Dispatches DI_KERBER_MAINE_FI_001_1

Raising Maine

Returning home – and to meat eating – as a rabbit farmer in Maine

by

I realized I’d developed a sense of nostalgia for my home state of Maine only after I had left and eventually returned. With a vast but approachable wilderness, rocky oceanside crags, cozy bed and breakfasts that serve hot buckwheat ployes and maple syrup, Maine is vacationland to many — but to me it is home. The coast is full of old, crusty Mainahs with skin that has been hardened, wrinkled, and salted by the ocean where they spend their days. Up north in “The County,” the largest county east of the Rockies and made up almost entirely of trees, the Pelletiers, Bouchers, and other French Canadians turned Mainahs spend summers digging in the dirt for the world’s best potatoes and the 11 months of winter hibernating with bottles of Allen’s Coffee Brandy.

When you cross into the southern part of the state, where I grew up, from New Hampshire, the first sign you see says “Maine, the way life should be.” The more time you spend here, the fewer reasons you will find to argue with this sentiment.

I came home to Maine because the mountains, the sea, the pastures, and the life I have always wanted to live were calling me. Going back to the land meant going back to Maine. My desire to eventually live off the grid and be as self-sufficient as possible has always fit into the lifestyle that Maine allows. Flocks of beaten down city-dwellers and folks from afar have migrated to Maine in search of one thing — a forgotten life where simplicity and kind, hardworking people have created a community with little room for contemporary distractions. As a result, Maine culture has deep ties in food and agriculture, including the country’s oldest organic farming organization, the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association. It is this community that offers mentoring, guidance, and an abundance of practical knowledge on how to live off the land that made Maine the perfect place for me to run home to.

While flannel shirts, home preserving, thrift store treasures, and L.L. Bean boots may be a hipster trend in Brooklyn and Philadelphia’s Fishtown, in Maine they are a way of life that goes as far back as 1820 when we finally kicked off from Massachusetts and left all the states to the south behind. Learning to cure your own meat from a pig you raised yourself on the leftover waste from your small-scale brewing project is not a trend in Maine. It is Maine. Frugal, minimal, and simple living is the heart of our pride. It is the Maine character.

Another part of the Maine character is a no-waste mentality. I grew up eating any and all parts of the animals my parents prepared for our meals. My dad made it okay by telling my sister and me stories of his grandfather, a German immigrant who ran a butcher shop during the Great Depression and would bring home all the offal, bottom-of-the-barrel scrapings, and leftover funny bits of animals that customers wouldn’t buy but would be foolish to throw away during times of such hardship. So when I became a vegetarian and temporarily resigned from the “clean plate club,” turning my nose up at anything that once itself had a nose, it is a wonder that my parents didn’t kick me out and banish me to Massachusetts.

My first foray as a vegetarian lasted for 11 years and began because my summer camp mess hall seemed to scrape their burgers and pork chops from off the underside of the waterfront’s docks. The gray-green algae that built up over the summer and got stuck under your fingernails every time you hoisted yourself out of the lake and onto the rotting planks of the dock seemed more appealing than the meat-filled meals they dished up daily. There was a sameness to the texture: a squishy, flavorless, damp-tasting, pale grayness that was reconfigured in multiple shapes in multiple dishes. After summer camp faded into fall, I stuck to my newfound veggie ways because someone said I wouldn’t last. Skeptics are wonderful motivators. Eventually my reasons for being a vegetarian would evolve into a disgust for the industrialized meat industry, and I’d vow not to eat meat until I personally could raise the animals myself. But that was still a few years off.

Like many 20-somethings, I went through my fair share of food identity crises. I played around with being a vegan for a while until I landed that summer job scooping ice cream at a Ben and Jerry’s on the University of Pennsylvania’s campus and was allowed as many cups and cones as I could stomach per shift. Later I even abandoned the vegetarian title completely when I fell in love with a lard-loving farmer I desperately wanted to impress.

I vividly remember an eight-course fanfare of meat at The Farm and Fisherman in Philadelphia that sourced its meat from the farm that my newest companion called home. That night I devoured — no, demolished — in a way only a deprived and classy vegetarian possibly could, a three-hour pageant of meat-centered dishes. He was impressed; my digestive system was not.

The next morning, in the clear-skied, 110-degree Lancaster County sunshine, I vomited in a field of heirloom tomatoes and decided I had to redefine my food identity and make a serious commitment once and for all.

Today, no longer a vegetarian wannabe, I hold to the mantra of “eating what makes you feel good.” To me that means growing my own food, raising my own animals, and never skipping dessert.

The author's rabbits

The author’s rabbits

My first step in redefining my food identity was taking control over where my meat was coming from. These days I work on an organic dairy and livestock farm on the coast of Maine, so there is never a shortage of raw milk (and therefore cheese, yogurt, ice cream, and kefir), grass-fed beef and lamb, or pastured turkeys and ducks. But what about something I could raise in my own backyard?

I chose to start breeding rabbits because they are inexpensive, time efficient, and require hardly any space. They are also adorable and fluffy and as far as cuteness goes you simply cannot beat a three-week-old baby bunny. My breeding stock is a pair of New Zealand Whites — mammoth, white-furred rabbits with red eyes. Selectively bred to be large animals with fast-growing offspring, I found my mating pair, Felicity and Filibert (it’s okay to name your animals, just not the ones you plan on eating) in an ad in Uncle Henry’s. Uncle Henry’s is Maine’s version of craigslist, where you can find anything from antique cream separators to logging trucks to camouflage wedding gowns.

Stories, legends, and all the sayings you’ve ever heard about breeding rabbits claim that, well, they’re really good at rolling in the hay. It’s what they do. Everything I read said that it happens so effortlessly and fast that you could easily miss it if your eyelid got stuck on a crusty and you blinked for a millisecond too long. And while I want to turn you on to the idea of raising meat rabbits in your own backyard, be warned that some rabbits might require some extra encouragement to do the deed.

The first time I bred Felicity, I pulled her from her hutch by the giant scruff of her neck and dropped her into Filibert’s musk-filled bachelor pad. I expected to see a similar show to the ones on YouTube — a quick mount, bunny belly bump, and dismount. I expected, just as my rabbit guide books suggested, to see Filibert collapse onto the ground and lay still, a sprawling state of exhausted post-coital bliss. But what ensued was nothing short of an embarrassment. My rabbits seemed to lack any and all primal urge for procreation. They ran around in circles, taking turns climbing onto each other and apparently not knowing the difference between leg, head, and rear. I wondered about rabbit sexuality and what the likelihood was that mine were simply gay.

Frustrated by my rabbits having no talent for breeding, my aggressive and impatient human instinct urged me to intervene. I held Felicity’s rump up in the air, positioned her just so, and directed Filibert to climb on top. I had an odd, uncomfortable feeling that I was playing God and trying to make something happen that was beyond my control. My forceful, out-of-place hands made the whole thing seem unethical.

Convinced that nothing beyond an embarrassing interaction between one human and two rabbits had occurred, I gave up for the day and figured I would try again next month. 30 days later I found 11 hairless, pink bunnies covered in tufts of Felicity’s hair and nestled together in a bundle of whimpering, warm life.

I raised the rabbits to their culling age of just ten weeks old. At this point, the amount of food that you feed them and the speed at which they grow plateaus, and it doesn’t make sense to continue raising them unless you want a thicker hide. The vegetable scraps I bring home from both the bakery and farm where I work as well as any food scraps from my own kitchen balance out their organic grain-based diet. At ten weeks and approximately three pounds each, I stop feeding them for several hours (because no one wants to butcher a bloated bunny) and begin to cull the crew.

Now is when I start telling you about the killing things — with my hands, and maybe a long, wooden broom handle, but mostly just my hands. It’s fast and easy and as painless as death can possibly be. The broom handle placed behind the neck, feet holding it down for support, a quick yank upwards on their rear legs and a snap of their neck.

This is the part where it all comes together. Where the weeks of labor, love, and lettuce scraps come to an end, and you turn a hutch full of furry white rabbits into a freezer full of sustenance. This is the part where you kill, and for me to censor the details or skimp on the facts would not do justice to the animals’ lives who are given to us for food. Killing an animal for meat is not an easy thing, and I hope it never will be. But it’s part of our culture, most likely part of your diet, and therefore part of your existence.

The first time I killed an animal, it was a chicken whose neck was crushed under the weight of a large hatchet against a moss-covered rock. I had no connection with that bird. It was just a chicken and it was just my turn at the farm to kill one. My rabbits are different because I raised them from the time they were shrimpy and pale pink with no hair to the day they were ready to become my food source. I had dampened their crusty eyes when they had just started to open, brought sick ones indoors to care for, and treated them almost no differently than I would have a house pet. Does this make it harder to eventually kill them? To slow cook them in a pot of bubbling stock, pick the meat off their delicate bones, mix it into a bowl of barbeque sauce and enjoy between two buttered, toasted buns? Does it seem wrong, even cruel, to kill and eat the same creature that I once, perhaps days before, nestled on my lap and nursed back to health? Not to me. Not compared to the alternative — an inhumane, mass-produced industry that treats meat animals like just another faceless food source and not the living and breathing beings that they are. That, to me, is wrong and cruel and strange.

My advice is simple and doesn’t necessarily involve killing your own animals (at least not right away). Start somewhere easy and familiar: visit a farm and spend time with the animals, watching them play and eat and interact, then buy meat from the farm and connect the dots. Raise chickens for eggs, bees for honey, rabbits for meat. Learn as you go and don’t be afraid to fail; don’t be afraid to have emotions about your food that you’ve never had before. Because that connection is what it is all about.

I admit that I have a long way to go in my quest to “go back to the land” and live a more simple, meaningful existence. But you have to start somewhere, and to me that place is Maine. We don’t have the time or the energy to ask ourselves whether we are going to be successful or not. I know that living a self-sufficient, off-the-grid life will come in time, but it won’t come by tomorrow. Every day I will ask myself: What is the right thing to do? Am I doing it? What does the earth require from me to continue to exist here? The questions are big, but the answers can be simple. Take small, mindful steps. Start somewhere; start today. •

All photos courtesy of the author

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