Association wants rabbit producers to multiply

EDMONTON — Members of the Alberta Rabbit Producers Association want farmers to hop on over to their profitable industry.

Marion Popkin, president of the newly formed association, said 100 does could easily net more than $40,000 a year. The demand for Alberta rabbit greatly exceeds supply, she added.

The 25 members of the non profit society raise about 56,000 rabbits from roughly 2,000 does but have demand for five times that amount for meat and pet food.

Does can produce 28 live rabbits a year in Alberta. A four to five pound rabbit sells for about $6 a lb.

“It’s profitable right from the get go,” said Popkin during the Wild Rose Agricultural Producers meeting.

The rabbit association joined the general farm organization as a way to gain credibility for the industry.

“Now we have some validity. It gives us a lot of confidence,” said Popkin.

The group is also hoping a new processing plant will help streamline production.

A group of rabbit producers and other investors bought a former Saskatchewan packing plant built in a portable railway container last spring. It is expected to be operational in May.

Having a processing facility dedicated primarily for rabbit will help producers streamline their marketing process.

Rabbits are now processed at other plants, but are often bumped off the line by other species.

The new plant, based in Valleyview, Alta., has a mandate to slaughter rabbits first and other species second, said Popkin. The plant is 9,000 rabbits short of being a rabbit-only facility, she added.

“That is going to accelerate our growth exponentially.”

It’s not Canadians’ first stab at rabbit production. The earliest information Popkin can find was about an active group of Angora rabbit producers who supplied wool for boots for the troops during the Second World War.

Plants were established in Alberta and Saskatchewan in the late 1980s, but they have folded.

The world’s growing population and a demand for inexpensive, fast growing protein make rabbit a natural complement to other slower-growing species such as beef, Popkin said.

She “stumbled” into the rabbit business while waiting to sell a pair of Shetland ponies at an Odd and Unusual sale. She sold the ponies and came home with a couple of pet rabbits. It wasn’t long before she realized the potential market.

She bought 60 rabbits and equipment from a retiring producer in 2009 and expanded the flock using more efficient and faster growing genetic stock from the United States.

“There was no source of good breeding stock in Canada,” said Popkin, who hopes to give 10 years to building the provincial rabbit industry.

Focusing on the meat industry is a high priority, but she said producers can’t ignore the profitable pet food market, which uses ground and whole rabbit.

Early trials selling dehydrated ears for dog treats and tails for cat toys have also shown promise.

“I never thought when we first experimented with the idea of ears and tails that it would take off as much as the meat has,” she said.

Rabbit is not found in most grocery store meat counters, but it is available at some farmers’ markets, delis, hotels and restaurants.

David van Leeuwen of Ben’s Meat and Deli in Edmonton said rabbit is popular with his large Dutch clientele.

“It’s kind of an ethnic thing,” he said.

Most rabbit is eaten on special occasions such as Christmas, Easter and Thanksgiving.

Van Leeuwen said his mostly European customers don’t look twice at the rabbit or horse meat in his meat counter. Van Leeuwen’s grandfather opened the store 53 years ago and rabbit has been a staple for many years.

He said the meat isn’t overpriced: one rabbit costs roughly $30 and will feed a family of five or six.

“It’s not outrageous like lamb or buffalo. They’re through the roof.”

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