It's become relatively easy to patronize restaurants showcasing ingredients from local farms. Not that it's become easy for chefs to get those ingredients, especially those of an animal variety. The price, quality, and consistency must be right for a protein to end up on the list of specials - and that's all about good old-fashioned economic supply and demand, with appropriate state inspection to boot.
Nick Carter, a self-described "serial entrepreneur" originally from Russiaville, Ind., knows all about those logistical challenges: "I've always had a fascination with the food market supply chain, and local food interests me because I was raised on a very small family farm." And he noticed a few years back that a certain animal was pretty much absent on local menus. An animal that's lean, high in protein and tastes like chicken.
"There was nobody doing it, and I thought the best thing to do was do it myself," says Carter, who originally envisioned starting his own rabbit farm and building a new processing plant. After talking with local chefs and being referred to Adam Moody of Moody Meats, his plan changed - and two years ago he started Meat the Rabbit, a regional distributor of locally farmed rabbit, using existing farms and processing facility.
"The State has different inspection processes for all the animals - and it turns out, the state had never inspected rabbit before," Carter explains, adding that he and Moody worked with the Board of Animal Health in establishing new guidelines for inspection at Moody's existing processing facility in Ladoga, Ind. Since rabbit meat is also not USDA-regulated, he can sell across state lines to markets such as Louisville and Cincinnati - but that's about as far as he plans to go: "We're not going to freeze the rabbits and ship them to California because that's not in the spirit of what we're trying to do."
Nick is currently working with three different farmers in the area. Each farm is raising 600 to 800 animals at a time, and processes about 200 per month. The animals are raised on clover, alfalfa hay, pelletized oats and barley, and are free of hormones and antibiotics.
"I get asked a lot if they are 'free-range,' and my answer is that a 'free-range rabbit' is what's known as 'hawk-food' - you just can't open a pen and set them loose," Carter says. The animals spend their 10 to 12 week lifespan in protective cages, but still have plenty of room to hop around and are cared for by the farmers who raise them.
Currently raising animals for Meat the Rabbit are Heritage Hills in Fairland, Eli Creek in Connersville, and Lone Pine in Ladoga. Using several smaller operations is intentional: Nick wants to support small farmers and his consistent contract helps them turn a profit. It's also good business practice: If one farm has an outbreak of disease, it doesn't effect the entire herd.
"Almost all of the chefs we've sold to have prepared rabbit in the past, or have tried to," Carter says. "They would buy from a small farmer, and may purchase 10 or 20 animals. But that's not enough of a demand to keep that farmer profitable. Some of the farms I'm working with had already been growing rabbit - but they couldn't find buyers. I was able to guarantee that I would buy their rabbits, so they could start breeding."
If you want to try your hand at cooking rabbit at home, you can pick some up at Moody Meats at a retail cost of $6.99 per pound (2.5 to 3 pounds is the average weight for a whole fryer, broken down on request). The meat is lean, so braising (or slow-cooking) is the best way for the home cook to ensure tender meat without drying out.
Carter's wife has a beer-braised slow-cooker recipe that shows up on their family menu a couple times a month: "I also love it fried in butter with a little salt and pepper - the texture is almost identical to white-meat chicken, and the flavor pronounced without being gamey."