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Nuturing nature's bounty

In the mornings, when Mike and Dee Blaha step out of their house, they are being watched by a thousand pairs of pink eyes.

The quiet, watchful creatures housed in the 300 or so wire cages that line a shed behind the couple's home know when it's feeding time.

It's a chore that Mike Blaha says he enjoys. And as soon as he's finished his morning coffee, he sets out to tend to the brood.

He stops at every cage and studies every occupant. He checks on mothers of newborns to see that they have provided comfortable nests for their offspring. He also looks in on the babies to check for injuries and possible birth defects, and to make certain that they are getting the proper nutrition from their mother.

All in all, it's a pretty low-key affair - yet it makes the couple beam with pride whenever visitors drop by.

Since launching their business 10 years ago, the owners of Rabbits Etc. have watched it evolve into a model of sustainable farming that not only is profitable but is highly reflective of the Blahas sense of ethical agriculture.

Livestock, which includes rabbits, chickens and sheep, eat only feeds that are free of antibiotic additives and hormones. Aside from the rabbits, most of the animals are kept free-range, which lessens the stress of confinement.

If the couple's methods seem old-fashioned, it's because they are, says Mike Blaha, who along with his wife lives on the 20-acre spread where his parents once operated one of the largest egg-producing farms in Hernando County.

He decries modern, "faceless farming," and believes that increased productivity ultimately leads to lower quality. "We're grateful not to be under the pressure to have to do that," said Blaha. "Our customers know us, and they know exactly what they're getting when they take it out of the package."

The Blahas operate what they believe to be the second largest rabbit farm in Florida, with sales of more than 2,000 rabbits a year to customers who arrive from every corner of the state.

"Rabbit meat is still something of a novelty with Americans," Dee Blaha said. "But a lot of Europeans tell me they favor rabbits over chicken in certain dishes."

The rabbits and other livestock are not slaughtered on site, but shipped to a butcher to be processed. Dee Blaha says customers who pay $10 for a 3- to 4-pound fryer rabbit or chicken from their farm are getting a better deal than they would from similar-sized ones found in a supermarket. "A lot of people aren't aware that a chicken bought in a Publix is injected with water as it's being processed," she said.

"That, plus all the chemicals from the feed and other things the animal has ingested during its life takes away a lot of the flavor."

Though rabbits are the heart of Rabbits Etc., the Blahas derive income from just about everything they raise, from eggs to vegetables. And since a 3,000-rabbit operation tends to turn out a fairly healthy amount of manure, they discovered a way to make money from that, too.

Rabbit manure is composted into natural fertilizer. It also supplies a near-perfect medium for growing worms, which are sold to local bait houses and over the Internet. As a side benefit, the Blahas say the worms help keep down the fly population in the summer.

"The beauty of organic farming is that if you work it right, it takes care of itself," said Dee Blaha. "It can be a lot of work, but it's rarely stressful. In fact, the only real stress comes from what you create yourself."

Indeed, the Blahas maintain that corporate agricultural moguls might be surprised at how cost-effective earth-friendly practices could be.

"Chemical fertilizers are very expensive, and the benefits they bring are really questionable," said Mike Blaha. "You can pretty much trace the cancer rate and the obesity problem we have in our country to the increased use of chemicals in farming."

Though they are far from wealthy, the Blahas say their rabbit farm earns them a comfortable living.

More importantly, they say, are the intangibles that come with a business that has grown primarily by word of mouth.

"Customers will come and bring a friend, and then that person becomes a customer, too," said Dee Blaha. "That's the kind of business we've always wanted to be a part of."

Logan Neill can be reached at 848-1435 or lneill@sptimes.com.

Up next:Adopt-a-Pet

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