Moveable feasts

A farmer-philosopher who confounds expectations about Islam and outsiders in the South

The Economist | Dec 5th 2015

THE voice at the other end of the line wanted a lamb. Might Frank Randle have an intact male animal that he was willing to sell? "Yes, ma'am," he replied. "I do." The caller explained that she was a liaison officer at Fort Benning, an army base about 40 miles from Mr Randle's farm. She told him to expect a customer.

Soon a black Mercedes, windows tinted, turned off the road that traverses his shallow Alabama valley, with its beautiful creek, and pulled up to the farmhouse. Two enormous, shaven-headed bodyguards wearing black suits and Uzis strapped to their hips got out. Mr Randle selected a lamb and bound its legs. The flunkies placed it, baaing, in the limousine's boot. Finally the car's rear window rolled down, just enough for a hand—belonging, it afterwards transpired, to a Saudi prince—to proffer a $100 bill, a suitably royal sum for a single creature.

Welcome to Alabama

That was 30 years ago. Mr Randle—now 64, lean, bronzed and moustachioed—still doesn't know why they called him, though it helped that his sheep were and remain uncommon livestock in the pork- and beef-eating South. The transaction was the start of his role as a supplier of meat to generations of Muslim officers seconded to Fort Benning and Maxwell Air Force Base. Having been educated in England, many of them, he says self-deprecatingly, "speak better English than I do"; over the decades their nationalities have varied with America's shifting alliances in the Middle East. His clientele expanded to include Muslims throughout southern Alabama and up to Atlanta: professionals and university types from across the Arab world, Africa and South-East Asia. Demand spikes with the births of children and the feast at the end of Ramadan; every year a Malian imam in Tuskegee hand-delivers a religious calendar so Mr Randle can anticipate it.

Unlike the prince, many of these southern Muslims are reluctant to take live animals home, for fear, he says, of winding up on the local news. So he installed a modest slaughtering facility at the farm (a tub to drain blood; hooks for carcasses): a "judgment-free zone to do what their culture asks them to". Senior officers, he notices, leave the throat-slitting to their underlings. Some of his customers have become friends. Sitting on his porch—wind-chimes jangling, turkey vultures circling overhead—Mr Randle recalls a banquet on the lawn between his house and the orchard, involving dates, pomegranates and palpitation-inducing shots of coffee, consumed cross-legged and without cutlery. Afterwards his guests prostrated themselves in prayer, he remembers, pointing the way towards Mecca.

That hospitable attitude isn't universal in the region. Following the atrocities in Paris, Alabama's governor was one of many to declare that he would not be accepting Syrian refugees—a mostly symbolic gesture, since the state has never taken any. It is also among the ten to have passed laws banning the application of foreign (ie sharia) statutes in secular courtrooms, another solution to a non-existent problem. Mr Randle himself has been warned by xenophobes that he is "consorting with the enemy". "It's a free country," he tells them.

South and east

But then, Mr Randle is an unusual man. He grew up in northern Alabama in a family of tenant farmers and coalminers. His mother was a Baptist but his father a Methodist, making him, he jokes—though it was less funny at the time—"the product of a mixed marriage". He attended segregated schools; there weren't many Muslims around. Those northern roots mean some neighbours still consider him an outsider, though he has farmed near Auburn for 40 years. (On the day he bought the property, a tornado ripped the roof off the house and destroyed the outbuildings.)

He traces his enlightened outlook to three influences. The earliest was a summer programme at Yale Divinity School, his first time on an aeroplane and "a slap in the face" for a hitherto insular high-school student. Next was Booker T. Whatley, a visionary agronomist. Mr Randle studied entomology, paying for college by keeping bees and selling honey; later he became a state bee inspector. He fell in with Whatley, one of whose aims was to generate an agrarian black middle class: the idea was to repatriate young blacks from the north to the smallholdings given to some ex-slaves after the civil war. In that respect his success was mixed, but his impact on Mr Randle was profound. His third mentor was Wendell Berry, a Kentucky poet and theorist of localism and community.

A devotion to both economic and ecological sustainability is the result. "I want my sons and my grandsons to be able to keep doing this," Mr Randle says. That hope is half-accomplished, since his two sons live and work on the farm. Rather than the usual southern rota of corn, cotton, soyabeans and peanuts, they grow blueberries, grapes, pears, persimmons and sweet potatoes; they raise chickens and Thanksgiving turkeys along with the sheep. The fruit is picked by visitors or pre-sold to buyers in a harvest-sharing scheme, an approach known as "community-supported agriculture". That helps to spread hard-pressed farmers' risks and guarantee their income, and is catching on in the South. The bees are gone: Mr Randle's wife became allergic to their stings, and he was forced to choose between them.

After taking in a slice of an old plantation, the farm now encompasses some 230 acres. Mr Randle reckons that is ample: "If you can't walk over it in a day, you don't need it." Like many farmers he rarely leaves, but, for him, the land has its own inexhaustible fascination: "There's more going on underneath your feet than most folks could ever appreciate." And, as compensation, "The world comes to me".

Having raised his lambs from birth, Mr Randle isn't keen to slaughter them himself; in any case, he explains—stooping to return a lost newborn to its mother—state rules forbid him to, though his Muslim guests may do so for their personal consumption. He admires the solemnity and reverence with which they go about it: evidence, he thinks, of a sense of responsibility to the natural world, and of the sanctity of life, which he shares. When employed expertly and painlessly, the halal technique is "the most humane way", says the farmer-philosopher of Alabama.

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