Back in Oregon we were taken on a fascinating visit to a rabbit farm. Hundreds of snow white bunnies in wire cages suspended at hip-height, materialising through the 7am mist ranks as one of the most surreal sights yet. It was like stepping into the backstage dressing room of a prolific magician. My Pharm near Corvallis is a one-woman homestead run by Julia Sunkler who keeps common New Zealand and California whites, plus some of a darker Satin breed.
Last year, rabbit sales in Oregon were higher than they’d been in a decade and Julia helps to meet this demand selling dressed meat at local farmers’ markets and to restaurants. As we wandered around the sun started to come up through the mist and the rabbits began to seem less spectral. We gathered our thoughts and many questions presented themselves.
Why are they all white? – apparently stray white hair shows up least on the dressed meat. Rabbits have a lot of fur and the darker the hairs the more they stand out.
What happens to all the pelts? – often nothing, rabbit pelts are tricky to deal with and there is no real market for them to make it economically viable to process them.
Why aren’t they eating grass? – most farmed rabbits eat alfalfa and other feed pellets. If these breeds are fed grass it gives them diarrhoea which can kill them.
At Joel Salatin’s Polyface Farm in Virginia they have bred hardier rabbits that can eat forage without suffering.
Why are they suspended in wire cages? – to allow the droppings to fall directly through onto the ground below, rather than fester in the cage.
Polyface Farm also houses rabbits in a custom made suspended shelter called the Raken (rabbit-chicken) House. Before slaughter many of the rabbits finish up in portable slatted floor shelters, similar to chicken tractors, that are moved around daily. Free-range rabbits are rare since they are so vulnerable to predators so this is about as close as it gets.
What happens to all those droppings? – they are sold as fertilizer, rabbits poop has the highest nitrogen content of any ‘farmyard’ animal. Even at that early hour, with the sun a fragment of its full blazing glory, the stench was powerful and the flies astir. There was a lot of fertilizer.
At Polyface the chickens are allowed to roam around underneath the rabbits, scratching and pecking among the droppings, thus fertilising the land. The rabbit breeding operation at Polyface Farm struck me as a good example of the ‘stacking’ principle in permaculture. The elements of the system: rabbits, chickens, soil working in harmony and providing myriad functions.
Do they breed, well, like rabbits? – yes, they breed quickly. In Spring litters of six to 12 kits are born after just one month of gestation. The tender young bunnies are then processed at eight to 12 weeks; older rabbits yield cheaper, tougher meat (like stewing hens).
What’s the meat like? - apparently delicate and easy to digest. It is lower in fat and calories than chicken, but requires moist cooking to prevent it from drying out.
Although we were only there for half an hour, the extraordinary image of those bunnies will definitely stay with me – it’s a shame we were both too bleary-eyed to take a photo!