Sask. rabbit grower hops many hurdles

SALTCOATS, Sask. – Joy Popowich might be the poster girl for perseverance in agriculture.

Rabbits were once touted as a meat animal with big opportunities for Saskatchewan producers.

However, Popowich is now the province’s only major producer with 80 does in her barn near Saltcoats.

Finding a meat processor was a challenge when she started in the business 20 years ago with three does.

A large processor operated in Swift Current, Sask., but eventually folded.

A plant in Oregon sent trucks to the Prairies to pick up rabbits but it closed when the manager died.

A truck from California now collects rabbits in Manitoba and makes a stop in Whitewood for Popowich’s stock.

“A few times I tried shipping to Toronto but the freight bill going that way is higher. It’s cheaper to California,” she said.

Popowich said Manitoba has become a major rabbit producer.

“Guys that have gone out of pigs in Manitoba have revamped their barns for rabbits. There are a couple of big producers doing this now – 200 does or more.”

A producer near Lethbridge has almost 1,000 does, she added.

She said it has been a challenge staying in a business that other producers in the province have abandoned.

“I’ve had to eat a lot of rabbit along the way.”

However, she recently sold breeding animals to three or four people in Saskatchewan who are contemplating commercial production.

Another challenge is getting past the public’s aversion to eating rabbit, despite the meat being lean and high in protein.

“A lot of people can’t get over the bunny syndrome.”

She has processed the fur in the past to sell to crafters, but it is a lot of work.

Her rabbit business is generally a one-woman enterprise.

“It’s something I can handle all by myself,” she said. “I only need to recruit Ron (her husband) if I need to move pens.”

The couple also run a small herd of Hereford cattle.

Wildlife banquets are a good niche market. She supplied six of them this spring. Popowich also supplies a processor of specialty meats in Osler, Sask., that wanted rabbit meat.

She prefers to service the Saskatchewan market, but California remains an outlet.

She breeds her does year-round and expects six litters from a doe per year. She retains does from her herd and buys bucks from Alberta to Ontario, focusing mainly on the New Zealand Giant breed but also some California.

She recently added a black Flemish Giant for colour.

Popowich said a rabbit goes to market at about three months of age at a live weight of 5.5 to six pounds, although the Saskatchewan market prefers them a bit bigger.

She is paid live weight, less shrinkage, which she was surprised to discover is about the same to Saskatoon as it is to California.