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Hare-Raising Ventures On The Brink Of Success

Cindy Spence

David Zimet (850) 875-7125
Beth Seely (352) 489-8353

GAINESVILLE—Florida rabbit farmers have cleared a major hurdle in stocking supermarket meat cases with rabbit cutlets, with recent approval from the USDA of a meat processing facility.

And although the Easter Bunny might keep some Americans from indulging in rabbit recipes, Florida’s diversity makes the state a prime market for rabbit, says University of Florida economist David Zimet.

“This is the most realistically optimistic I’ve ever been about the future of the meat rabbit industry,” said Zimet, a rural development specialist with UF’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences. “This industry has always been on the verge and for the first time it might be safe to call it vital.

“The USDA is the key to interstate commerce; everybody recognizes it,” Zimet said. “USDA inspections will help with marketing and help stabilize the industry.”

Beth Seely, owner of one of the largest rabbit farms in the state, was instrumental in getting USDA inspections lined up for the Ocala processing facility. In-state processing, she said, will save farmers money.

“We’ve gone all over the Southeast to process our rabbits, and once we even went all the way to Kentucky,” Seely said. “We can’t keep that up and make ends meet.”

Another boost for the industry is a new commitment from Albertson’s. Seely said the supermarket chain actually approached her and asked if Florida farmers could supply rabbit meat in response to consumer demand.

“There’s a good market for rabbit here in Florida, one of the best in the nation, because of the diverse population,” Seely said.

Historically, the meat rabbit industry has been plagued by shortages and gluts, Zimet said. In the heat of summer, rabbits don’t put on weight well and reproduction drops off so there is less meat to process. So just when winter visitors arrive and rabbit consumption increases, there is a lull in supply, Zimet said.

However, in cooler seasons in years past, rabbit farmers have been stuck with meat they could not sell. The USDA inspections open out-of-state markets and will put an end to problems with surplus meat. And with the guarantee that the meat has somewhere to go, more farmers might be willing to grow their operations to even out summer supply, Zimet said.

“We’ve never really been able to take advantage of the market because we’ve never been able to stabilize the supply,” Seely said. “Now, with our meat inspected and a link to a major supermarket chain, we can invest more confidently, and after we’ve met the needs of the Florida market we can go out of state.”

Zimet said Florida rabbit farmers have another future market to tap as well: the international market. Other nations are more attuned to rabbits as a food source, he said, pointing out that demand in Florida picks up every winter in tandem with tourism.

Additional demand also might come from health-conscious consumers with an adventurous palate. Tired of traditional low-fat fare, they might welcome the change of pace rabbit meat offers, Zimet said.

Rabbit meat has the consistency of veal and is an easily digested protein. It is lower in fat, in fact, than turkey and most fish. Rabbit meat is considered a white meat although it is classed as game.

Zimet said upscale butcher shops and restaurants represent still another potential market. In an upcoming survey of “tablecloth” restaurants in Hillsborough, Orange and Duval counties, Zimet hopes to find out how receptive chefs might be to rabbit meat and to offering a sportsman’s plate that might contain venison and rabbit.

Consumers looking for rabbit meat will usually find it in the section of the meat case reserved for specialty cuts like veal and lamb that are more expensive.

“Rabbit meat is not low-cost,” Seely said. “People think rabbits multiply like, well rabbits, so that would make them cheap, but it’s an intense investment of labor, resources and time. Unlike poultry, rabbits need their mother.

“The industry continues to suffer a 25 percent loss rate for the animals. And they eat primarily alfalfa pellets, half a ton a day in our operation. Feed is 75 percent of our costs and the feed is classed as pet food rather than classed at the lower price for livestock feed. So it’s quite an investment.”

Seely, a farm girl who became a nurse and then returned to farming 12 years ago with four does and a buck in her herd in Dunnellon, now is one of the largest operations with 500 does. She is optimistic enough that she buys rabbits for processing from 10 other farmers.

“There’s just tons of market out there,” Seely said. “We do not need to spend energy there, we need to grow our growers.”