When Robert P. Tristram Coffin wrote of trying to live off the land in Maine during winter in the 1940s, he rhapsodized about what he called “the common little hackneyed bunny,” as the food source the “Winter liver-off-the-country will lean on most.”

Coffin advised taking a shotgun and a good dog – preferably a mutt – to hunt for the fat rabbits of winter. Today a new generation of Mainers is increasingly pursuing rabbits, but instead of taking to the woods, they’re checking with state regulators, installing cages in barns, cross breeding for maximum meat-to-bone ratio and making deals with local chefs eager to serve rabbit, a meat lauded for delivering high protein with low impact on the planet. In these days of drought and high feed prices, sustainability is driving an uptick in breeding – and serving – rabbits.

Remember that catchy advertising line for pork about the other white meat? Rabbit is the new green meat.

BOURBON AND BUNNIES

For Megan Anderson of Root Down Rabbitry in Unity, which specializes in heritage breed meat rabbits, the decision to get into rabbits in 2010 was highly pragmatic.

“It was born out of needing to have some food security with the high prices of meat and where it is coming from these days,” Anderson said. “We didn’t have a lot of room to raise livestock and we weren’t on a permanent property.” She typically has about 50 rabbits in residence at Root Down, housing them in hanging and stacking cages. She also runs the heritage livestock program at Unity College, where she uses the rabbits in sustainable agriculture classes. Eventually, rabbit may make it into the school’s menus.

For Lisa Webster and her husband Phil of North Star Sheep Farm in Windham, who plan to diversify and be selling rabbit meat to Maine restaurants by this fall, it started with a supermarket rabbit, a bottle of bourbon and memories of their grandparents. The couple were at Whole Foods for one of her weekly lamb demos and Phil went off to shop for dinner. “It had been a long week,” Webster said. “Phil picked up a full rabbit and a bottle of bourbon.”

They went home and cooked the rabbit and as they ate, the food evoked memories. “It got us talking,” she said. Phil’s grandfather had raised rabbits for his family. Lisa’s had raised them for a distributor, up to 600 at a time.

But this excellent rabbit on their plates was from Iowa. For people deeply enmeshed in the local food movement, the distance that rabbit traveled from Iowa to Maine pointed to an opportunity to get back to an old family business. “So now it is cycling back,” she said.

WHAT COMES AROUND

Gary Anderson, a professor with the UMaine Cooperative Extension and animal and bio-sciences specialist, said that during the World War II and Depression era, rabbits were commonplace on dinner plates in Maine and around the nation. Through the 1990s there were still rabbit breeders in Maine, largely catering to ethnic markets in Boston and Rhode Island, he said. “The people who were doing that got older and essentially retired,” he said. Perley Emery, the president of the Maine State Rabbit Breeders Association, remembers fondly the days when the old Horsefeathers in Portland ran a rabbit special on Saturdays, involving a lot of delicious cognac sauce. “He would buy 200 to 300 rabbits a week,” Emery said.

Of late, increasing interest in raising rabbits for meat prompted the Extension, and Anderson, to write a bulletin for the Extension’s website, complete with instructions on how to dress a rabbit and recipes (Baked Stuffed Rabbit with Carrots, for instance).

Anderson details the economic benefits and relative ease of raising rabbits to eat. The meat is low in cholesterol and fat so it’s far healthier than beef and even has the edge on chicken. And many say it’s tastier. “Anything you do with a chicken you can do better with a rabbit,” Emery said. Also, they’re quiet and take up minimal space, so for the backyard breeder who doesn’t want to bum out the neighbors, they’re ideal. They’re legendarily easy to breed and grow quickly (after the age of 5 months, a doe can produce a litter every 59 days). They’re low cost; the Extension estimates an annual cost per doe at $195 with a return after costs of $67.50. Then there is the manure, high in nitrogen and potassium.

“Rabbit manure is one of one best quality fertilizers for a farm,” said Jordan Pike of Two Toad Farm in Lebanon, who is just getting into the rabbit breeding business. “Chicken manure can burn the plants, and while cow manure is great and cows make a lot of it, it is also full of weed seeds. When you are farming organically, you have to know your [expletitive] and rabbit manure is really great.”

He is farming on land protected by the Three Rivers Land Trust, which came with a 125-foot former hen house, ideal for housing rabbits in the winter. In the summer, Pike will pasture the rabbits using equipment that protects them from predators while allowing them to range. Pike has talked to a number of chefs who are interested in buying rabbit meat and he’s got a litter of babies already. But there is a catch: The mother had trouble producing milk at first, so Pike hand feed the babies for their first week. That took time and energy during the beginning of planting season, and it also established a bond.

“Boy, they are so cute,” Pike said. “I have personally grown pretty attached. We may sell these guys as pets.”

EASTER DINNER

That’s the first hurdle that a new breeder will have to get over, although practiced rabbit breeders like Anderson say it’s easy, relatively speaking. “The processing of them is just really slick,” she said. She was a vegetarian for five years, but she is willing to tackle processing. “It takes a little bit of guts, and we try to give our animals the most comfortable life that they can possibly have until we harvest them, but you do have to deal with the fact that you are going to process them.”

She and her partner Adam raise almost all of their own meat and share it with their extended family. “Our freezer is full of lamb, pork, veal, rabbit and chickens,” she said. “We really like to cook, and we don’t like to cook the same thing every night.”

Which brings us to the second hump: consumption of rabbits off the farm or homestead. “Rabbits are a harder sell for people, I think,” Anderson said. “Our hearts kind of sink when we think of our cute little bunnies.”

