Sheep, Goats and Custom Slaughtering

One farm adapts to some effects of 9/11
By Kathleen Hatt

Before 9/11, customers would phone on their arrival at Logan Airport. Then they would drive to Riverslea Farm to select and kill a goat or lamb for a family celebration. As with so much of life, all that has changed. How Riverslea Farm has adapted to post-9/11 changes is the story of resilience and creative planning.

Liz Conrad helps Dr. Peter Erickson, University of New Hampshire Department of Animal and Nutritional Sciences, unload a North Country Cheviot raised at his Bleweberry Ridge Farm in New Durham, N.H. Throughout the year, people sell animals raised for different purposes to Riverslea Farm. Erickson's sheep had been on the fair circuit.
Photos by Kathleen Hatt.

Once home to 100 Standard Bred brood mares, Riverslea Farm's pastures were overgrown and its house uninhabitable when Liz and Jeff Conrad found it in 1990. Leaving careers that dissolved in a previous recession, the Conrads, neither of whom had any previous connection to agriculture, wanted a bit of peaceful country. It wasn't long before Liz realized that Jeff was turning peaceful into busy as he returned their land to agricultural use. Eventually their 45 acres in Epping, N.H., would include three barns and 5 miles of fencing and become home to 60 sheep, 50 goats, 22 chickens and a llama.

An early decision not to have employees has guided all the Conrads' farming choices, and was significant in their decision to raise meat and not milk animals. They always wanted their animals to have a humane and dignified death. They did not want to see their sheep and goats leaving the farm in the back of a truck. In 1991, someone came to the farm asking to purchase and slaughter an animal on the farm. After that, more and more people came, all by word-of-mouth. Over the years, people from more than 50 different countries of origin have chosen live meat animals at Riverslea Farm.

On-farm slaughtering

Animals at Riverslea Farm were slaughtered in the open air on a concrete pad outside the barn using the method (called Dhabihah) prescribed by Islamic law. To be regarded as halal (lawful) under Islamic law, the slaughtering must be done swiftly with a very sharp knife. A deep incision is made through the front of the throat, the carotid artery, windpipe and jugular vein. The spinal cord is left intact. (There is much overlap between kosher meat and halal meat laws.) The method is controversial: considered quick and relatively painless by some, cruel and painful by others.

Prior to 9/11, personnel from the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) tended to ignore halal slaughter at Riverslea Farm, but that changed rapidly afterwards. One cited offense: The walls where the killing occurred were unsanitary. (Remember, the slaughter occurred outside.) As Liz puts it, "The federal government no longer welcomed different cultures." While not sanctioning halal slaughter as it was being done at Riverslea, FSIS representatives strongly encouraged Liz and Jeff to build a slaughterhouse that would also accommodate halal butchering. A second slaughterhouse would have been welcomed in a state with only one licensed facility, but it was not something Liz and Jeff wanted to do. They also did not want to challenge regulations and risk loss of their farm's reputation. However, they had to do something, and quickly, to save the farm. Their strategy was to diversify. A USDA-certified cut meat business came first, followed by development of a wool business.

On-farm moves off

In 2005, Riverslea Farm teamed with Paradis Butcher Shop in Rochester, N.H., a half-hour's drive from the farm, to kill and clean animals for Riverslea's halal customers. Other animals, including any from which a customer wants cut and wrapped meat, are trucked to Lemay and Sons in Goffstown, N.H., the state's only federally licensed slaughterhouse.

Paradis Butcher Shop is a custom-exempt shop. Under the Federal Meat Inspection Act, custom-exempt pertains to livestock products not subject to mandatory inspection when the owner of the livestock slaughters it for his own use. Under these regulations, meat cannot be resold. Customers select and purchase an animal at Riverslea Farm. Jeff trucks the sheep or goat to Paradis Butcher Shop where the customer or the butcher actually kills the animal and cleans the carcass. The process meets state and federal requirements, but is more expensive and less convenient than on-farm slaughtering. Currently, more than 400 Riverslea Farm animals a year are handled this way. Liz believes that the additional cost ($25 for killing and cleaning) and inconvenience have resulted in some customers going to other, smaller, "under the radar" farms. Nevertheless, Liz and Jeff are satisfied that they found a way to do legal, safe and humane business.

Demand for Riverslea Farm's meat animals continues to grow. Ethnic customers' interest tends to be related to their time away from their country of origin. First-generation immigrants who have already raised families are interested in preserving older traditions, says Liz, tending to become repeat customers. Second-generation immigrants, more interested in assimilating, tend to reject old traditions. The third generation joins the first generation in an interest in preserving the old traditions.

Brightly colored balls of roving for hand spinning are for sale in the Riverslea Farm store.

