Celebrating Eid on Britain's First Organic Halal Farm
“Muslims and non-Muslims, we’ve all ignored that reality in how our food is produced,” says Lutfi Radwan, co-founder of Willowbrook Farm in Oxfordshire.
All photos by the author.
This post originally appeared on MUNCHIES in September 2015.
It's not long until Eid al-Adha and the kitchen at Willowbrook Farm smells like pancakes. Standing next to a crate of organic vegetables, 11-year-old Ali Radwan is busy whipping eggs and flour for a fresh batch.
Lutfi Radwan and his wife Ruby have lived at Willowbrook with their five children since 2002. Spanning 45 acres of rural Oxfordshire, their family home is also the UK's first organic halal farm.
"We always wanted to be close as a family so it culminated in us looking at land. We went from there and didn't look back," says Lutfi Radwan. "We put in an offer for this plot, sold our house, moved into a tent, looked for timber building, and finally built this mud house."
Feeling discontented with the hectic lifestyles they led in London—Lutfi as a consultant and lecturer and Ruby as an alternative therapist—the pair sought a new, environment-focused lifestyle. Despite not having a farming background, they set about establishing an eco-friendly estate based on Islamic principles.
The thinking behind Willowbrook is simple: keep everything halal, tayyib (Arabic for "pure"), and organic.
While Ruby is busy teaching a member of staff Arabic, Radwan and I walk around the farm with their 15-year-old daughter Camilla. She picks up a chicken and it calmly sits in her arms. Surrounded by greenery and 6000 trees planted by the family, Willowbrook's animals spend their days nibbling on pesticide-free grass and roaming the fields.
"We're eating this stuff that's coming from factory farming conditions, large sheds producing thousands of birds with no access to natural daylight," Radwan tells me. "Muslims and non-Muslims, we've all ignored that reality in how our food is produced. We felt people needed to be reminded of that."
Valued at £3 billion in the UK, the halal meat industry has been criticised by animal welfare activists and far right groups like Britain First, who say the practice is inhumane as it does not require animals to be pre-stunned before they are killed. According to a 2015 RSPCA report however, over 88 percent of animals reared for halal meat are stunned prior to slaughter.
Muslims make up around 4.8 percent of the British population, yet consume 20 percent of red meat so for most halal butchers, Eid al-Adha is a busy time. Commemorating the story of Abraham, the celebration sees thousands of animals sacrificed for qurbani to mark the end of Hajj. On Willowbrook Farm however, things are done differently.
"For qurbani, we won't be so busy because it doesn't really fit our model. There are many different levels of what you can do for Eid and it's not obligatory to slaughter an animal," says Radwan. "It shouldn't become a mad meat fest where we are needlessly killing lots of animals. But for those who want to do qurbani, we offer a good service and we take it very seriously."
Radwan thinks some Muslims are more concerned with how livestock is killed for Eid, rather than the welfare of the animal.
"Eid is not about commemorating the slaughter of an animal but we've reduced it to a ritual as if that's the most important part," he adds.
Willowbrook has a limited number of animals for qurbani, with cattle and sheep carefully selected at the right age and size for the occasion before being taken to a local abattoir for slaughter.
"Because we do quality meat, we try to shift the attention away from the day of the slaughter, grabbing your meat, and going home. We're focusing on good quality meat which is why we produce our lamb organically," explains Radwan. "Rather than everyone having their meat on the day of Eid, we'll actually be delaying it till a few days later."
In most Muslim households, one third of qurbani meat is kept for immediate family, a third given to friends or relatives, and the remainder to charity. The Radwans hope that during future Eid celebrations, more people will connect with the farming process behind their meat.
"We are trying to tackle this horrible issue that the Muslim community is the biggest consumer of meat in the UK and to try and bring them back to quality meat," Lutfi explains. "We know the names of our rams and we get to know some of the baby lambs. We know the characteristics of the chickens. Everything is holistically linked."
The farm also runs on renewable energy. Radwan opens the wood burner's hatch and shows me how logs heat the large boiler, which pumps hot water into all three buildings on the farm to provide sustainable heat. Animal waste is used as compost and fertiliser while the farmhouse was built with clay soil and locally sourced thatch.
"Ruby is very much into alternative therapies and holistic ways of living, therefore we regard the process of living a tayyib good lifestyle as not just one thing," explains Radwan. "You can't just rear a chicken nicely. You've got to look at it as much more than that."
Despite being a small-scale farm, the Radwans often hold open farm events showing Muslim and non-Muslim visitors around the estate and have plans to take on more chickens.
This year, the family's Eid dinner will include the British staple of roasted leg of lamb but with plenty of chillies, in honour of Ruby's Pakistani background. Radwan usually makes Yorkshire puddings, roast potatoes, and stir-fried vegetables as sides.
"Our food tastes have changed a lot by living here," he says. "We now harvest our own aubergines, courgettes, and all the salad crops."
I ask Radwan if he thinks more Muslims should open up organic farms. He smiles.