Instead of meat in or meat out, meet in the middle

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Niger sheep
These rams, pictured in Niger, in 2017, helped feed a family until the millet harvest, but not in the way you might think. (Rebecca Miller photo)

I heard the sound when I woke up in Nairobi, Kenya, the first morning, jet lagged from flying halfway across the world. I became accustomed to hearing it, no matter where I traveled: the plaintive notes of the “muezzin,” or the Muslim call to prayer, repeated five times a day, piped through loudspeakers from local mosques.

In particularly dense Muslim populations, the sound would rise from all around, as each mosque sent out its own muezzin, the notes starting and ending in a staggered fashion. It was a fascinating introduction to a world I hadn’t encountered. The part of rural Ohio where I grew up is not home to Muslim ethnic groups.

Holidays

Every year, there is a series of Muslim holidays celebrated worldwide. Centered around the lunar calendar, this year’s events begin during the third week of April. The first holiday is Ramadan. For a month, Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset; fasting is one of the five pillars of the faith. At the end of the month, Muslims break their fast with the Eid-al-Fitr.

One of the other important holidays is the Eid-al-Adha, or Feast of Sacrifice. It commemorates the Muslim account of Abraham’s attempted sacrifice of his son, Ishmael, and Allah’s substitution of a ram. (The account differs from details of the same story in the Bible.) Muslims slaughter lambs or goats ritually, eat one third of the meat and give the rest to the poor. This year, Eid-al-Adha is in July.

Tabaski

As a sheep farmer, I track various ethnic holidays. The peak markets for lamb center around Muslim, Jewish and Orthodox holidays, among others. It is a bit more real to me these days though. A few years ago, I was in Niger, shadowing non-profit workers for a media assignment. It was time for “Tabaski,” another way to refer to the Eid-al-Adha. Driving through the streets of a local town, we drove slowly to avoid men moving groups of white or white spotted hair sheep, hundreds of them, on their way to the market. Televisions in Niamey, Niger’s capital, broadcast hours of rolling footage of imams blessing rams.

I met a family. Part of a semi-nomadic tribe, they lived in the bush, their mud and thatch huts circled up, livestock around the perimeter. My sheep radar is finely honed, and I noticed a couple of rams, with wide spiraling horns, off to the side, a tall stand of millet behind them. I asked about them, and the family said they were feeding them for now.

A few days later, I got an update: The millet crop, the main staple, wasn’t yet ready to harvest, but the family’s stored millet had run low. In order to make sure his family didn’t go hungry, the patriarch sent those rams to the market and sold them to purchase millet to tide the family over. He made a good profit on the sheep; it meant his family was secure until harvest time came.

Staple foods

While they do eat meat on special occasions, the main foods are grains and various vegetables or greens. That is true of many regions worldwide. Livestock, when it’s present, is wealth, a replacement for other assets such as land. It’s a form of currency, not necessarily dinner. A Samburu man, from a tribe in northern Kenya, told me when they want more sheep or cattle, they just sell some camels.

Recently, U.S. agriculture groups and the like whipped up furor over several — rather heavy handed — attempts to promote meatless food days. The backlash was fierce. In one viral social media post, a Colorado rancher waxed eloquent over “MeatOut Day,” set for March 20, by the state’s governor. Some memorable lines of that poem cast aspersions against Subaru-wielding vegans, among other things.

Other governors immediately reacted, setting their own “meat in” days, saying that a way of life was being threatened. People I know posted pictures of their meat-centric meals.

Global debate

In Lyon, France, the mayor came under fire from agricultural groups and right-wing politicians, when he announced a temporary change to meatless meals in the school cafeterias. The reasoning: removing meat would speed up food service and better enable schools to meet needs of various groups of students, regardless of ethnicity, religion or tastes.

The situation spiraled though, becoming a referendum on meat-eating as a way of life. “… The mayor’s foray into meatless policy ended up getting sucked into a broader culture war around meat and vegetarianism. This may seem like a very French story, but meat — both in France and around the globe — is not just food; it is also a powerful cultural force and, as such, can be very divisive,” reads an article published in Vox, April 1.

Now, I enjoy eating meat. We eat lamb a lot, especially. And I even understand how eating meat has become a part of the cultural fabric in many parts of the world. I particularly enjoy the marketing employed around Australia Day. Eating lamb, they say there, is a patriotic duty.

Different is good

But I am more aware than ever these days, that my way of life is not the way of life. People do things differently, have varied traditions — it’s what makes the world so fascinating. I talk with folks all of the time about what we produce and why and how. I have yet to feel it necessary to force someone to eat my product. I think it’s excellent. Other people agree. But that doesn’t mean I think it should be mandated.

Same goes for meatless days and the like, too. I enjoy eating at vegan or vegetarian restaurants, but it’s not something I want to do as a lifestyle. I know plenty of people who have tried meatless months. Some enjoy it. Others realize they enjoy meat too much to skip it entirely and make commitments to source it carefully.

Some clients of ours don’t eat meat all of the time, but when they do, they want it to be good. They are teaching their children that concept now, too. I’m honored they choose to purchase what we produce as part of their diet.

Meet someone new

I can’t help but wonder if this is yet another side effect of the increasing separation between the general public and people who produce food. When you look someone in the eye, and hand them a package of chops, steaks, lettuce or beets, it changes one’s perspective. It’s a little harder to pigeonhole people when you’ve laughed over something silly or commiserate with each other over the stress of the past pandemic year.

It’s a bit harder to do when you’re farming large scale crops. You’re not shaking hands with the end consumer of your soybeans, as a rule. I get that. But, perhaps, instead of “meat in” days or “meat out” days, we could have “meet someone new and different” days. I know. It doesn’t have quite the same catchiness, but it might be more effective.

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Farm and Dairy Editor-in-Chief Rebecca Miller was tapped to lead the newsroom in 2019. A veteran journalist, dog wrangler and traveler, she lives on a 220-acre, 325-ewe commercial sheep farm in Lisbon, Ohio, which she runs in partnership with her mother. She can be reached at 330-817-6179 or editor@farmanddairy.com.

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