Some fuzzy solutions

Until the early 1990s, when there were 10,000 sheep in the state, New Hampshire had a wool pool - one place where wool was collected and marketed. With that gone, Liz set out to find people who could help her process her flock's wool. With the help of participants in the New Hampshire Sheep and Wool Festival, she found a fiber mill in Temple, N.H. Fiber Dreams now washes and cards Riverslea Farm's wool and taught Liz how to dye it. Demand for Riverslea wool soon exceeded supply, and Liz began buying wool from some of the farms where Riverslea gets lambs. Wool from all, both fibers and pelts, are displayed in the farm's store. Hats, mittens, sweaters, purses and more are also for sale. Liz gives materials to artists who turn them into creations she buys and sells at the store.

In addition, the store also offers washable sheep fleeces and goatskins, tanned by Bucks County Fur Products in Quakertown, Pa., and blankets. Liz and Jeff drive 1,000-pound lots of their wool appropriate for machine spinning and weaving to MacAusland's Woolen Mills on Prince Edward Island, Canada, to be made into washable blankets; completed blankets are returned to the U.S. via mail.

Jeff and Liz Conrad chat with a customer in the Riverslea Farm store.

Riverslea - and other - sheep

Riverslea Farm's flock is comprised of 60 breeding ewes and three breeding rams, all primarily Leicester x Dorset. Leicesters were chosen because they produce beautiful wool that is excellent for hand-spinning, and because they are good mothers of twins and triplets. Dorsets were chosen because they grow rapidly and have fine-grained meat. Other breeds in the flock include Tunis, Cheviots and Cotswolds, for their contribution to crossbred vigor and interesting wool. From time to time, there are also what Liz terms "experiments."

When not on pasture, sheep at Riverslea Farm eat Blue Seal Lamb BT, grain and hay. They are given no antibiotic or hormonal additives. Pesticides are not used on the pastures or on the sheep's wool. Rams are kept with the ewes all year, and ewes generally lamb three times in two years. Leicesters can breed throughout the year, but generally lamb for a five or six-month span beginning in early spring.

Approximately 150 Riverslea Farm lambs are raised for sale each year. Many of varying sizes will satisfy the market demand, which occurs at the time of various religious and ethnic celebrations throughout the year. Because Riverslea Farm cannot raise enough sheep to supply those markets, animals are purchased from other farms.

In recent years, another "market" for sheep has been increasing. As the number of house lots in southeastern New Hampshire has increased, wildlife habitat around Riverslea Farm has decreased, and sheep have to be protected from coyotes. They are locked in barns at night. Day and night they are under the watchful eyes of Rio, a 6-foot-4-inch-tall llama that points to danger, paces and intimidates. Formerly a pet with the heart of an outlaw, Rio has become a dear companion to his people and the sheep, even crooning to newborn lambs.

Salted sheep and goatskins, stored under cover to prevent sun damage, await shipment to Bucks County Fur Products in Quakertown, Pa. They will be returned as washable sheepskins and colorful kidskins. Riverslea sells about 300 skins a year, with prices ranging from $50 to $300.

Riverslea - and other - goats

To begin their herd, the Conrads chose Nubians for their high milk production and Alpines because they are a hardy breed. To produce meatier animals, two South African Boers, Nelson and Desmond, were introduced in 1996. Riverslea now has 50 crossbred does bred exclusively with Boer bucks. Fifty breeding does and two breeding bucks (kept with the does year-round) produce about 150 kids for sale each year. Does are pregnant five months and nurse kids for three to four months before beginning the cycle anew. Riverslea Farm's does have an average life span of eight to nine years. "Our goats work hard," says Liz.

Male goats of various ages and sizes are preferred or required for various religious and ethnic celebrations, so about 75 percent of the goats at Riverslea Farm are male. Because they cannot raise enough goats to supply demand, the Conrads buy goats from 20 other farms, primarily dairy goat farms that do not want to market their male kids.

Annual production

In 2010, the Conrads sold as live or cut meat a total of 660 sheep and goats. Of those, 150 were Riverslea bred and raised. The other 510 animals came from other farms, usually two or three animals at a time. No animals come from auctions.

More markets

Frozen meat, hides and wool are sold at the farm store and at farmers' markets. Summer markets include Portsmouth and Exeter, N.H., and Newburyport, Mass.; Seacoast Eat Local is a winter market.

Liz noticed farmers' market customers buying large bunches of fresh vegetables along with packages of frozen meat. She teamed up with Chef Ted McCormack, who makes and freezes take-home meals using Riverslea meat and other local ingredients. Offerings include Shepherd's Pie with mashed potatoes, ground lamb and veggies; Caldo Verde with lamb sausage, kale and white beans; Country Stew made with goat, potatoes, parsnips, onions and carrots; and Moroccan Pockets made with goat, sweet potatoes and raisins in a puff pastry.

Farmers' market customers are delighted with the convenience of the take-home meals and the opportunity to try meals from other cooking traditions. Riverslea Farm is happy with the results of continuing product diversification.

Kathleen Hatt is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor to Farming. She resides in Henniker, N.H.