Skip to comments.The New Livestock: Rodents of Unusual Size
Posted on 11/22/2012 4:00:04 AM PST by Cronos
As Heifer Ghana got its start in 1999, staff swiftly tackled the challenge of affordably domesticating grasscutters, a wild rodent prized in West Africa for its sweet and lean meat. Since then, Heifer developed an accessible and hugely successful method to raise the rodents to improve nutrition and income among its project participants. Today, demand in West Africa and beyond drives exponential growth in the production and sale of the animals.
ANANG CHARLES, GhanaShe was clearly nervous. Strange people were milling about in front of her house asking questions about her. When she saw the camera, she froze. Her mouth full, food in hand, she didn't know what to do.
So she kept eating.
"She" was an overly large cross between a beaver and a rat, or a Rodent of Unusual Size, to use a popular culture reference. "She" is a grasscutter. And she has no idea that she's helping make the farmers who raise others like her very successful indeed.
It takes just 30 minutes to get to Jonathan Mensah's place by car from the Heifer offices in Accra, Ghana's sprawling capital city that's home to more than 2 million people. But Mensah's village is where you'll find more than 100 of Heifer Ghana's grasscutter farmers.
Farm is really a misnomer for where Mensah lives. He owns just more than two acres down from the five he had before the capital seized part of his land to accommodate the burgeoning population.
Mensah, 53, joined a Heifer grasscutter project in 2006 not long after he lost most of his farmland. He was struggling to provide for his family of six by selling vegetables from his meager acreage with little access to water for irrigation.
"My father died when I was 13 years old, so I only completed my elementary education. I had to look after myself," Mensah said.
By the time he was 19, Mensah had found a job with the district Animal Health and Production Department. It was there that he learned how to feed and care for animals and also how to administer drugs. In 1989, he lost his job. His department was deemed overstaffed, and he was one of the unlucky few to be cut.
He received a small severance but almost immediately fell ill.
"I wanted to use the money to invest in my farm, but I couldn't because I was sick. I used the money for treatment. And even that money didn't treat me. So I sold some of my belongings. I lost everything. I became poorer and poorer. I had to start my life again," he said.
About a year after starting over, Mensah attended a farmers association meeting in his district. He and other farmers were commiserating about the difficulty of farming in Anang Charles village with the intermittent rain and other challenging weather conditions.
Another farmer brought up an organization that was helping farmers just like them.
"We heard about this NGO called Heifer who was helping. They were offering cattle, goats and these grasscutters, so we applied. At the end of the year, they approved us. It was a group of about 36 original farmers," he said. "It changed my life. It was a blessed event."
In contrast, the domestication of the grasscutter began in Ghana in the 1970s. It should come as no surprise that farmers are still learning exactly what it takes to raise the animal with as much financial success as chickens or cows.
Grasscutters, sometimes referred to with the less than appealing name cane rat, are native in much of central and West Africa and have long been a favorite food for many in the region.
Because of the grasscutter meat's popularity, a study was launched in the 1970s to gauge if the wild animals could be raised in captivity. The results indicated raising grasscutters on farms could be successful, but the idea fizzled. The startup costs for the smallscale and subsistence farmers involved were just too high, said Roland Kanlisi, interim country director for Heifer Ghana.
In 1999, a few years after the studies were abandoned and just as Heifer Ghana was opening its offices to support project work, Kanlisi was researching environmentally harmful methods with which Ghanaians were harvesting wild game.
What he found was that the Ghanaian taste for the rodent hadn't changed since the initial studies of the 1970s.
"The grasscutter came out as one of the most hunted animals from the wild," he said. "It's an animal that attracts premium prices on the market. Everyone wants grasscutter meat."
But Kanlisi's research found the high demand for grasscutter meat had adverse effects on the animal's habitats and the surrounding environment. Hunters used either poisonous traps for the animals or set bush fires to, quite literally, smoke out the creatures.
The poisonous meat would sicken those who ate the animals, and bush fires often got out of control, burning nearby farmland, he said. So Kanlisi decided the best answer would be to resume raising and breeding grasscutters on farms.
Around the same time, Kanlisi said, a happy coincidence occurred. Farmers in the Republic of Benin were having success in the captive rearing of the rodents with the help of a German development organization. The next step was to see exactly how they were doing it.
"We decided to go to Benin to learn from them. We also reviewed a lot of literature and realized it could be done in a sustainable and environmentally friendly manner, and it could be done in a manner that would not injure the health of human beings, and that it was also financially and technically viable," he said.
That trip was enough to convince Kanlisi to propose grasscutter production projects to Heifer headquarters.
"We developed a concept and submitted to Heifer to propose grasscutter production as one of the main interventions in the Ghana program. The reaction was, in the first case, 'What is a grasscutter? Is it a rat?' " Kanlisi said.
The concept was approved, which set Kanlisi to the next task: finding a foundation stock of grasscutters to provide the ready and willing farmers.
