• Publishers' Note

    Publishers' Note

    When they harnessed fire, by some accounts more than 1.5 million years ago, our distant ancestors changed the course of their evolution and, ultimately, ours. Not only was light and warmth brought into their lives, but the act of cooking food is thought to have increased brain size and put us on the path to becoming Homo Sapiens.

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  • Polyphony in the Garden

    Polyphony in the Garden

    When I work in the garden, surrounded by vegetables, flowering plants, and herbs, with several species of bees buzzing in the big, purple, flowering clusters of anise hyssop at the ends of all the beds, and a breeze fluttering the leaves of the maples and oaks in the woods nearby, I sense polyphony at work in the natural world.

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  • Set the Table with Rabbit

    Set the Table with Rabbit

    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.

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  • Sun Dance Season: An Abenaki Summer

    Sun Dance Season: An Abenaki Summer

    For the Abenaki, summer officially begins during the hoeing and planting times, what we consider late spring, and lasts up to the Green Corn Festival, the official “kick-off” of the harvest.

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  • Forest to Flask

    Forest to Flask

    Do you know a cooper? It’s a query likely to produce confusion, as Caledonia Spirits’ founder Todd Hardie learned by putting the question to just about everyone. “For most of a year, each time I met someone, I’d say ‘Hello, do you know a cooper?’ And they would say, ‘What’s a cooper?’”

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  • Fire Eaters

    Fire Eaters

    Although cooking over a fire generally brings fond memories of roasting marshmallows for s’mores, it also offers a tremendous opportunity to become more connected with the places we live and the food we eat.

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  • Campfire Cooking

    Campfire Cooking

    Camping is one of the most sensory pleasures of summer. There are the natural sights, such as towering trees, wildlife, sunsets, and stars, and the sounds, such as those of birds that start their trilling morning songs and lakes that lap at shores in the distance.

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  • Breeds Apart

    Breeds Apart

    Many people greet the arrival of spring by poring over seed catalogs and scanning for new varieties of vegetables, but I have a slightly different tradition. When March rolls around, I plan my broiler chickens for the year.

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  • Rural Vermont at 30:  Supporting Farmers to Sustain Farming

    Rural Vermont at 30: Supporting Farmers to Sustain Farming

    In early April, on an evening that concluded with yet another “surprise” late-season snowstorm, more than 100 people gathered at the historic Capital City Grange Hall on the edge of Montpelier to celebrate the official beginning of Rural Vermont’s 30th anniversary.

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  • Farmers' Kitchen—Okra!

    Farmers' Kitchen—Okra!

    Although we farm in Vermont, one of our favorite vegetables to grow, and especially to eat, is a staple from the South: okra. On our farm in Shaftsbury, where we grow between 25 and 30 acres of veggies and small fruits—everything from asparagus to… well, yes… zucchini—it’s the letter O in which one of our true vegetable passions rests. Okra!

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  • Last Morsel—Reliving History through Food in Burlington

    Last Morsel—Reliving History through Food in Burlington

    I swirled the creamy beans, sweet chunks of zucchini, and crunchy corn niblets in the last of the lemon-herb vinaigrette at the bottom of my dish. This salad had a story to tell, and I was hungry to hear it. Lucky for me, I was in the right place: Sugarsnap restaurant at the Echo Center, the first stop on the Burlington Edible History Tour.

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Set the Table with Rabbit

Sarah Ouellette of Silver Ridge Rabbitry
Sarah Ouellette of Silver Ridge Rabbitry

Written By

Katie Spring
Katie Sullivan

Written on

May 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.

About the Author

 Katie Spring

Katie Spring

Katie Spring is co-owner of Good Heart Farmstead in Worcester, a CSA farm with a mission to make local food more accessible. She finds time to write in between pulling weeds and sowing seeds. Follow the farm on Instagram: @goodheartfarmstead.

Katie Sullivan

Katie Sullivan

Katie Sullivan currently raises sheep for fun and profit in Williston. Learn more about her enterprise at sheepandpicklefarm.com.

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