ANNAPOLIS – Get ready for the new other white meat: rabbit.
Beginning this week, a distribution deal brokered by the University of Maryland’s agricultural arm and a Appalachian grower’s co-op will bring USDA-inspected rabbit meat to state supermarkets.
Despite its rarity on many people’s dinner plates, the rabbit grown by members of the newly formed Mt. Pride Cooperative has a lot going for it, said Jennifer Thorn, a marketing expert with the university’s Cooperative Extension Service.
Rabbit has a quarter of the fat in beef, and slightly less fat than turkey, according to Department of Agriculture figures.
And the taste? Riffing off the familiar refrain of unusual food eaters, Waynesboro grower and once-a-week rabbit consumer Charles Longenecker said “it’s better than chicken.” The meat’s unique taste, he said, tends toward “sweet.”
While the growers, processors and university agriculture officials hope their distribution deal will eventually reach grocers throughout the state, the three chains now involved will serve Western Maryland and parts of West Virginia and Pennsylvania. They are Shop ‘N’ Save, County Market and Foodland.
Reflecting the cautious expansion plan, current rabbit production levels are on “a small scale right now,” said Bernie Dixon. He and his family own the Friendsville’s Country Pride meat processing plant, where the rabbits are slaughtered and packaged for purchase.
About 750,000 pounds of co-op rabbits should be processed this year, Dixon said. But within two years, he said, the co-op wants production to more than double production to over 2 million pounds. If that goal is met, Dixon said Country Pride’s staff might expand from its current seven employees to 15.
Dixon said he has seen interest in his plant’s newest product grow at the Friendsville meat shop he also operates. In the first year, he said he sold about 300 rabbits; now his store averages about 1,300 rabbits a year.
The distribution deal could also have important economic implications for the state’s westernmost county, many involved said.
“Garrett County is poor and [rabbits] will give people with a couple of acres of ground a chance to earn some extra income,” Dixon said.
The county is the state’s second poorest, with annual per capita income of $14,412 — less than half that of the wealthiest, Montgomery County — according to U.S. Census Bureau figures.
A rabbit growing operation can be set up at little cost. Dixon said a typical backyard set-up of four does and one buck can be had for about $100. Each doe produces about 45 young a year, each ready for slaughter within two months. The meat sells for about 90 cents a pound, he said.
Few other farming ventures, such as cattle herding or chicken growing, are begun as easily and cheaply, said Barbara Harvey, the co-op’s president.
Most of the Mt. Pride Cooperative’s 41 members — many retirees and people with little farming experience — “are mostly doing this to supplement their incomes,” Harvey said.
Beyond selling its rabbits, the co-op also hopes “to bring some sort of organization to the marketplace,” Harvey said. Rabbit growing isn’t new to the area, she said. But a past lack of grower solidarity put rabbit growers at the mercy of the middlemen and a volatile price cycle that often rendered rabbit growing a money losing proposition. The co-op hopes to counter that trend, she said.
Harvey, a former saleswoman from the Baltimore suburbs who now lives in Moatsville, W.Va., said she learned about commercial rabbit growing after reading a news story. Although managing the business can be tricky due to the price fluctuations, she said her 25-rabbit operation “is working out pretty good.”
The primary breed of rabbit grown by co-op members is the White New Zealand, which is all-white with pink eyes, Harvey said.
The co-op’s distribution deal hasn’t satisfied all growers. Raymond Monk, a Deerpark resident with over $20,000 invested in his 350-rabbit facility, said the deal doesn’t give growers enough time to meet production goals.
Nor does Monk expect the deal or the co-op’s efforts to do much to raise the market price of rabbit. But before abandoning his growing altogether, he said “I’m going to sit back and wait and see what will happen.”
Longenecker said the co-op also is seeking reclassification of rabbit’s status. Rabbit is currently considered a “game” animal, requiring growers to pay for USDA inspection. But if the rabbits were in the same category as chickens and cows, inspection would be free, Longenecker said. Longenecker, a heavy machine operator nearing the end of his career, can’t wait until the operation starts meeting its goals and steady income starts flowing. He said: “I want to get this thing off the ground so I can retire!” -30-