Now that Christmas is over, it's time to start thinking about the Easter Bunny.
Specifically, let's think about putting him in a stew. For rabbit seems to be gaining a small rabbit's foothold in the American diet -- to the obvious delight of farmers in these parts.
More and more farmers here in the Ozarks are taking advantage of the demand and going into the rabbit-raising business. The rabbits are doing their bit by multiplying in their accustomed manner.
Some of the producers are newcomers to this leading poultry-producing area. Others are former chicken growers who became frustrated with depressed poultry prices or just wanted a change.
"You can't get friendly with a chicken like you can a rabbit," says Tom Bass, a former truck driver, as he shows off his new barn that will allow him to double his stock to 900 female rabbits. Denzil Roberts, another producer, agrees: "Each one of my rabbits is an individual with its own personality. You can't say that about chickens."
The foul personality of chickens notwithstanding, economics is the primary motivation for most of the rabbit farmers, and a company based here is trying to make rabbit raising financially attractive to more farmers in Arkansas, Oklahoma, Missouri and Kansas.
Pel-Freez Rabbit Meat Inc., the nation's largest rabbit-packing house, with an operation in Texas as well as the one here, offers new producers help in designing rabbitries and guarantees a market to major producers within 125 miles. Moreover, the company picks up the rabbits, weighs them and issues a check on the spot -- a big incentive for some producers who complain of slow payments for their chickens.
The Pel-Freez push began in 1977 when Paul Dubbell, 36, and his brother, David, 39, took control of the company founded as a chicken operation by their grandfather in 1911. Their efforts are mainly responsible for a quadrupling of the rabbit population hereabouts. In 1979, firm president Paul Dubbell says, Pel-Freez will have bought more than a million rabbits from 2,000 raisers in the four-state area.
Where are all the rabbits going? Their pelts are generally sold to New York dealers ("If we couldn't sell the skin, we'd be out of business today," Paul Dubbell says;) byproducts of organs, tissues and fluids are sold to medical diagnostic-product makers, and a few live rabbits are sold to scientific researchers. But sales of frozen rabbit meat account for about 65% of Pel-Freez's revenue of about $7 million a year.
The rabbit meat is sold to restaurants and stores mainly in the East and mainly in metropolitan areas, for it is principally transplanted Europeans in those areas who regard rabbit meat as a popular menue item. Pel-Freez is trying to widen the market and recently hired Robert Patrick. formerly director of marketing for Tyson Foods, a poultry processor, to lead the campaign.
But changing American dietary habits isn't easy, and although rabbit meat is compared favorably with chicken by most who have tasted it, rabbit meat has been rising with feed prices and currently retails for $2.09 to $2.39 a pound, against chicken's price of 59 cents to 69 cents a pound. Americans' annual consumption of about 0.003 pound of rabbit meat per capita (compared with 5.7 pounds in Spain, for instance) indicates the rabbit folks have a long way to go in promoting their product.
Some rabbit raisers also worry about their dependence on Pel-Freez. "What we need, for our own protection," says Calvin McCarty, "is some competition" for Pel-Freez.
Nevertheless, Pel-Freez insists that it can sell all the rabbits it gets, and potential new markets mean that growers have little to worry about.
Some raisers who have switched from poultry see rabbits as their financial salvation. Rymer Clark, who says he earned $2,500 on revenue of only $4,500 for his 12,500 chickens last year, now has 136 does, as the female rabbits are called, and he expects to expand this to 500. At an annual profit of up to $40 on each doe's production, he expects his conversion to pay off handsomely.
One instant plus, he and other growers say, is the saving on fuel bills, because rabbit hutches, unlike chicken coops, require little or no heat, at least in insulated buildings in this area. 'The heat costs ate our lunch last year," Clark says.
Poultry processors here say they aren't worried yet about farmers chickening out. Washington Country's output of 90 million broilers led the nation last year, an official of one big company says, and he adds, "Even considering how fast these rabbits reproduce, they can't top that.
But the rabbits keep trying. Most of the rabbits raised here are New Zealand Whites -- preferred partly because any residue of their white fur that might remain on the carcass isn't as noticeable as colored fur would be. The breeding does are kept in individual cages except when they are taken to a buck's cage for breeding. The average doe produces six or seven litters a year, with eight to 10 bunnies in each litter. On their diet of pelletized alalfa and grain, the young rabbits are ready for the market in eight weeks. And does can be bred after five months of age.
Although Paul Dubbell of Pel-Freez says demand for rabbit meat is so strong the company has trouble keeping with it, he is working to develop new markets. Pel-Freeze now sells some rabbit meat to the millitary. And it is bidding on sales to Belgium which may sound like carrying coals to Newcastle, but rabbit is such a staple of the Belgian diet that imports are needed.
Patrick, the new marketing man, is also studying new domestic markets and promotions. The market for precooked, frozen rabbits is being investigated, for example, and the company intends to take advantage of the nation's health consciousness by stressing that rabbit is high in protein and low in fat.
(One market for rabbit that has apparently disappeared forever, even though jokes about it persist, is pregnancy tests. Simpler tests have long since replaced the old system whereby a virgin rabbit's ovulation, detected by killing and examining the test rabbit, determined whether a woman was pregnant.)
High prices for most meats these days have made rabbit meat more competitive, Paul Dubbell and others say. Ed Peifer of the American Rabbit Breeders Association says the business is "really taking off" because more consumers are discovering the merits of rabbit and overcoming old prejudices. "You try to get someone to eat the Easter Bunny, and you've got trouble," he says. "Now we're changing that image and stressing the points that rabbit is all white meat and isn't bony like chicken."
Peifer's association has even produced a domestic-rabbit cookbook with recipes ranging from sweet-and-sour rabbit and zesty bunny sausage to rabbit enchiladas, rabbit pizza and rabbit a la king.
Despite such efforts, however, even most Arkansas rabbit raisers sheepishly admit they seldom, if ever eat rabbit. Dan Roberts cites his affinity for the little critters. "It wouldn't be right," he declares. Moreover, it isn't easy to find the processed, frozen product in stores here where rabbits are grown. Only Safeway stores in the area sell Pel-Freez rabbits, Dubbell says.
Pel-Freez's successful ministry of the rabbit gospel of course, depends largely on having a big and constant supply. That's why it is recruiting as many growers as it can and paying them 55 cents to 61 cents a pound for fryers, which typically weigh around five pounds. The company estimates that one person can take care of up to 500 does and expect a profit of $20 to $40 a year for each doe.
"I expect this to be really paying out in five years," says Marvin Lyles, a grower who says he has invested $25,000 in a 550-doe operation. "If not, the boat's gonna sink."
Ken Kenyon, who moved here from New York to raise rabbits and build houses, says his plans to increase his herd were sidetracked this summer when he agreed to build eight new rabbit barns for other people.
Roberts, like many raisers, says he wouldn't be in the rabbit business without the service and instant payments of Pel-Freez. Moreover, he adds, "I just couldn't take these animals to the slaughterhouse myself. I like them too much."