It’s not every day that a search for raw goat’s milk leads a person to change religions.
For Katherine Chaisson, a 34-year-old single mother, a zeal for clean food – including humanely slaughtered animals – was just such a catalyst.
While researching how to raise goats, Chaisson came to the realization that in order to keep them in milk, she would have to breed them. And, since they often have twins, triplets and even quadruplets, that meant plenty of kids running around her farm in Musquodoboit Harbour, Nova Scotia.
“I love goat meat, so I figured I would keep the male goats for meat. I wanted to slaughter my goats in a humane fashion… [and] in doing the research, I came across a host of horror stories and videos on YouTube. I was about ready to give up and I clicked on one last video. It presented the humane slaughter of a sheep and goat in authentic Islamic tradition.”
Chaisson didn’t know what Islam was about, nor did she know a Muslim person. She tracked down more information online, listened to the Koran being recited in Arabic and read the accompanying English translation, which she acknowledges “really opened my heart… it just spoke to me.”
With that, Chaisson’s Islamic journey had begun. Within a month, she converted, started wearing hijab (the traditional head covering), and became intimate with the concepts of ‘halal’ and ‘haram’.
“Halal means permissible,” she explains. “Not only is it halal to slaughter an animal in a certain way, but as far as genetically modified food or food with artificial colours or preservatives in them, that is haram – not permissible.” Respect for the land, the water, and animals is of utmost importance in Islam, she adds.
These precepts around land, water and livestock stewardship are prevalent in other faiths, as well. Just ask the co-founder of Windhorse Farm, Jim Drescher.
“Connecting with the land really means connection with all of the living beings of the land… I recognized that the view of Buddhism was completely in accord with the view of my family in terms of care of all beings,” he says. While this view is not particular to Buddhism, “when I heard it articulated in the view of the Buddhist teachings,” he says, “it was a perfect fit.”
Drescher, a practicing Buddhist for 40 years, as well as a husband and father of five, moved from Halifax to the site of the old Wentzell Farm in New Germany, Nova Scotia, in 1990 to establish Windhorse.
Nature, he says, is a perfect reflection of mind – the more he practices Buddhism, the more he feels attuned to natural systems. “The best of farming practices have all those same characteristics,” says Drescher, “where the farmer is in conversation with the natural world. Good farming practices use natural systems as a model… mimicking the natural world.”
Conventional agriculture, he explains, takes a completely different view where the farmer is dominant over nature, controlling it, manipulating it, changing it and taming it.
For Drescher, the farmer is one part of the whole system – in continual conversation with the elements, the animals and the plants and “fitting into the system very much the way a red squirrel fits into the Acadian forest,” he says. “I don’t see nature as a reflection of modern life but as a reflection of what human society could look like.”
Modernity has brought on some very troubling developments, says Drescher. “People, generally speaking, have no idea of the land, no respect for the land, and no love for the land. Consequently we are seeing the whole planet being liquidated in terms of its life force.”
Camelia Frieberg couldn’t agree more. In fact, she jokingly says that since establishing Watershed Farm and becoming a farmer, she has become less modern, “if being modern means not having that connection to a place.”
On her Bakers Settlement acreage, the 52-year-old mother of two says she is increasingly approaching farming as a sacred act although Judaism didn’t necessarily bring her to the land.
“It’s as simple as wanting people to understand that there’s this miraculous thing that happens when you plant a seed and you pay enough attention,” she says. “There are all these forces, seen and unseen, that summon that miracle – and that miracle is almost more about faith than anything else.”
She makes no bones about the long hours and hard work, however. “If you see how hard we work to bring a few hundred dollars worth of vegetables to market, it simply doesn’t make sense. But it does make sense if you see it as a spiritual act,” Frieberg says.
“Once you have weeded a bed of carrots you won’t go to a farmers’ market and try to pay 50 cents less for a bunch of carrots. The impulse would be to offer the farmer 50 cents more.”
Frieberg refers to herself as “very idiosyncratically kosher,” specifically in reference to her approach to livestock. “I can’t practice kosher butchering here because I’m not a qualified kosher butcher. For me, it’s about the consciousness that I bring when I slaughter an animal, which is the same thing that is required of us when we follow the laws of Kashrut in Judaism.” Simply put, it involves giving thanks to the animal for the life that’s being taken, with a kind of reverence and understanding that its sacrifice is a conscious decision. It also means causing the least amount of pain and suffering for the animal.
