Writer: Becca Rimmel
My partner and I were both in our 30s when we made the leap into small-scale farming. While most small farms seem to start with a large market garden or a few chickens, we decided to start with six white rabbits on our front porch. At the time I realized the environmental benefits of raising (and eating) rabbits, but I hadn’t yet realized the cultural or culinary impact that they could have on a community.
We focused on raising American Chinchilla rabbits. These salt-and-pepper-colored rabbits, a critically endangered breed, were developed in the U.S. in the 1920s for both fur and meat production. As the fur industry crashed and rabbit meat fell from popularity, this breed was on the brink of disappearing altogether. By selecting good genetics, keeping the best stock we produce, and sending the rest to market, we help to preserve this breed and maintain agricultural biodiversity.
In France, rabbit is often a main dinner course several times a week, but in the U.S. rabbit has keenly felt the ebb and flow of consumer demand. During World War II, when beef rationing was at its height, raising backyard meat rabbits was touted as being just as critical to the war effort as tending a victory garden. However, after the war ended, when chicken production became more efficient and supported by federal policy, rabbit meat fell to the wayside. American Chinchilla rabbits and other heritage breeds became less common. There was no longer a need for farmers to continue to raise these breeds.
Even though eating rabbit is less common these days, it’s still on the edges of our cultural memory. When we talk to new customers, we often hear them reminisce: “My grandpa used to raise rabbits,” or “My neighbor was an immigrant from Germany who made the best hasenpfeffer.”
Consumers shouldn’t shy away from choosing rabbit as a dinner option. Not only is it an important part of our food heritage, but it has incredible nutritional value: Rabbit is higher in digestible protein and lower in cholesterol, fat and calories than beef, chicken or pork. It also has a higher meat-to-bone ratio than chicken, which means more bang for your buck and more servings for your belly.
Three months after we started raising rabbits, I cooked one for the first time. I figured out quickly that the slow cooker would be my best friend. I placed the seasoned rabbit on top of some root veggies, added chicken stock and set it to cook on low for the afternoon. By dinnertime the kitchen was filled with a delicious and tempting aroma. When it came time to eat I realized I had the satisfaction of supporting agricultural biodiversity, and a gourmet meal.
Becca Rimmel grew up in the woods of Western Pennsylvania, and now farms with her partner, Bill Morse, in the hills of Berkshire, NY.
Chelsea Fausel is a lifestyle and wedding photographer in the Finger Lakes with a studio in downtown Ithaca. She spends her spare time with her wife and four children hiking, traveling, and drinking lots of coffee. Follow her work on Instagram: @fauselimagery.