Halal-certified goat processing facility coming to Willmar
The owners of Clean Chickens and Co. plan to open the plant this fall in Willmar. The goal is for it to be a halal-certified facility, with a Muslim slaughterman doing the slaughtering by hand.
WILLMAR — With one success under their belt, it might not be a total surprise that the owners of the first USDA-inspected mobile poultry processing facility in the country would also be behind the first halal-certified goat and sheep slaughter facility in the state of Minnesota.
"The closest halal plant is Chicago," said Greg Wierschke, and there is a growing unmet need in and around Minnesota for a slaughter facility that can process goat while following the standards of halal.
Greg and Becky Wierschke, founders and owners of Clean Chickens and Co. in Elk River, know that it is a big jump from processing chickens to processing goats. They believe the hard work and creativity that made Clean Chickens a success will serve them will in their newest endeavor — Happy Halal in Willmar.
"It's not just saying 'we're not going to be slaughtering pigs,'" Greg said of keeping the facility according to halal. It's also about completing the multiple steps and keeping the promises.
"The bottom line is you want to help the community and meet the needs the community has," Becky said.
The Wierschkes have more than 20 years experience growing and processing chickens, and started their operation on their farm near the Red Lake Reservation. At first the couple raised the birds, but would then have to drive nearly six hours round-trip to get them processed at the nearest processing facility in Brainerd.
They soon started processing their own birds.
To meet the educational needs of their deaf daughter, the family made the move to Elk River. Greg started raising a small number of chickens on their property, and then purchased a few pieces of mobile processing equipment.
Greg figured he would do a few processing jobs at other farms, just to pay off the equipment. Instead, Clean Chickens and Co. was born.
That first year, the business processed about 500 birds and then for the next three years the number of birds would double. When COVID hit, Clean Chickens saw business go through the roof.
"We went to almost 20,000 (birds)," Becky said.
The business is inspected by the USDA, which allows growers to sell their processed birds to restaurants, stores or across state lines. Clean Chickens will travel throughout Minnesota and Wisconsin to process birds directly on farm sites.
A learning process
Over the last several years, the Wierschkes started following the growing need for halal slaughtering of goats and lamb in Minnesota. State agencies had done multiple need assessments, but no one seemed interested in taking on the challenge.
Around the same time, the couple started having discussions with Tiffany Farrier, owner of Kandi Acres in Hawick. Farrier had been raising halal goats but was finding it difficult to locate butchers willing to slaughter the animals using halal methods. She urged the Wierschkes to take the leap and expand into halal slaughtering.
"We were able to put some funds together and do that feasibility study and really start doing some serious research on that potential," Becky said.
The Wierschkes also had to learn about halal and the steps they would need to take to make sure their product was acceptable to the Muslim communities across the state. There is much diversity in Islam, and Muslims from different regions may follow halal in different ways. Meat that is considered halal is produced according to Islamic religious text and allowed to be consumed by Muslims.
Halal has covering the raising of the animal, what it can be fed, how it is slaughtered, processed, transported and stored. Halal animals can have no contact with pigs or other forbidden animals — or product made from those animals — at any stage of its life and during or after slaughter.
By Minnesota law, Happy Halal must prepare its product in compliance with the laws and customs of Islam or it cannot be called halal.
The Wierschkes have assisted with a halal slaughtering of poultry down in Rochester. While there, the couple saw many similarities in how they process the birds in other jobs.
"We call it clean culling," and it usually includes not stunning the bird before it is killed, Becky said. "It was treating those birds with a respect and reverence."
Following all the research and learning, the Wierschkes decided opening a dedicated halal-certified slaughter facility for goats and sheep could be a solid business idea.
"You have a population that is growing faster than any other population in the state, and no one is fulfilling that need," Greg said.
Building Happy Halal
Once the decision had been made to move forward with Happy Halal, the Wierschkes needed to find a location. They knew a new facility would have to be built.
"To find any meat processing plant in Minnesota that hasn't had a pig go through it? Good luck with that," Greg said.
They looked around the state for a suitable location, at first avoiding municipalities as they believed a slaughter facility within in city limits would be a hard sell. However, they found all they were looking for in Willmar. The Industrial Park had the land and the utilities needed to construct the facility, while the city itself could provide the workforce and a customer base.
"It fits Willmar well," Greg said. "The local perception is that it's not all bad."
The couple is in the process of purchasing two parcels in the Industrial Park, near the new FedEx facility. Greg said they hope to start construction this spring and be open in the fall. Happy Halal will be a small facility, only 4,000 square feet, with a daily capacity of 100 goats or sheep.
"It is really not that big," Greg said.
To become officially certified as a halal processor, the Wierscheks will be working with Halal Transactions of Omaha. The organization will inspect the facility to make sure it is following halal, and will certify the plant if it does so. The certification is renewed annually.
"They have very specific standards you have to abide by," Becky said.
Building lasting relationships
Probably the most important building blocks in the entire process are the relationships the Wierscheks are building with the diverse communities in Willmar. While halal is a tenant of Islam, it is not only Muslims who are interested in locally processed goat. The Wierscheks have been having conversations with many of the restaurants and businesses in Willmar about their plans.
"Culture is beautiful if you aren't afraid of it and understand it," Becky said.
There have been questions about the proposed business raised by some in the Muslim community, the Wierscheks said. The main concern is clearing up any confusion over whether Greg will be slaughtering the goats or that the slaughter will be done by machine. The answer to both questions is no.
"They just need to be reassured that Greg is not slaughtering," Greg said.
Instead, Happy Halal will be employing members of the Muslim community to run Happy Halal. All animals slaughtered at Happy Halal, which will just be goats and sheep, will be done by hand and following the tenets of halal.
"It is really in the community's hands if we are going to get halal (certification)," Greg said.
Both Greg and Becky have enjoyed building relationships with the business owners and residents of Willmar. They want to assure everyone interested that they plan for Happy Halal to be for the community, and it will be a true halal facility.
"It is really about trust, it boils down to hope," Becky said. "The intentions behind this plant as designed is truly for the community. I assure you it is."