Farming Magazine - June, 2010

COLUMNS

Small Livestock: Meat Rabbits and Overcoming the Easter Bunny Syndrome

By Diane Wells

Rabbit is a white meat with a mild flavor that is similar to poultry with respect to how it is prepared in the kitchen. A 3-ounce portion contains 147 calories, 3 grams of fat and 28 grams of protein, and, pound for pound, it has less fat and cholesterol than beef, pork, chicken or turkey. Even though it is a relatively healthy source of protein and most of us have raised rabbits at some point or another, rabbit meat is considered exotic. The going theory is that the “Easter Bunny Syndrome,” that inclination to associate those furry, long-eared, hopping creatures with spring and birth rather than with a plate and a side of barbecue sauce, has stifled the U.S. rabbit meat market. Rabbit is an important source of protein in Europe—Italy, France, Spain, Hungary and Portugal—and Asia, and because they grow rapidly, mature at an early age, reproduce at high rates and require little space, rabbit has the potential to become an important protein source here in the U.S. In the end, it’s all in how you market it.

In a recent conversation with Phil Brown, owner of Vermont Rabbitry in Glover, Vt., Brown said he’s been in the business since 1987, and over those 23 years he’s spent a good amount of time on the phone, searching for potential markets and communicating with established ones. He raises rabbits himself, and he purchases live New Zealand White and Californian rabbits from several small to large-scale growers in the region. (The New Zealand White and Californian are the most common meat rabbit breeds, valued for their high growth rates, dressed weights and ratios of meat to bone). At his facility, Brown slaughters, packages, markets and delivers the meat to restaurants, gourmet shops and high-end grocery stores throughout the state. In the past, he has sold up to 500 rabbits a week, mostly to large wholesale accounts beyond Vermont’s borders. Now he stays within Vermont’s borders, sticking to about 100 rabbits every two weeks, and he’s content with that. He also told me there are markets he has not tapped into. For example, Quebec citizens are paying a premium price for rabbit meat, and some of them are crossing the border to purchase rabbit meat from American neighbors in an effort to avoid high Canadian prices. If you’re motivated, you could tap into that market or others just waiting to be discovered.

Once you identify your market, you can decide the scale of your operation by playing around with some of the following numbers. For every 10 does, you need a buck. Does reach breeding age at six to seven months, bucks at seven to eight months. Once bred, a doe will produce a litter within 32 days. Each doe will produce up to five litters a year, with eight to 10 kits per litter. That equates to a maximum of 50 kits per doe per year, and a healthy doe can produce for up to three years. A meat rabbit is either marketed as a fryer (up to 12 weeks of age and weighing 1.5 to 3.5 pounds) or a roaster (over 8 months of age and weighing over 4 pounds). The former is tender and can be cooked in a number of ways, while the latter has a firmer texture with coarse grains and is best braised or tossed in the stew pot.

The U.S. Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) is mandated to inspect beef, pork, lamb, goat meat and domesticated poultry under the Federal Meat Inspection Act and the Poultry Products Inspection Act. Because rabbits are considered game animals, it is not mandated to inspect their meat, so inspection is voluntary and handled under the Agricultural Marketing Act. If the rabbit meat producer requests inspection for disease, they must pay an hourly fee for the service and the ultimate Inspected for Wholesomeness by USDA label on the meat. If the meat is not voluntarily inspected by the FSIS, it is subject to the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act and FDA inspection. The FDA also oversees the interstate commerce of rabbit meat. State laws vary, but plan on licensing your processing facility if you’re going to sell the meat to wholesale or retail markets.

If you are more interested in producing than processing, you can develop a relationship with a processor in your region. Many are looking for additional growers to support demand. The American Rabbit Breeders Association (www.arba.net) offers a list of members who are meat processors. As I write, six are located in the Northeast: Schaller’s Meats, Bridgewater, N.Y.; Dell’Aquila Rabbit Ranch, Walton, N.Y.; Jack Tickle, Saltsburg, Penn.; James A. Wright III, Watsontown, Penn.; Vermont Rabbitry, Glover, Vt.; and The Vermont Bunny Pen, Orwell, Vt. This list is by no means comprehensive (it relies on members submitting their information to the association), so ask around and/or search the Internet and you may find a processor relatively nearby. Processors may also be a good source of information when it comes to purchasing local breeding stock.

Your farm’s rabbit meat may not find a slot in the grocery store’s meat section, but it may have a place at the farmers’ market, be a candidate for a meat CSA or a chef may be thrilled to list it on the menu. Exotic meat is code for niche market. That doesn’t mean it’s impossible to develop a small meat rabbit business in your region, it just means you have to do some research and identify a market before you make those investments in housing, food and breeding stock.

The author, a monthly contributor to Farming, is a biologist who lives and farms in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom. Comment or question? Visit www.farmingforumsite.com and join in the discussions.