Set the Table with Rabbit
Written onMay 26 , 2015
I circulated the room with a tray of hors d’oeuvres, weaving through bridesmaids, groomsmen, and guests. The social hour was winding down, and by my fifth or sixth pass through the crowd, I knew who the vegetarians were—who to offer the stuffed mushrooms to, who to pass by with the pulled pork.
The pulled pork had gone fast, and as back up, the caterer I was working for that night provided pulled rabbit to take its place.
“What’s this?” guests asked.
When I answered, “Pulled rabbit with sweet potato,” hesitation came over their faces, and they voiced one of three reactions: a cautious I’ve never had rabbit before as they slowly reached for the appetizer; an excited Oh! I’ve never had rabbit before as they popped one into their mouths; or Poor bunny…I couldn’t!
This particular rabbit had come from Tangletown Farm in West Glover, and the fact that it was local meat probably swayed the skeptics into trying it. Once they did, many of those skeptics reached for more.
Intrigued by people’s responses to rabbit, I wanted to learn about who’s raising the meat in Vermont, and how it’s done. Although rabbit meat is gaining in popularity, it can seem hard to find. But once you start looking, you’ll find yourself going down the proverbial rabbit hole and sniffing out those small-scale breeders and farmers who are bringing this delicate meat to the plate.
Lila Bennett and David Robb of Tangletown Farm in West Glover began raising rabbit in 2009. Dave told me how his interest in rabbit farming began: “I used to be a carpenter, and there was a plumber on a job who was an old Austrian man, and he said that during the war his family always ate well and they always had coffee and chocolate and other good things despite the hunger around because they raised rabbits and they could always trade for anything they needed.”
Enamored by this story of self‑sufficiency, Dave brought the idea to Lila, who was less than enthusiastic, noting the furry cuteness of rabbits. But after attending a NOFA-Vermont workshop on pasturing rabbits and researching the health benefits (according to the USDA, rabbit meat is higher in protein and lower in calories, fat, and cholesterol per serving than chicken, turkey, lamb, beef, and pork), Lila agreed to try it, and they’ve been raising rabbits ever since.
From the beginning, Lila and Dave have been committed to pasture raising their rabbits. (Rabbits are more typically raised in wire cages or hutches.) But pasturing rabbits is different than pasturing poultry, and Tangletown’s pasturing style has evolved as they’ve learned a few important things: rabbits can easily tunnel beneath a fence, and free-range rabbits are hard to catch, meaning that a lot of time on slaughter day is spent chasing them. Through years of trial and error, Lila and Dave now raise the kits (bunnies) in large moveable pens that sit directly on top of grass but have wire bottoms so the rabbits can eat the grass without the possibility of digging out. The animals are moved to new grass twice a day.
Nowadays, when talking with customers who have a hard time looking past the sentimental value that rabbits hold, Lila shares what she’s learned since raising rabbits: “When you see an animal that actually eats grass and vegetables and turns it into meat and doesn’t need grain the way a chicken does, you realize that it’s better all the way around.”
At New Discovery Farm in Marshfield, Robin Schunk began raising rabbits five years ago as a way to diversify her small farm.
“We have limited amounts of land, and rabbits are easy to raise, require small amounts of space, and have a good feed-conversion ratio,” Robin says, adding that “it costs less to raise a pound of rabbit meat versus a pound of beef.” In fact, with 4 to 5 kindles (litters) per year and up to 14 kits per kindle, it’s possible for one doe to produce 300 pounds of meat per year.
With all that meat, it still only takes a few hutches or cages to raise rabbits, if that’s the preferred raising method. At New Discovery Farm, Robin keeps the does and kits together in hutches, bedded with hay, and is experimenting with moveable pens during the summer.
As for slaughter, New Discovery Farm and Tangletown Farm both practice on-farm slaughter, which means they can sell rabbit meat from the farm, through a CSA, and at farmers’ markets and stores, but not to restaurants. This differs from poultry slaughter regulations because, according to Randy Quenneville of the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, “Rabbit is regulated by the FDA and is exempt from meat inspection requirements.” However, in order to sell to restaurants, “the rabbits must be slaughtered and processed in an approved source,” such as a state-inspected facility.
“If I could sell home slaughtered rabbit to restaurants, it would certainly increase my sales and give me another, larger market for my rabbits,” Robin says. “One of the most challenging aspects of rabbits is balancing how many to raise versus how many you can sell for meat.” Currently, Robin sells her meat from the farm and at farmers’ markets, while Tangletown sells rabbit through their CSA and seasonally at Hunger Mountain Coop in Montpelier.
Sarah Ouellette of Silver Ridge Rabbitry in Wolcott has taken a different approach: She raises New Zealand rabbits for breed stock and show, as well as meat. Her rabbit story began seven years ago, when she and her husband were gifted a crock pot. They searched high and low for rabbit, and when they finally found some, the delicious slow-cooked rabbit stew that followed was reason enough for Sarah to start raising her own meat.
The search for breed stock took her to Maine, where she purchased her first New Zealand does and buck. That search illuminated the lack of rabbit meat and breed stock in Vermont at that time, and with those first three rabbits, she began Silver Ridge Rabbitry, which now has 40 rabbits, including 25 breeding does.
“Most of my customers are homesteaders who want to raise a few rabbits for themselves,” Sarah says. Along with breed stock, she also sells a complete rabbitry start-up package with large wire cages, feeders, water bottles, and nest boxes. She adds that “it’s easy to scale up or down in a short amount of time,” and that, paired with the fact that rabbits require such little space and feed, makes rabbit an attractive animal for both beginners looking to raise meat for the first time, and for farmers interested in a small animal with a large potential return.
With 40 rabbits, Sarah still considers her farm very small, and she cautions that to really make a profit with rabbits requires a large number of animals—she’s hoping to have 100 breeding does eventually. Although it’s easy to increase the number of rabbits, “to run a commercial rabbitry you need to have a [temperature-controlled] barn to breed in year round, and that comes with a high overhead,” she says. For now, she raises her rabbits in a converted milking barn that also houses goats during the winter. Despite the fact that it won’t hold 100 does, the barn is a model for the small-scale rabbit farmer, and was featured in Storey’s Guide to Raising Rabbits, by Bob Bennett, which Sarah highly recommends for those new to raising rabbits. This summer, she will be experimenting with moveable hutches on pasture.
Come slaughter time, Sarah takes her rabbits to Vermont Rabbitry, run by Phil Brown in Glover. As a custom slaughterer, he will process rabbits for folks who don’t practice on-farm slaughter. He’s been in business since 1989 and has seen rabbit demand go up and down throughout the years, and he’s noticing springtime orders picking up, in part due to increasing demand from chefs. He no longer raises rabbits himself, but instead does custom jobs for farms like Silver Ridge, and buys live rabbits from a number of small farms and processes the meat for resale to Black River Produce and Vermont Quality Meats, along with restaurants and gourmet food shops.
In the end, the challenges of raising rabbit are balanced by the joys, and also by the delicious final product, which can be fried, stewed, braised, or roasted. The lean white meat is similar to chicken, and for newcomers to rabbit meat, slow-cookers offer an easy introductory cooking method.
“My favorite way of cooking rabbit is to simmer it slowly with onions, celery, and seasonings,” Robin Schunk of New Discovery Farm says. “Then I pick the meat off the bone and use it for chili and quesadillas.”
After searching out a rabbit recipe for myself, I put together the one above using Robin’s favorite seasonings.