A person practicing strict Judaism would say close to 100 blessings in a day, Frieberg explains. There’s a blessing for washing your hands before a meal, a blessing for sitting down and eating a meal, and another one for when you finish a meal.
“That’s about recognizing the sacred in the mundane, and elevating the mundane to the sacred, and expressing gratitude for the gift of life… bringing an evolved consciousness to every action,” she says. “That’s a pretty remarkable gesture when you look at it that way. I don’t know all the specific blessings, and I don’t do them on a regular basis, but I find my own ways to celebrate my sense of gratitude and imbue my everyday acts with a sense of the holy, of the interconnectedness of all things.”
Consciousness is a recurring theme in how faith and farming intersect in Frieberg’s life. “I’m not living in a community of other Jewish people, so it’s more difficult for me to adhere to the laws of Kashrut. I sometimes have to do it by finding my own way to bend or stretch or re-imagine what it means. I still do it because it’s important to find those ways to reconnect to my faith. And what I understand about all of those things and why I feel they’re significant is because they bring consciousness to the act of eating, and that in itself is a pretty amazing thing.”
Beyond a heightened consciousness, spreading and sharing knowledge is another important characteristic of all humanity’s great faiths. Chaisson, Drescher and Frieberg each aspire to advocate for a much-needed reboot when it comes to food, farming and faith.
Frieberg’s farming techniques are increasingly based on biodynamic agriculture, “which is its own faith, in a sense,” she adds. And, although she continues to be driven by a life-long passion for food security and working to ensure people have affordable access to safe and healthy food, her Jewish roots continue to define her endeavours.
“Your fate is tied to so many forces beyond your control. Acknowledging that reality continues to give me perspective and helps me realize that I am this tiny speck… In Judaism we call it ‘wrestling with God’, and like Jacob who wrestled with an angel at night by the river Jabbok, you are changed, made stronger by being humbled.”
For Drescher, reconnecting with the land and restoring its vitality is about three fundamental practices: relaxing, waking up, and connecting.
“Relaxing is just letting go,” he says. “Letting the body relax, letting the breath just be however it is, letting the mind rest, preferably in the garden or in nature.”
Waking up is about all of the sense perceptions, says Drescher. “Seeing more than you’ve ever seen before, hearing more than you’ve ever heard, smelling all of the scents in the air, tasting the breeze as it crosses your tongue, feeling the warm sun or the cold snow on your neck.”
“Connecting is about connecting with your own mind and body and with all of the elements and all of the beings,” he says. “Connecting is quite an involved practice… it’s first of all seeing other beings, not just ‘oh yeah, that’s a robin,’ but really seeing. The second step is being other beings – getting inside of those feathers or those scales or that fur and complete identification – looking for food, watching out for predators, staying warm or whatever that particular animal or plant is being. Then the third step is being seen by other beings – really allowing ourselves to be fully out of hiding, to be fully seen.”
The last point is how Drescher sees faith shifting towards concrete manifestation in building sustainable communities. “Am I allowing you to really see me now? Or am I hiding behind my credentials? It’s about dissolving the boundaries between ‘I’ and the ‘other,’” he says.
“What happens is that caring comes spontaneously out of connecting, which we can call compassion. I have spent 40 years learning about [these concepts] and I’ll be practicing them for the rest of my life.”
Katherine Chaisson plans to continue practicing her faith for many years to come, as well. The zeal of the newly converted led her through much research; she discovered there are no Halal farmers in Nova Scotia. She intends to be the first with Halal Farm House, which she envisions as a cooperative farm that is a primary supplier of clean food to the province’s Muslim community.
“I’m not going into business to make money,” she says. “I’m going into business because I see a need. Someone needs to do it, and I feel like it fell on my lap to do this because of how Islam came to me.” She also foresees creating an outlet for other farmers.
“I’ve already been approached by a local farmer who grows organic garlic and he wants to sell it through Halal Farm House. I do believe this is divine inspiration for me. I found Islam through farming and, in a way, I found farming through Islam.”