Source: Edible Madison, Vanessa Herald
This story features NCR-SARE grant recipient, Julie Engel, and her Coney Garth rabbits. With her SARE project, Engel developed a system for raising rabbits on pasture and built handling equipment that consistently and efficiently herds her rabbit does in a stress-free manner.
“The rabbits and the project have stretched me way beyond where I thought I could go. The rewards are rich and deep.” –Julie Engel
If you ask Julie Engel, she didn’t choose rabbits, the rabbits chose her. In return, she has committed to perfecting a sustainable system for raising them on pasture: a model that’s productive, replicable, and profitable.
Julie raises rabbits for meat and has control over the entire process from kindling (birth of babies) to processing and selling directly to customers, all from the farm. She has just settled her herd of 8 does, 3 bucks, 4 junior does, and 12 fryers into their new home at the Token Creek Eco-Inn, just outside of Madison. Here, the rabbits will rotationally graze in the front few acres of the property. But first, they’ll spend the coldest months of the year in winter quarters: a yurt with a fenced outdoor area. Unlike large livestock, a herd of pasture-raised rabbits doesn’t take up much space and is surprisingly mobile. Julie and her herd have hopped around the country and Wisconsin, moving five times in the past eight years.
There’s a reason Julie and the rabbits have moved around so much: Julie doesn’t own her own farmland. Rather than focusing on purchasing and honing a specific piece of property, Julie is focused on perfecting a new model for raising rabbits; she calls her 100 percent grass-fed, colony-reared rabbit project “The Coney Garth.”
Grazing rabbits on a variety of landscapes over a long period of time has helped her to solve a variety of challenges, more than would be encountered if staying in one place. And she’s come a long way, evolving a pastured, pellet-free, cage-free method with portable rabbit housing; developing a rabbit-specific pasture mix; understanding target numbers for profitability, and even earning Animal Welfare Approved status.
Julie is analytical and purposeful. Her vision is for a successful system, not for an over-idealized farm lifestyle—at least right now. She is also creative and intuitive, listening to and learning from her herd over time.
Although Julie is known for her rabbits, her agricultural experience is diverse and deep, including livestock, dairy sheep and vegetable production, but the rabbits are woven through it all. In the long term, Julie has a vision for a diversified, horse-powered farm in her home region of Southwestern Michigan; but in her mind, what’s right isn’t just about what she wants—it’s about what’s best for the planet.
Julie grew up in a pet-free household, despite her strong wish to care for animals. As most youthful pleading goes, her mother eventually allowed her to raise pet rabbits. Julie quickly became a rabbit expert, showing rabbits in 4-H for two years. But, as many childhood hobbies do, the rabbits faded. They reappeared briefly in college when Julie amazed her friends with her knowledge of rabbit anatomy while earning a degree in geology from the University of Dayton in Ohio.
With little more than her childhood rabbit-raising experience to stand on, Julie applied for the Livestock Assistant position at the Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture in Pocantico Hills, New York, in 2005. She explained the job “sounded like fun,” an interesting change of pace. The job grew into a three-year educational experience, knee-deep in day-to-day work with livestock from lambs to pigs to chickens and working with incredible mentors.
Enter the rabbits. The Stone Barns staff wanted to introduce rabbits to the farm, and Julie was tapped to take on the project. She traveled to Polyface Farm in Virginia to learn the Salatins’ pasture-based rabbit system and brought the breeding stock back to New York to start a new herd. For over two years at Stone Barns, Julie precisely followed the Salatin method, and during that time she observed aspects of the system she wanted to evolve. Upon her eventual departure, Julie was shocked and astonished when Craig Haney, the Livestock Manager, suggested Julie take the rabbits with her, that they become her own. This was a surprise: a simultaneous gift and burden. Julie was not ready to settle down, nor did she have a pasture of her own for the rabbits to graze. Besides, she had her own farming vision, and it didn’t necessarily include rabbits.
As it turns out, Julie has not always been in love with the rabbits. “The rabbits chose me eight years ago. It’s been six years of pushing them away, and now two years of embracing them.” In those first few years, Julie moved the rabbits to Northland Sheep Dairy in Marathon, New York, where she worked year-round, deepened her knowledge of grazing and sheep, and learned to make hay with mules. It was here that she developed “The Coney Garth,” her own system for raising the rabbits.
Then came the leap to the Midwest, rabbits and all. In 2009, Julie was ready to move home to Michigan, but amidst the economic crisis, she felt selling a high-end, niche product in an economically devastated state might not be a solid business decision.
And so Julie and the rabbits landed in Wisconsin, working full-time in vegetable production at JenEhr Family Farm. The farm funded the rabbit venture for two years and helped oversee the rabbits since Julie did not live on the farm property. Amidst the hubbub and exhaustion of full-time vegetable farming, Julie recognized all sorts of problems in her rabbit raising system, but the time needed to make changes was limited. At the end of two years, Julie felt a hankering to focus on the rabbits and again looked for a new piece of land for her rabbits to graze.
Julie migrated the herd briefly to Stoughton, then to Prairie du Sac for a year and a half on nice, albeit sandy-soiled, pastures. This focused time allowed her to improve her system, apply for a SARE grant to support her research, and take up a position as the Farm Crew Leader at Community GroundWorks’ Troy Community Farm in Madison.
Julie recognizes that her path has not always been easy or straightforward. Laughing, and gently acknowledging some stubbornness, she recognizes that a solution to all the bouncing around would simply be to leave the herd of rabbits behind, to sell off her does and bucks, and be a bit freer. However, she just can’t fathom the departure despite the challenge of not owning farmland nor living on the same piece of property as her rabbits. The rabbits continue to bring value to her life, and she is determined to perfect her unique model of rabbit production. Mostly though, “it’s because they taste amazing.”
On a chilly and overcast November morning, Julie pointed out the work that still needs to be done on the new land for the year ahead. With the yurt and winter housing now established, the priority is prepping and planting the pasture that her rabbits will graze this coming spring, which right now is a large, tilled field. “I’ll give myself three years here to really make the system work, and then we’ll see.”
Q&A with Julie Engel
“Not owning land, because it means I don’t have control. On the flip side, all the challenges I’ve experienced at all the different places I’ve farmed have probably created a much better system in the long run.”
“The daily satisfaction of seeing ‘this.’ Watching rabbits, or any animal, is calming, soothing, and cathartic. The rabbits and the project have stretched me way beyond where I thought I could go. The rewards are rich and deep.”
“People always ask how I figured out this system. The rabbits showed me. You don’t have to figure this stuff out, just listen and implement.”
“Anne and Eric Nordell at Beech Grove Farm in Trout Run, Pennsylvania. Their farm is horse-powered. They are so wise, and I embrace their principles.”
“When you approach someone for advice, listen.”