We all know the saying. And yep, rabbits really do go at it like, well, rabbits – breeding rapidly enough to horrify any parent whose child brings home a pair as pets. View the math through an agricultural lens, however, and the small mammals’ sexual prowess proves incredibly appealing. As little as $30 can buy a mating duo capable of producing some 40 offspring in a single year. Roughly half will be females, who can yield their first litters at 7 to 11 months of age. Three-month-old meat rabbits fetch roughly $10 per pound (up to $20 for choice cuts), versus about $3 per pound for chicken. Follow the rising population and profit curves, and you’ll wonder why rabbit hutches aren’t as common a sight along rural roads as chicken coops.
“I can’t keep up with demand,” says Tommy Enright of Black Rabbit Farm in Amherst, Wisconsin. A former indie-rock DJ, the 32-year-old sells around 500 fryers annually to high-end restaurants in Madison and Milwaukee and finds the lack of competition surprising. Most bunnies, he explains, boast a generous meat-to-bone ratio, and the meat is higher in digestible protein and lower in fat, cholesterol, and calories than chicken, beef, or pork. “Rabbits are also meticulously clean and easy to handle. You can raise them anywhere,” he says. (Check local zoning laws through your state’s department of agriculture.)
The typical American kid would rather eat Brussels sprouts than Bugs Bunny.
The problem – in the United States, anyway – stems from those adorably twitching noses and floppy ears. The typical American kid would rather eat Brussels sprouts than Bugs Bunny. Here, meat rabbits represent such a minor industry that the USDA last bothered to gather stats in 2000, when each of us consumed an average of 0.02 pounds. To put the dated data in perspective: The French ingested about 2 pounds of lapin per person in 2014, the same year folks in China’s Sichuan province wolfed down 8.4 pounds apiece.
But we may be coming around to the idea of cooking Peter Cottontail. Localharvest.org currently lists more than 750 rabbit-meat producers nationwide – a growing number that could be related to increased environmental awareness, according to Anne Fanatico, an associate professor of sustainable development at Appalachian State University in Boone, North Carolina. Compared with cattle, rabbits convert feed to meat more efficiently. “They’re the next big thing in pastured livestock,” she says.
The first step in developing your own rabbitry involves connecting with an area breeder to purchase at least one female (doe) and one male (buck); raising-rabbits.com maintains a national breeder registry. Cheryl Wixson, co-owner of Rabbit Hill Farm in Stonington, Maine – among the country’s few certified organic operations – counsels against overthinking breed selection, beyond the obvious criteria. “The larger ones are best for meat,” she states plainly. In other words, leave the purebreds to show-bunny types. Farmers tend to hybridize heritage European breeds with modern strains that offer desired characteristics, such as strong maternal instincts.