
“But I thought about the fact that I had to do it and thought I didn’t want to do this, but if he could do it, I could do it. And he knows it. Most of the things we both do I know we both have to do, and I might feel a little intimidated the first time, but once I see how it’s done and know it’s something that has to be done, I’ll do it.”
She reaches down and pulls out the chicken’s innards. “We use and sell every part of the chicken,” she explains, “the head, the feet, the liver, everything but the viscera. That we give to our neighbors who feed it to their pigs. We’re very careful when removing certain things like the gallbladder, to avoid contamination. We try our best to keep it as clean as we can. We have inspectors that come, they just drop by, we never know when they’re gonna come. Matter of fact they came last week. They really like what we do. They recommend other farmers to come here and see how we do it. We’ve had people call and ask if they can come learn from us. The inspector recommended us as an example, and these are people that have been processing longer than we have. I don’t know what we’re doing differently, but we get a lot of compliments.
“We do a special hand plucking and deskinning of the chicken that gives the meat a better flavor and color that is not lost in the hot boil. We take the skin completely off the chicken, which is something popular among our Muslim customers. They say there’s too much fat in the skin and that a lot of bad stuff could be in the skin. We don’t eat the skin either. We’ve been eating skinless for years, even before we became farmers. We’ve always eaten clean, healthy food. It’s part of our religion. I’ve been a Muslim for 39 years and have always eaten clean, no pork, and very conscientious of what goes into our food and how we handle it.”
As I look down at the chickens she’s cleaned, I notice how pristine they look. I can’t help but think about whether I would see the same attention and care in the processing room of say, Tyson. And I know the answer. While I was interviewing Yasin and Elaine, a student from Southern University was there to run tests on their chickens because of Yard Bird Farm’s high quality standards in cleanliness and natural diet. Yasin told me they wanted to be able to scientifically prove that their chickens are toxin free, antibiotic free, and more nutritious. So the university came out to take samples from the chicken carcasses and also of the compost where they put the chicken litter.
“I don’t eat chicken from anywhere else,” Elaine says. “I can’t. And people depend on our chicken. On hard days here, when the price of feed goes up and I want to quit, I don’t, because even when we miss one day at the farmers market, people call up and beg us for our chicken. We’ve created a big demand.”
“We sell an average of 6,000–8,000 birds a year,” Yasin chimes in, “We’re doing well. I just bought my wife a new car,” he smiles. “We don’t do outside work, this is it.”
“And we love it here,” Elaine adds. “Our children, our grandkids, they love it here. They can’t wait to get here. When they come, they go swimming, horseback riding, airgun shooting, tour different farms — they never want to leave. We couldn’t have had this life in New Orleans. We’re fully sustaining ourselves here. We have survived.”
Read more from The Color of Food:
Reprinted with permission from The Color of Food, by Natasha Bowens and published by New Society Publishers, 2015.