Kanlisi said Heifer had to decide between asking local hunters to cull the animals from the wild and buying the rodents from the farmers in Benin who were already in the business of raising grasscutters.
|Rebecca Ashorkor (right) received five grasscutters in a Pass on the Gift Ceremony.|
"I know grasscutters, but formerly, I didn't think they could be kept," Mensah said.
Ten years after the implementation of grasscutters into Heifer Ghana's programmatic work, and five years after Mensah began training on raising the rodents in captivity, he is now one of Heifer's most successful grasscutter farmers making, at minimum, $1,400 a year from his grasscutter operation alone, which is about double the average annual income of other Ghanaians.
Grasscutters were a natural fit not only because the meat is highly desired, Kanlisi said. The animals require few external inputs, like feed. As its name implies, it feeds on grasses, which farmers like Mensah can grow or harvest from the wild for free.
And because they are a native species, the rodents are also strong and resistant to diseases. Kanlisi said there are only two difficulties to the grasscutter projects. One is the difficulty in determining the sex of the animals, and the other is their relatively long gestation period of 159 days, similar to that of a goat.
Mensah said those difficulties were fully disclosed to the farmers when they were choosing what animals they'd like to receive from Heifer.
"We chose grasscutters because I like grasscutter more than goats. At times goats give more trouble. If they get out they can destroy other people's things. Grasscutters have bigger litters, and you get more than one [offspring] like with the goats. We compared all these things and then settled on grasscutters," he said. "They also bring good prices."
After a year of training, Mensah and the 35 other farmers in his group received five grasscutters each: three females and two males. The farmers also received the wooden and wire mesh housing in which to keep the animals.
He now keeps upwards of 50 grasscutters, depending on how many he's able to sell and if his animals are breeding. His stock dips at Christmastime, too, when grasscutters are the favorite for the holiday meal.
But the year-round sale of the grasscutters, whether for meat or to others interested in raising them, has allowed Mensah to open a savings account and to build a second home on his property, which he gave to two of his children. He's also adopted his brother's two orphaned children and is providing them with private schooling.
Business is still good. Mensah said there is a steady stream of people who come to see him about grasscutters.
"In a month I can sell about five, but it depends on if the animals have bred. Some people come by and order about 20 for rearing. So the orders vary. Sometimes they come and ask for one or two, but then sometimes people are afraid, so I process them and smoke the meat for them," he said.
The prices he receives vary depending on the size and age of the grasscutters. A 3-month-old animal fetches about 35 Ghanaian cedis, or $19.50. The older the animal, the higher the price: $28 for an animal up to age 2, and $33.50 for a pregnant female.
The pregnant females are highly desired, too, since many farmers who haven't received training still have difficulty breeding the animals, Mensah said. But if interested, Mensah will provide training on raising and breeding the animals at no cost. It's just one of the ways he passes on the gift.
In fact, Mensah and the original 35 members of the project keep giving to others.
"Whatever I've been given, I will pass on. Through this grasscutter project that Heifer brought, it has changed many people. The farmers I have trained, they also want to start a farm in the Eastern region. So we constructed the cages for them, brought the grasscutters for them. I trained them. So, we've supplied another region," Mensah said.
|Mensah reaches in one of the animal cages to feed and water his grasscutters under the midday sun.|
These small-scale entrepreneurs are creating jobs for others, and Mensah has bigger plans, yet.
"I will start a training center here (at his home). I will train people," he said. "A lot of young men who go to Accra cannot get jobs because they don't have skills. So we will train them in grasscutters."
So much of the grasscutter program in Ghana seems improbable. A giant rat-like creature being a popular food source seems strange enough, but raising the animals on farms was an idea that was nearly discarded. Yet it has gained success. Further, grasscutters are feeding a growing population. It takes almost no land to become a successful grasscutter farmer, and the projects are sustaining the farmers who provide them.
Kanlisi notes that improbability.
"We've come a very long way," he said. "The first grasscutter project that we had has come to an end, but the farmers are still rearing grasscutters and some of them are real big-time grasscutter farmers. Many times we've used those farmers to mentor new project participants that are undertaking raising grasscutters as a business."
It is already a lucrative business, but Kanlisi sees Heifer grasscutter farmers building into national, regional and, maybe, even international suppliers. The market is definitely ripe for something like that in Central and West Africa, he says.
Kanlisi has anecdotal evidence from his own travels and from West African friends in other countries that there are vibrant markets for grasscutters in the diaspora, especially in Britain and the United States.
Though he knows the strict laws on importing foreign meats could be a potential roadblock, Kanlisi said Heifer Ghana will cross that bridge when needed. Still, he's excited by what he sees happening in Ghana right now.
"The long-term goal is to export, but we know to export is quite tricky. Regardless, it's a project that's got a very bright future," he said.
Not that long ago, folks would have looked at you weird for suggesting eating ostrich or buffalo too.
Guinea Pigs are a delicacy in South America.
Uhhhh....no. But then I don’t live in Africa either.
When I read things like this, it always makes me stop and think what my life would be like had I been born anywhere but here, and I swear to you, I just cannot imagine it.
Depending on where you live, lots of peple here eat groundhog and opossum. I guess maybe we aren’t that different after all.
