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HF: Our readers are showing interest in pastured rabbits. What do they need to get started as a business or just to feed their families?
JS: I should have my son Daniel answer this question; he's the rabbit man, having started them as an 8-year-old. More than two decades later, he may have the only commercial genetic base in the country line-bred for forage and without medications and vaccines. The problem with pastured rabbits is that commercial seedstock has been selected to reduce direct forage-harvesting ability. Daniel went through about five years of 50-percent mortality until his selection punched through that foraging genetic prejudice. So be prepared for some heartbreak early on, but if you stay the course, they will straighten out and you'll have a hardy progeny.
Rabbits dig. Our pastured shelters have slatted wooden bottoms, 1/2 inch by 1 inch, on 3-inch centers to keep the bunnies from digging out. Does are extremely prone to stress and will eat their bunnies if they feel threatened. That is why barking dogs, yelling children, and other loud noises or aggressive activities must be kept at bay. And that is also why we have not figured out a way to keep does on pasture. At night, all sorts of crazy things are going on out there.
But the bunnies do just fine and will pick up 75 percent of their diet off the pasture, translating to $45,000 per acre. And though the market is not huge like it is for poultry or pork, so few people are raising rabbits, especially on pasture, that it enjoys wonderful potential. I actually don't know what all the food-police laws are about home processing, but you can dress them easily at home and sell them. We move the rabbits in these little 30-inch by 6-foot by 24-inch-high shelters every day. The grass sticks up through the slats, and the rabbits can eat it easily.
A rabbit does not like to eat grass bent over under poultry netting or hardware cloth. They like to start at the end of the blade and eat it down to the stem. They also like woody material, so in the spring, we give them all our orchard pruning whips, and they love them.
HF: Is there anything you’d like Hobby Farms readers to know about your outreach work or about Polyface, Inc.?
JS: Metabolizing fame is not easy. We have hired extra staff to deal with the thousands of visitors we have to the farm. We never want to give up our 100-percent transparency. We allow anyone to come, unannounced, from anywhere in the world at any time to see anything. It's a complete open-door policy. That puts pressure on us to keep things shipshape.
Perhaps the most difficult thing to deal with now is the perception by many people that we really aren't a credible farm. Many now see us as a Farm-a-Disney, making money from entertainment and information rather than operating a viable farm. The farm was profitable enough to pay for printing the first couple of books and even efficient enough for me to leave and do some speaking gratis in the early days. Now that we've become this representative of local regenerative agriculture, many people actually think we just do a little farming on the side supported by our outreach programs.
My family will tell you that I am happiest and most comfortable on the farm doing farm work. To share an extremely personal story, I am answering these questions from Queensland, Australia, where I'm in the last week of a four-week speaking circuit through New Zealand and Australia. It is the longest I've ever been away from home since college. When Teresa and I drove out of the farm on the way to the airport to begin this trip, I totally broke down and began to weep—in fact, I've got tears welling up right now. I am in love with my bride of 30 years, that farm, that place. I was taken aback by the emotion of it.
I have no aspirations to gain money or prestige. What really stokes my boiler is happier earthworms, slick cattle, productive, thinned forests and the host of other heart-stopping beauties associated with our farm. I have a host of innovations to try. Teresa and I decided at the beginning that our vision of growing old was to have the grandkids arguing about who would get to spend the day with us. Now, with our three grandchildren living on the farm and my mom still very active, our four generations on the farm represent the benchmark of regenerative agriculture. I am truly blessed. Meanwhile, more books beckon and more people yearn for inspiration and encouragement.
Salatin is the author of Pastured Poultry Profits (Polyface, 1993), Salad Bar Beef (Polyface, 1996), You Can Farm: The Entrepreneur’s Guide to Start and Succeed in a Farming Enterprise (Polyface, 1998), Family Friendly Farming: A Multi-Generational Home-Based Business Testament (Polyface, 2001), Holy Cows and Hog Heaven: The Food Buyer's Guide To Farm Friendly Food (Polyface, 2005), and Everything I Want to do is Illegal: War Stories from the Local Food Front (Polyface, 2007). Learn more about Salatin and Polyface, Inc.
This article originally appeared in the March/April 2011 issue of Hobby Farms.
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