Ahead of the Flock: A Journey Into the World of Organic Kosher Meat

Vered Guttman takes a visit to the Virginia farms run by Georgia Ravits and her husband Peter Basser, who raises grass-fed animals for U.S. clients.

“Chickens are brilliant,” Georgia Ravits tells me while feeding her flock of Guinea and Rhode Island Red hens. “Much more brilliant than sheep. If a chicken would run for president, I would vote for her.”

The hens around us very cleverly peck at the couscous leftovers Georgia sprinkles on the ground, and follow her wherever she goes. She continues to sing their praise: They helped her get rid of all the ticks around the farm, they always know to get back to their coop at night, and “what they excrete is like gold” (as a fertilizer).

On a beautiful clear winter morning, I drive through the rolling hills of Virginia to meet Georgia, and see her farms in Loudoun County. Over the last three years, Georgia and her husband, Peter Basser (both D.C. residents) purchased three farms in the area, spread out on more than 240 acres and home to hundreds of animals. This week, they sent their first group of English sheep for kosher slaughtering.

organic kosher meat

Georgia Ravitz with Rhode Island Red hens

It’s hard to conduct a serious interview while roaming through the farm, I discover as we walk towards the goats’ pen, followed by some curious chickens. As I put my notepad on a bench so I can climb in the pen, Rosie, a Nigerian Dwarf goat, starts chewing on it.

“We preserved all the old buildings in the farm,” says Georgia, as we look around at the barn, the chicken coop, the old smoke house, “although it would have been much cheaper to demolish and rebuild.”

organic kosher meat

Fresh eggs

The couple’s goal is to help preserve the farm lands of Virginia. Georgia’s father was originally from Poland and always dreamt of working the land. He was thinking about the land of Israel, but Georgia’s knows that he would have approved of what her family is doing in Virginia.

Georgia and Peter have received accolades for their work, awarded by the Loudoun County's Joint Architectural Review Boards for their restoration work of the farm house in their East Lynn Farm.

organic kosher meat

Churro rams

Rosie the goat recently gave birth to three adorable kids, two females and a young goat. They’re the sweetest little creatures. I tried to take their picture, but Rosie keeps rushing toward me. I know how it is, I think, I’m a mother myself. But no, she just wants to munch on my camera’s strap. We struggle a little and I give up.

“Let’s go see the rams,” I suggest, while (gently) kicking Rosie who is now chewing my favorite Eileen Fisher coat.

A few Churro rams are grazing on a hill near us. They notice we’re approaching and gaze at us with boredom. Then they leave and never look back. The Churro sheep are a heritage breed, descended from an ancient Iberian strain, and were the first domesticated sheep in America. They were brought here as early as the 16th century by Spanish settlers and were used for food and cloths. To this day, Churro sheep are praised for their wool and meat, which is leaner than other breeds.

organic kosher meat

Churro rams

It will take a few months before Georgia’s farms, East Lynn and Fair Oaks, can offer the Churro sheep for meat. Until then, they have the more common English sheep for kosher slaughtering.

There’s no doubt, I think as I walk around the farm, that these animals are truly pasture-raised and grass-fed. The herds of sheep move from one area of grass to the other in order to make sure they always have fresh grass available, helping keep the acres of grass mown as they go.

This farm, together with a growing number of farms around the country, offers kosher shechita (slaughtering) of truly organic meat.

organic kosher meat

Rosie's babies

Over the last few years, and especially since the Agriprocessors scandal, more kosher-observant Jews found themselves looking for a humane, ethical kosher option, and had to come up with their own farms in order to supply what was rarely available.

For Georgia and her husband the kosher slaughtering of their farm animals was a natural extension of their Jewish life as a family. “It felt strange to do it any other way,” she told me.

It’s not always easy. Georgia would have loved to be able to offer a kosher chicken, and hers would have been literally cage-free and organic. But since the Empire company controls this market, it’s almost impossible to find a small kosher slaughter house that will do the job.

Georgia sends her lamb and beef to a kosher slaughterer in Baltimore, and from there directly to her clients. Each lamb, from this week’s group of 15 English sheep, was sold in advance to a kosher client from the metro D.C. area, and was slaughtered to order. And as commonly done in the US, the front of the animal goes for kosher slaughtering, and the back is sold to the regular market. Same goes for beef.

As someone who grew up in Israel, I’ve always found that interesting. In Israel the back parts the beef go through a process called “nikkur” - deveining of the sciatic nerve, which is forbidden for Jews (Genesis 32:33). This process is done by a specialist who was specially trained for this job. Most kosher slaughterers in the U.S. prefer to take the easy way and just sell the back part, which contains some of the best cuts of the beef, to the gentile market.

I spoke to the chief inspector of Tel Aviv Rabbinical meat service, Boaz Halevi, who is in charge of all kosher slaughterers in the Tel Aviv area.

“According to the halakha, every cut is allowed to go through nikkur to become kosher,” he told me. Israeli kosher slaughter houses perform the nikkur and offer all the cuts, including the sirloin, tenderloin, round and the rump. The process can be performed in lamb as well, but is rarely done since it’s a smaller animal, and not much would be left from the much loved leg-of-lamb after removing the sciatic nerve.

“Traditionally, the Ashkenazi do not eat the hind cuts that went through the nikkur process,” Halevi told me, but Sephardi Jews do. So in areas of Israel where there is a larger Sephardic population, such as in Netanya, Ramle and Ashdod, nikkur is performed more often.

Perhaps that’s why the nikkur is hardly done here, since the Sephardic market is so small. But we are missing out on some really good cuts by giving up the back parts.

Georgia charges $4 per pound of lamb, plus $2.50 per pound for the shechita. She and her husband are lucky to have an income other than the farm, and would simply like the farm to sustain itself. “I’m not sure how farmers survive financially,” she tells me, experience she learned after three years in the business. The farm also sells CSA shares (Community Supported Agriculture) to families in the D.C. area, and offers vegetables, fruit and eggs of some very brilliant chickens.

I've included here a recipe for lamb kofta in tahini sauce and tomato salsa, inspired by my visit to Georgia's farm.

For more recipes, check out Food and Wine on Haaretz.com