As are nutria.
There are nutria here in Washington, but I’ve never seen one.
I do not think that picture means what you think it means.
Prepare to die! ;-)
There are plenty in Washington, DC. They dress real nice.
Ipswitch: Ms. Benes the hat you charged to the company was Sable, this is Neutria.
Elaine: Well, that’s a kind of sable.
Ipswitch: No, its a kind of rat.
Elaine: That’s a rat hat?
Ipswitch: And a poorly made one, even by rat hat standards.
I can’t imagine it to be any more strange than eating rabbits or squirrels.
A squirrel is a bushy-tailed rat. A rabbit is not. Think Easter Bunny.
Definitely more practical than squirrel!
I don’t think they exist...
The fact that I was born in NM and not Mexico is all the difference in the world. And to accept that we are unique in being American and should embrace it rather than wallow in guilt. When we accept who we are, we make the world better.
When will PETA arrive to protest this?
As long as it’s from a clean herbivore, I don’t see a problem.
Meat is meat.
When I was in Thailand, rat meat was always on the street vendors barbecue. I always said I ain’t eating no rat. The Thai captain I was paired with took me out to the rice paddies where the farmers started from one end of the paddy to the other beating bamboo sticks on the rice stalks. Others at the opposite end of the paddy bagged and clubbed the rats as they ran from one end to the other. I saw them, alive, and they were not our Norway rats. I eat rabbit, woodchucks and squirrels and these animals only ate rice. That night, Trang and I got drunk, sat on the curb and ate four rats apiece.
Will McDonald’s be offering a McVarmint burger soon?
and I swear to you, I just cannot imagine it....Rabbits, woodchucks, deer and ‘Them” rats only eat grass. What’s the problem (other than the idea of Norway rats which eat their own dead)?
I slowed down when driving one time, for what I thought was a large cat with a long tail. Sans tail, maybe 18-20”
Yes, it was a rat. I sped up but missed it.
Wait, they have to be approved to raise rats?
Very early one morning while working as the MP Duty Officer in Seoul, I was driving around Yongsan Garrison when a critter darted into the roadway, stopped, glared defiantly at my oncoming vehicle and then continued across the road. I'd been up for about 20+ hours at the time, and the first thought that lept into my fatigued mind was, "Hmmm, I didn't know there were opossum in Korea." Then it dawned on me...there aren't.
Rat burger, rat popover, apple brown ratty. Mmm mmm mmm!
Or, if you are interested in something completely different:
Well there's rat cake ... rat sorbet ... rat pudding ... or strawberry tart.
If I remember correctly chihuahua were raised by the Central and South American Indians for a meat source. Think yippy chicken.
I am Jewish and it was part of my upbringing. Beyond that, some of it is purely psychological. The thought of eating certain things like cats and dogs just induces the gag reflex.
Rodents, reptiles, amphibians, and insects (except as mentioned above) are all forbidden. Lev. 11:29-30, 42-43.
Of the things that are in the waters, you may eat anything that has fins and scales. Lev. 11:9; Deut. 14:9. Thus, shellfish such as lobsters, oysters, shrimp, clams and crabs are all forbidden. Fish like tuna, carp, salmon and herring are all permitted.
Of the “beasts of the earth” (which basically refers to land mammals with the exception of swarming rodents), you may eat any animal that has cloven hooves and chews its cud. Lev. 11:3; Deut. 14:6. Any land mammal that does not have both of these qualities is forbidden. The Torah specifies that the camel, the rock badger, the hare and the pig are not kosher because each lacks one of these two qualifications. Cattle, sheep, goats, deer and bison are kosher.
For birds, the criteria is less clear. The Torah provides a list of forbidden birds (Lev. 11:13-19; Deut. 14:11-18), but does not specify why these particular birds are forbidden. All of the birds on the list are birds of prey or scavengers, thus the rabbis inferred that this was the basis for the distinction. Other birds are permitted, such as chicken, geese, ducks and turkeys
Of the “winged swarming things” (winged insects), a few are specifically permitted (Lev. 11:22), but the Sages are no longer certain which ones they are, so all have been forbidden.
So? Rabbits are rodents too, and you can get rabbit meat in some supermarkets in the US. Lots of rural people eat squirrel as well, which is also a rodent.
What did you think McNuggets were made from????
I’ll be more impressed when I see the Namibian Muppet on the menu.
have you ever tried it? i haven’t. Have tried rabbit, snail, snake, frogs etc. — not too bad.
how was the taste? i’d eat rice fed rodents too (actually have eaten rabbits, so not such a big difference)
Saw them featured in "Bizzare Foods", where they were called "cuy".
Wait, they have to be approved to raise rats?
I wish we had to be approved to have rats in this country!
At least theirs don’t vote like our rats do.
It was human civilization that made rats dirty, not the other way around.
It is all in your head.
When I was stationed in Sicily, every Thursday I would eat at this little supper club only because Thursday was rabbit day...we had fried rabbit, saute’ed rabbit, rabbit stew....never knew how it would be cooked, but it was always great
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