It started with the Easter bunny. Not the mythical egg-dropping kind, but a real flesh and fur bunny. From that first one, Beth Seely and her family acquired three more, mutts of no particular sort that hopped around their 10-acre piece of woods as pets.
These days her farm, Seely's Ark, is Florida's largest doe rabbitry, with a capacity to house 500 doe, their myriad babies and the breeding bucks. Although there have always been rabbit farms in Florida, the animals aren't easy to raise here. They don't tolerate heat well; they are a seasonal product in which the demand doesn't always synch with the supply; and, because they are considered a high-end product, sales can plummet in tough times. Add to all that the challenge of finding a processing plant, and headaches multiply like, well, rabbits.
A retired crisis nurse, Seely, 67, says, "When I decided I wanted to be a farmer, I had to tackle one piece at a time."
First there was the issue of producing a stable supply of rabbits that look nearly identical (from chicken breasts to steaks, American consumers are nuts about uniformity). In the early 1990s, she lucked out by meeting up with a gentleman at a national rabbit breeder convention, a young academic at Oregon State University named Steven Lukefahr who was working on the genetics of meat rabbits. He released his findings and she got busy, breeding a New Zealand White female with a Californian male to create production doe that exhibited both strong mothering instincts and hybrid vigor, and then bred those with an Altex rabbit, prized for its rapid growth and meaty body. The results are strapping white rabbits with pink eyes (darker furred rabbits have darker meat, something the market doesn't particularly like).
"My long-range plan was to get into retail, and the only way to do that was volume," she says.
Seely needed a lot of rabbits and a way to process them. The latter proved tricky. Early on she found a local processor who would buy her live rabbits. He then retired. After that, she found a processing plant in Ocala that would rent the facility to her on weekends. After a disastrous fire in 1998, the owners closed it. The Seelys bought it and the 20 acres surrounding it in 2000 and rebuilt it to meet USDA standards.
On a rainy February morning, a slightly soggy Great Pyrenees leaned his substantial weight first against Suzanne Young, the Seelys' daughter, and then against farm employee Cassie Hutton. Seely's Ark has a few of these lumbering white dogs, used as herd guardians because of their territorial disposition, on the property. They are not the only other species sharing turf with the rabbits.
Beth Seely can tick off 21 species they dabbled with, many of them game birds, before settling on rabbits (thus the "Ark" part of the farm name). But recently, pasture poultry has been added to the mix as a hedge against the vicissitudes of the rabbit market.
Seely's granddaughter, Leah Young, 7, zipped underneath the overhangs of the three rabbit barns on her way to see the new chicks. Arriving by plane in boxes of 100, two boxes have been brooded in enclosures warmed by incubator lights. Leah and her grandma spent the morning dipping tiny beaks in the water so the yellow fluff balls knew where to drink. In a frenzy of cheeping, they were corralled in their tent enclosures, the edges double-protected against the draft.
Elsewhere on the property, the Heritage Whites range free on 8 of the farm's 10 acres, the doors left open during the day. That's less feasible with rabbits, Seely says.
"It's not easy to raise rabbits on pasture because the ground's not so clean and the rabbits want to go in the ground. So the losses are great," she says, adding that some rabbit farmers opt to "finish" rabbits on grass.
Meat of the matter
Rabbits are funny. Or more precisely, our feelings about rabbits are funny. People are emotional about eating rabbits — they are cute and fuzzy and often raised as pets. Plus there's Thumper and Bugs Bunny, not to mention the Easter Bunny. On the other hand, they are a sustainable food source because they are herbivores, they grow and multiply quickly, and they convert calories into pounds more efficiently than other animals. According to Slow Food USA, rabbits can produce 6 pounds of meat on the same amount of feed and water it takes a cow to produce just 1 pound. Furthermore, they are often the only option for a farm with serious space constraints, and their meat is lean, with more protein per pound than chicken.
Pel-Freez in Rogers, Ark., has long been the largest rabbit meat processor in the United States. Chugging along in the early decades of the 20th century, it wasn't until the end of World War II that the market for frozen meat rabbits ballooned, with so many G.I.s returning from Europe, where rabbits were often a primary food source. Pel-Freez's other market grew around the same time: high-quality research materials.
Scrutinize most shampoo bottles these days and you'll see the fine print, "This product was not tested on animals," or even the more terse, "Cruelty free." Much of that market for research rabbits has dried up, says Seely, but they are still used for in-vitro diagnostic kits and other biotechnology research and diagnostic markets.
Seely's Ark rabbits are raised for meat and occasionally as breeding stock for other farmers. They live in 2- by 3-foot cages, the babies bunking with their mothers until they are weaned at about 6 weeks, the bucks in separate cages. Breeding doe live around two years and can have 10 to 12 litters in a lifetime; bucks are kept as long as they are productive, which may be six to eight years (ensuring that they pass on their long-living genes to their progeny).
Rabbits are slaughtered at 8 to 12 weeks old at the processing facility in Ocala. When the facility is not processing Seely's Ark rabbits or chickens, it processes other farms' animals, an economic necessity even though Seely's Ark rabbits are considered a large commercial herd. At first, the Seelys sold their rabbits to restaurateurs within driving distance of the farm, but then they graduated to selling directly to Publix.
"At our largest production, we were supplying Publix with 1,200 fresh rabbits a week. But that wasn't enough to hold our warehouse spot, and they chose not to keep it as a fresh product. So we reapplied in the frozen market."
You'll find them in the frozen food aisle at Publix under the Seely's Ark name, usually for $15 per 22-ounce package.
Looking to the future, Seely thinks about adding different bird species — maybe guinea fowl or ducks. The limiting factor is processing facilities. As with all small farmers, the tension is between increasing the herd numbers to maximize efficiencies and safeguarding against problems in the market.
Standing in one of the rabbit sheds while the rain pelted loudly against the high-peaked roof, she drew on a business metaphor close to home.
"You have to diversify, because you don't want to have all your eggs in one basket."
Laura Reiley can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley on Twitter.