Carroll Bullard, a south Georgia peanut and cotton farmer, hopped into bunny farming two years ago after seeing a rabbit scamper from a cornfield.
With no well-established markets, Bullard soon began having doubts about his impulsive venture. He released his rabbits from their cages, but by then they had become homesteaders.
"They wouldn't leave," he said. "We had rabbits running everywhere."
So he rounded them up and started over.
With thousands of the fast-breeding cottontails and Georgia's first state-regulated rabbit processing plant, Bullard now has tapped into a niche market of those looking for lean, low-cholesterol meat.
"Hunting a market has been tough," said Bullard, 47. "But it looks like it's getting started as more people find out we're in business. We've made a little money this year. People are getting more cholesterol-conscious."
Rabbit meat is white and has its own distinctive taste. With fewer calories and less cholesterol than chicken, beef, lamb and pork, it is gaining popularity with health-conscious consumers, Bullard said.
Although popular in Europe and Canada, rabbit meat is still considered exotic in the United States, associated with big-city restaurants and rural people.
Bullard's family has been gathering around the dining table to eat wild rabbits for as long as he can remember. "Growing up on a farm, we learned to eat everything that looked like it wasn't going to eat us," he said. "They're good grilled, fried, baked or barbecued."
The Bullard farm, about 200 miles south of Atlanta, supplies rabbit meat to supermarkets and grocery stores in south Georgia and Alabama and has shipped meat as far away as New York and New Jersey.
Bullard specializes in New Zealand Whites, a meat rabbit with white fur that can grow to 9 to 12 pounds. He has 400 breeding does, and a cousin nearby has an additional 200 does. Each doe produces a litter of six to eight rabbits every six weeks.
"These aren't pets," he said. "It's just like raising hogs or chickens. They're for meat."
The rabbits lounge in their wire cages during the day but get frisky after dark. Their nocturnal activities have the potential to produce about 4,200 new rabbits every 11/2 months, or 33,600 a year.
Kent Wolfe, a University of Georgia agricultural economist who conducted a feasibility study for rabbit producers, said the industry needs to promote the meat and persuade major supermarket chains to carry it.
"We found that the stores tend to sell a lot of the frozen meat, but they don't carry fresh meat," he said. "We found that lots of meat brokers are looking for rabbit and can't get enough locally."
Exotic-meat brokers, who could provide a limited niche market, appear to be the best prospects for producers who want to sell the meat, Wolfe said.
"If they want to go to the mainstream markets, they're going to have to come up with some ways to promote it," he said.
Jimmy Crawford, an extension livestock specialist in nearby Colquitt County, said there are more promising opportunities for the farmers of southwestern Georgia, such as producing goats or raising quail for plantation hunts. There have been several attempts to organize rabbit cooperatives in Georgia, and the Internet is rife with rabbit farm sites.
"I don't want to tell these guys they can't succeed," Crawford said. "On a very small local market situation, the demand might support limited production."
Beth Seely, who runs the Southeast's only U.S. Department of Agriculture-approved rabbit processing plant, in Dunnellon, Fla., said she sells meat to five-star restaurants and cruise ships. She said rabbit meat is extremely popular with the Europeans and Canadians who flock to Florida each winter.
"As far as potential growth, I think it's there," said Seely, a member of the Southern Commercial Rabbit Producers Association. "We believe rabbits are a good opportunity for small family farmers to stay on the farm. We see this as a way to diversify. It doesn't take a lot of space."
The Bullard family provides tours of their farm every Easter, when children are most interested in bunnies.
But Seely said the Easter Bunny is one of the greatest challenges facing the industry. Some people are reluctant to eat an animal symbolized by such a cute, furry character.
"That's why the American population as a whole doesn't enjoy rabbit," she said. "They have this bias."