Rabbits might be the new trend for backyard homesteaders looking for slaughter-your-own meat, and they may also be a gruesome feedstock for bioenergy in Sweden, but will we ever see rabbit re-enter the mainstream of American cuisine again?
Sooner than you might think. In fact, rabbit is increasingly appearing on restaurant menus across the country. Fueled by both the health benefits of this lean meat, and also by the fact that rabbits require a lot less feed than many other livestock species, sustainable farming advocates are increasingly trying to meet this demand through small-scale, localized operations.
Here in the Triangle, for example, Fatty Owl Farm in Chatham County has been raising bunny rabbits and marketing them through direct farm sales. The operation is hampered, however, by the fact that most slaughterhouses and processing facilities are not setup for rabbits, and in order to sell to restaurants or stores, the farm would have to transport its rabbits on a harrowing four-hour trip to the nearest NCDA-approved facility in Asheville. So that's why they've launched a barnraiser crowdfunding campaign to build their own facility, allowing them to not just process their own rabbits, but also support a growing eco-system of small-scale rabbit farmers in the immediate facility.
As with any meat-related post, there will be those who argue that no meat eating can be humane or sustainable. And there will be those who will balk at eating something so cute. (I have respect for the first argument. Less so for the second.)
I would hope, however, that most of us would agree that if you're going to eat meat, it makes sense to keep it as local, sustainable and humane as possible. For those of us who do believe that animal rearing is a central part of sustainable agriculture, there's also the tantalizing promise that new rabbit-farming techniques could further help integrate these animals into a broader system of symbiosis and sustainability. Here's how my friend and colleague Jacob Levin described the possibility in an article for North Carolina Sustainability Connection:
"Raising rabbits can be an incredibly efficient use of space, making it ideal for urban and suburban farmers searching for a sustainable way of offering neighbors a healthy source of protein. Though rabbits raised in high-density by themselves can smell terrible and be a dangerous breeding ground for bacteria, Daniel Salatin, of Polyface Farms, developed a Racken House that puts rabbits on top of chickens, allowing the chickens to clean up scraps and mix the manure into wood chips, creating a well-balanced compost."
The work of Polyface Farms also suggests that rabbits can be selectively bred to once again get a majority of their nutrition from pasture, rather than the grain that is currently the mainstay of meat rabbits.