The average consumer may blanch at the notion of eating the Easter Bunny or Peter Rabbit. No one wants to be a Mr. McGregor after all, even if rabbit does taste, as they say – as everyone says – much like chicken. Lisa Webster plans to break her rabbits down so they look like chicken in the package; she thinks the rabbit form is in its entirety is just too daunting for most supermarket consumers.

“People think of bunnies and they get all sentimental,” chef Chris Gould of Central Provisions said. But he has what he terms “an adventurous” clientele. “I feel like people, they order stuff here and they don’t even know what it is,” he said. “They trust us.”

So much so that Central Provisions usually has a rabbit-based dish on both the lunch and dinner menu, like a rabbit confit panini and a smoked rabbit salad. Gould goes through about 45 pounds of rabbit a week. Other high-end Portland restaurants that serve or have served rabbit include Hugo’s, Petite Jacqueline, Emilitsa (in phyllo with spinach and feta) and Sur Lie. Up the coast, it appears on the menus at Primo in Rockland and Francine Bistro in Camden.

Gould has purchased rabbits from John Barnstein of Maine-ly Poultry in the past. Barnstein is known for his chickens, but rabbits have been a regular sideline for 25 years. He has also sold through outlets like Rosemont Market and at seven different farmers markets. But he recently shut down his Warren-based rabbit business over a regulatory issue so these days, Central Provision is getting its rabbits from the Hudson Valley in New York. Gould is one of the chefs that the Websters have promised to supply once they are up and running. Which will take a little time.

“It’s not a decide-this-week, do-it-next-week kind of thing,” Webster said. “There isn’t even any processing plants in Maine, so we have to build one.”

REGULATING RABBITS

There is some debate, or perhaps confusion, about the rules and regulations around rabbits for food. The U.S. Congress has not mandated inspection of rabbits so any federal inspection of rabbit is voluntary and handled under the Agricultural Marketing Act. If a rabbit is deemed “wholesome and free from disease,” it gets a USDA inspection mark. But since the inspection isn’t mandated, the rabbit breeder would have to pay for those inspections.

Ron Dyer, the director of Division of Quality Assurance and Regulations for the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry, said rabbits are “pretty simple” to process compared to other forms of livestock. Chickens, for instance, can be processed on farms, but no more than 1,000 or 20,000, depending on the level of inspection and type of sales. “There’s no cap like there is with chickens,” Dyer said. “The only requirement in Maine (for selling processed rabbits) is that you have a commercially licensed kitchen.”

That license costs $50, once the breeder meets the specifications for the facility, which is then subject to periodic inspections.

Dyer is excited about the increasing interest in raising rabbits and says his office will do what it can to facilitate the kitchen licensing process. “This local food thing is huge and rabbits are part of it,” he said.

But a pair of longtime meat rabbit breeders and/or processors, including Perley Emery of the Maine State Rabbit Breeders Association, said they are no longer processing rabbits for sale because of state regulations. Emery, who went into the rabbit business in 1974 after returning home from Vietnam and has at points had up to 1,500 rabbits on his South Paris farm (along with a lot of chickens), said a consumer protection inspector shut him down last year. “I’ve dressed rabbits and delivered them everywhere for years and all of a sudden he says you don’t have any inspected facility,” Emery said. He paid a $1,000 fine, and is taking his rabbits to a licensed facility. The extra cost of processing means that the rabbits he was selling for $4 a pound to outlets like the Portland Food Co-op had to increase in price. “Now they go for $6 a pound,” he said.

Barnstein said he was told after a voluntary inspection this spring that he could no longer dress rabbits at Maine-ly Poultry. Taking the rabbits to the new USDA-inspected processing facility that he and his partner have in Gardiner is not economically feasible, he said.

“It’s really unfortunate,” Barnstein said. “We just got two or three more people to raise rabbits for us because there is such a demand.” It wasn’t always that way. “We have been able to educate people, but when we first started selling rabbit, people would say ‘Oh my God, does it still have the head on it?'” Barnstein added. (The answer was no.)

BUNNY BUSINESS

Anyone looking for indicators of shifting public perceptions of the bunny market should talk to high school student Sam Workman. He and his friend Roger Benoit are about two weeks away from buying their first breeding rabbits from Jordan Pike at Two Toad Farm. As a part of a farm business class at The New School in Kennebunk, the two friends pitched a rabbit breeding project. They’ve already got a location (Workman’s dad’s barn in Saco, which offers low rent and a friendly landlord), interested customers (including a bakery and a couple of restaurants) and a plan for the long term.

The young entrepreneurs both have college plans and a six-month commitment to hike the Appalachian Trail, during which time they’ll have to pay someone to look after the rabbits. But in three years, they expect to have about 80 rabbits and to be making a tidy profit.

Why are rabbits so appealing, beyond the profit margins?

“For the amount of space rabbits require, it is easy to be humanitarian and organic about it,” Workman said. “And I think it is a very unsaturated market.”

“We love rabbits,” he added. Just like Robert P. Tristram Coffin.

“When all the ration points are gone and the beef bones are all souped, when November’s pig is only a memory and his last leg-bone has gone the way of pea soup, then the little coast farm has a ton of meat running merry in white on quick feet over the frozen grass and browsing with careful pink noses up all its alder shoots. Go out and get your meat free!” From “Maine Cooking: Old-Time Secrets,” originally published in 1944, reprinted in 1991 by Northern Lights in Orono.

 


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