Bunny farm keeps workers hopping

Wednesday, November 6, 2002

ADEL, Ga. -- Carroll Bullard, a south Georgia peanut and cotton farmer, hopped into bunny farming two years ago after seeing a rabbit scamper from a corn field.

With no 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.

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 or pork, it is gaining popularity with health-conscious consumers, Bullard said.

Although popular in Europe and Canada, in the United States it is still considered an exotic meat, 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.

Raised like hogs, chickens

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 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 1 1/2 months, or 36,120 a year.

Bullard said he couldn't run the farm without his wife, Jane, and mother, Mary Ruth. They care for the animals, along with his 10-year-old son, Colby. Two other relatives manage the family's peanut, cotton and corn fields.

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."

The Bullard family provides tours of the farm every Easter, when children are most interested in bunnies.

But Beth Seely, who runs the Southeast's only U.S. Department of Agriculture-approved rabbit processing plant in Dunnellon, Fla., 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.

Respond to this story

Posting a comment requires free registration: