A West Haven farm goes down the bunny trail
There's a whole lot of farmin' goin' on in Addison County. In Leicester, Blue Ledge Farms produces several kinds of gourmet goat cheese. Ben Gleason of Gleason Grains grows and mills wheat in Bridport. And at Misty Knoll Farms in New Haven, Rob Litch raises his famous, all-natural birds. But a rabbit farm? The folks at a bowling alley in Fair Haven chuckle at the thought - they've never heard of such a thing. Luckily a neighbor on Route 22A in West Haven is able to point out Champlain Valley Rabbitry, where owners Langis and Lisa Anctil have been raising restaurant-bound bunnies for the past two years.
The Anctils got their first rabbits in 2000. "We were raising a few to eat," says Langis, "and we couldn't find any processors or any place to sell 'em." But food trends change quickly. By 2004, plenty of places were interested in carrying the lean white meat, which is low in calories, fat and cholesterol.
The new market for rabbit wasn't the Anctils' only impetus, though. A financial shake-up at Vermont Tubbs Furniture in Brandon, where Langis worked for seven years, caused him to think harder about what he wanted to do with this life. "At some point," he says, "you've gotta decide: do I want to . . . become self-sufficient?"
Lisa, who also worked at Tubbs, is glad she gets to spend more time at home these days. "You pay beaucoup money to own it. This way you actually get to see it," she says of the couple's 25-acre spread. The Anctils moved to Vermont from the Boston suburbs 16 years ago, after they visited friends here and realized they didn't want to leave.
Pulling into the driveway, you can't miss a row of tagged deer heads attached to a post outside the barn and a few pet rabbits hopping around on the lawn; one plays hide and seek behind a tractor. A flock of young goats butts heads and bounces around in a grassy paddock.
The rabbits live in a converted dairy barn, just steps from the family farmhouse. The main entrance to the barn leads to the delicately named "processing area." Although the room is impeccably clean, it's clear from the gleaming stainless-steel racks and refrigerators and the sharp knives and cutting boards that thousands of rabbits meet their maker here.
Beyond the slaughterhouse, in the barn proper, cages stretch from one end to the other. The cages are "self-cleaning" - a fancy way of saying that waste falls through the wire mesh to the floor below, where it can easily be swept out. Langis is proud that the rabbits are so clean. Most farm animals, he says, shaking his head, "sit around in their own waste."
A free-running water system lets the rabbits drink whenever they want and eliminates the need to refill bottles or scrub bowls. The food trough that runs along the front of the cages is fully stocked with pellets of rabbit food. "Rabbits will eat all day long," says Langis. "That's all they do." He adds, "They have it better than we do. I wish somebody would just put food and water in front of me 24 hours a day."
The number of rabbits in each cage depends on the size of the animals. Older and larger rabbits are housed in pairs to one side. On the other side, babies smaller than the palm of your hand cluster around their mothers and climb on each other. Pregnant female rabbits produce an average of 10 "kits" after a 32-day gestation period. Each rabbit has enough space to lie down and move around a bit, but not enough room to do much more.
The animals only live in these cages for eight to 10 weeks. By that time they're big enough to be eaten. A few escape that fate: The best male breeding bucks and female does are kept around for several years, and sometimes end up as household pets when they're too old to work. One such stud, the farm's gray chinchilla male, has left his mark on every rabbit in the barn that is not pure white with red eyes.
The Anctils' animal farm used to be even more diversified. They raised 400 goats a year for meat until last summer, when a fire closed the outfit that slaughtered the animals - Fresh Farms Beef in Rutland. Since then, the Anctils have had a hard time finding a plant that will process the meat affordably, so they're phasing them out. The ever-increasing demand for rabbits has begun to make up for that financial loss.
The farm's own processing area is fine for rabbits and poultry - including the three-dozen free-range turkeys the Anctils sell at Thanksgiving. But USDA regulations preclude their handling larger animals unless they vend the meat directly to customers at the farm. In any case, says Langis, "I never dress the goats - I wouldn't want to. They have too much character." He doesn't feel the same way about the rabbits. "They're all the same," he says, "- bottom of the food chain." That he keeps a few rabbits as pets doesn't mean he becomes attached to all of them. He holds to the farmer's adage: "You don't pet the product and you don't eat the pets."
Every Monday and Tuesday, Langis and Lisa work together to slaughter and dress about 150 of their New Zealand White rabbits. At any given time, the barn holds around 600. After processing, the rabbits weigh between 2 and 5 pounds. They're sold whole, for between $4.95 and $5.25 per pound, and classified the way chickens are: Small rabbits are called "fryers," while big ones are referred to as "roasters."
Lisa says she's amazed by the elaborate preparations chefs concoct for the animals. When the Inn at Shelburne Farms  is open, the restaurant buys 20 to 30 rabbits each week. Chef Rick Gencarelli sometimes makes a rich confit by simmering rabbit legs in duck fat. An entrée last season featured CVR rabbit served with bacon, polenta croutons, whole-grain mustard and local mushrooms. The Anctils also sell their rabbits to other high-end local restaurants, including the Kitchen Table Bistro  in Richmond, Hen of the Wood  in Waterbury, Elements in St. Johnsbury and Café Shelburne.  The rabbit shows up in handmade ravioli, atop mesclun salads, and in savory stews.
Lisa tends toward simpler preparations at home. She likes to throw a rabbit in the slow cooker with salt pork and some onions, and leave it all day. Everybody who's tried this method loves it, she says. To make another easy supper, she dices up the rabbit meat and fries it with onions, celery and salt pork, then adds some milk and serves it over rice.
Even though Lisa cooks rabbit at least once a week, she's never tried any rabbit organs. "I like a lot of foods," she says, "but there are kinds of food I just won't eat - sorry!" Langis, on the other hand, reports that rabbit livers are great. "Rabbit liver is supposed to be the most delicate kind of liver," he says. "One chef we sell to takes 'em home to eat himself."
In her award-winning cookbook, All About Braising, Williston-based Molly Stevens explains how to prepare rabbit liver and kidneys along with a useful lesson on cutting up the animal. One easy way to get acquainted with rabbit cookery is to substitute it for poultry. Like alligator, frog legs and other unusual meats, it tastes a lot like chicken.
Order rabbits from Champlain Valley Rabbitry at 265-8276 or http://www.vermontqualityrabbits.com , or at Sweet Clover Market in Essex. To make sure rabbits are available there or to place a special order, call 872-8288.