Urban Farming & Raising Meat Rabbits

A guest blog from Jennifer Latham, a good friend of ours, who recently started raising meat rabbits. Above are of Chili, Pepper and the new kits.

As with most things that become really important in my life, I can’t remember exactly how it started.

My neighbor Linda and I both had the idea to raise meat rabbits when we first met. The inspiration occurred simultaneously, spontaneously, separately, like parallel evolution. Her family had raised rabbits for food when she was a child in New England and she had long had the desire to reproduce those experiences. I am a lover of rabbit meat and have been nursing the nagging guilt, since my student vegan UC Santa Cruz days, that I am responsible for making sure that if I am going to eat meat that I can raise it and kill it.

Linda and I took some classes together from local women who had experience; a butchery class with a respected chef and a rabbit husbandry class with an ‘urban farm’ author who had raised rabbits and other livestock in and around her Oakland apartment. Because I have a rambunctious young hound dog, a rambunctious young husband, a busy job and a small rental, the rabbits live with Linda. The hound dog is the biggest problem. Rabbits die very easily and I have been told that they can be frightened to death by just the sight of a dog. Killing a rabbit to eat is something I can morally manage comfortably. Scaring anything to death sounds awful. Plain old Loony Toons wisdom tells me that mixing hounds and hares is dangerous territory, although I am still trying to consider pulling off keeping a doe for myself out of this current litter we have.

I am all but sitting in Linda’s garden as I am writing this; my desk is just a few feet away from a giant pile of sawdust and rabbit droppings. A big bonus for Linda and I, as vegetable gardeners, is that rabbit poop is garden gold. Unlike chicken manure, which is too high in nitrogen to be applied directly to garden beds and must be composted to be useful, rabbit poop comes out of the rabbit with a rich balance of natural fertilizers ready to go straight onto the beds.

I can also see the place where we kill the rabbits and the place where we hang them to bleed them, gut them, and skin them. All of this is performed as far away from the houses and from the other animals as we can get, off in a corner that is perpetually cold and in shadow this time of year. There are so many things that a person has to learn on the fly, the visceral things that aren’t described in the books or classes. No one really tells you that you have to wait until the muscles have relaxed to a certain point to perform the draining and gutting – no one really can. It has to be done by feel. Each one is different. Some cling harder to life and will twitch forcefully and for a long while. Some have more connective tissue that you have to grapple with. Some the skin comes off easily, like slipping off pajamas.

The meat is unreal, the best I’ve ever had. My mind always jumps to how good they taste when I start thinking about the harder things, like their beautiful faces, twitching noses, velvet ears, perfect paws. I suppose it’s a coping mechanism to go straight from there to ragu. We raise them on organic feed and farmer’s market scraps; maybe not cost-effective for a commercial farm but abundantly rewarding for our operation.

A twelve-week old roughly five-pound rabbit yields just shy of 3 pounds of meat and is the perfect two-meal creature for my husband and I. The very first night we just have the livers and heart, best fresh. The carcass brines overnight, then the second night is my favorite meal. I rub the loins with sage and butter and tie and roast them, then serve them with roasted French fingerling potatoes and braised garden greens in winter or leafier lighter greens in summer. The third night we braise the tougher quarters, and I either make tomato/olive ragu with papardelle, or lapin a la moutarde or any of a million possible variations on the braised rabbit thighs.

One reason I think rabbits are a less common food on American tables (the big reason being that Americans profess to have an aversion to eating cute animals – although I defy anyone to say that a fuzzy yellow chick or a little piglet or a new-born knobby-kneed velvet-muzzled calf aren’t dang adorable – let alone it’s doe-eyed mamma) is that they don’t lend themselves to being cooked whole. A chicken can just be trussed up and popped in the oven, especially if it hasn’t done much running around and already has tender thighs. A rabbit, even one who spends most of life in a cage, has some pretty serious meat in the quarters – the shoulders and front legs and the massive back thighs. The tender parts, like the loin & tenderloin, which can be cooked hard (at high temperatures) and don’t need to be done slowly to break them down, are relatively small. The majority of the meat is tough and needs to be braised. And since there is both on the same animal it must be broken down, and requires at least rudimentary butchery and two separate cooking methods and sessions.

Our friend Ginny put it to me very succinctly saying “It is hard to make a warm thing go cold” when I talked to her just after the first rabbit harvest, still awash with adrenaline and gore. It is hard, but it is also something I am not entirely comfortable completely outsourcing. I am still examining my own reasons for raising and killing rabbits. I know that there are plenty of folks in this country and even more outside this country who raise their own meat out of tradition, necessity, or habit. Any kid in 4-H has more schooling in animal husbandry. But I still have the feeling that this is important. I can see why hunting is such a large part of traditional coming-of-age ceremonies. Killing something myself had a profound effect on my perspective, on my feelings of responsibility. It brings into stark relief the simultaneous delicacy and tenacity of life. Maybe I don’t know exactly why, but I’ll keep at it. If nothing else, it’s delicious.

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