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Old World Rabbitry

A staple for centuries, rabbit is back on the menu. Is it the new chicken? old world rabbitry

Eric Shevchenko and Simon Masiewicki of Old World Rabbitry. Photo: Heather Irwin.
Eric Shevchenko and Simon Masiewicki of Old World Rabbitry. Photo: Heather Irwin.
Eric Shevchenko and Simon Masiewicki of Old World Rabbitry. Photo: Heather Irwin.
Eric Shevchenko and Simon Masiewicki of Old World Rabbitry. Photo: Heather Irwin.

On a quiet, overgrown Sebastopol farm once owned by R&B legend Johnny Otis, Eric Shevchenko walks through a small rabbit enclosure with about 40 mostly female breeder rabbits. Resting or chewing on tufts of fresh grasses poking out of their feeding troughs, noses wiggle up and down, but otherwise, the Giant Chinchilla crosses are entirely non-plussed.

And while Shevchenko gives a scratch or a pat here and there as he walks past, he’s clear about his purpose: The rabbits he raises are for eating.

The owner of Old World Rabbitry, Shevchenko is one of just a handful of breeders in the Bay Area focused entirely on rabbit meat Mark Pasternak’s Devil’s Gulch Ranch is one of the largest). Dedicated to heritage rabbit breeds, humane handling and sustainable practices, Shevchenko’s micro-operation has gained the rapt attention of some of the Bay Area’s top toques, including Dominique Crenn of San Francisco’s Michelin-starred Atelier Crenn, Yountville’s French Laundry and St. Helena’s Meadowood.

“We have a large clientele for rabbits,” said Shevchenko, “and we actually can’t keep up with demand right now.” Which is good, because the burly, heavily tattooed 41-year-old, whose resume includes feeding carnivorous zoo animals and training dogs for the Iditarod, isn’t the kind of guy you’d see behind a desk.

He’d clearly rather be raising rabbits.

Old World Rabbitry
Old World Rabbitry

Hailed by chefs and foodies as one of the biggest food trends for 2015, rabbit (along with fermented foods, ramen and foraging) is being called the “new” other white meat (referring to pork and chicken), with a taste and texture somewhere between the two.

Calling it the “meat of the future” in a recent magazine article, Bel Campo Meat Co. President Bronwen Hanna-Korpi has joined a handful of local chefs from Sonoma County in embracing rabbit, including the Farmhouse Inn (7871 River Road, Forestville, (707-887-3300), Backyard (6566 Front St, Forestville, (707-820-8445) and Spinster Sisters (401 S A St, Santa Rosa, 707-528-7100). All have featured rabbit on their menus for years, served braised, roasted or as confit.

Mental barrier

But for many diners, there’s still a mental barrier. Though the game animal was a table staple for centuries, as beef consumption jumped in the 1960s rabbits were all but forgotten, according to the Agricultural Marketing Resource Center. And there was squeamishness about eating domesticated rabbits, often seen as pets or as childhood friends like Bugs Bunny and the Easter Bunny.

That’s starting to change.

Simon Masiewicki of Old World Rabbitry
Simon Masiewicki of Old World Rabbitry

Low in saturated fat and highly sustainable, rabbit meat is coming back to the table as the environmental costs of larger meat animals are becoming more evident, according to Shevchenko.

Ideal for small-scale farms this traditional game fodder breed quickly, require only a fraction of the water and feed (they can be raised without grain), and breed like, well, rabbits.

Most of the animals are harvested at just 8-10 weeks (primarily males), he said, can be processed on-site (unlike large animals), and have no religious restrictions on their consumption.

Hand feeding

“They grow really fast,” said veterinary tech and farmhand Simon Masiewicki, who nestles a kit (baby rabbit) in his paw-like hands. He gently blows on the animal’s head to calm it. Hand-feeding the rabbits with fists filled with grass, he’s clearly invested in the animals.

Based on what Shevchenko describes as “Raised Right” principles, Old World Rabbitry animals are bred in a low-stress environment with on-site vet care and a few scratches behind the ear.

A recent crowd-funding campaign will bankroll a free-range enclosure for the animals, processing facility, winter tent enclosure and other improvements.

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“We want to change the (existing food) system from the ground up,” said Shevchenko.

“When I started farming as I child, it was to follow traditional animal farming to be respectful and have humane practices that people could admire for its ethics, while also perfecting genetics and taste.

“More than just that, I wanted to blend the best of modern nutritional science with old world techniques, combining elements that had never been combined before now,” he said.

Grow own feed

Though the five-acre farm that Shevchenko and Masiewicki are rehabbing is still mostly covered with weeds and crumbling outbuildings (including a former studio used by Otis) remnants of an orchard remain, and a newly constructed greenhouse incubates hydroponically sprouted barley grass to feed the rabbits.

The farm currently grows 80 percent of the feed using recycled water, and along with yucca, garlic and oregano, the rabbits are primarily fed a wild diet rather than commercial pellets.

Good food means better meat and helps with fertility, according to Shevchenko. Meaning even more rabbits.

“I got into rabbits as a healthier meat,” said Shevchenko. To stay healthy, “We have to do things that are very particular, and spend a couple extra dollars raising the animals,” he said.

After all, top restaurants won’t pay a premium (up to $9 per pound) for poorly-handled meat.

“What we do is a boutique product,” said Masiewicki.

“We are creating something sustainable because we want people to feel good about their food.”

Having grown up in a traditional Ukrainian family in Michigan, Shevchenko credits his grandfather with passing down the “Old Ways” of tending a farm and how to cook traditional Eastern European dishes that include game meats like rabbit.

Eric at 2015 COCHON Heritage Fire Napa © 2015 Galdones Photography/COCHON 55
Eric at 2015 COCHON Heritage Fire Napa
© 2015 Galdones Photography/COCHON 555.

”My grandfather taught me a lot,” he said, “but now so many of those traditions are gone.”

“In the Old World, you raised your animals from birth, gave them names and nurtured them, kept them healthy.” says a statement on the Old World Rabbitry website.

“You looked them in the eye and treated them with respect by feeding them foods that you planted and allowing them to eat natural forage, giving them fresh air and open fields to roam. You did all of this knowing that one day they would give their lives so you could sustain your own, and those of your family and neighbors.

“It was called the ‘circle of life’ so you fed your animals the most balanced-by-nature foods. The ‘Raised Right’ projects that we are learning and teaching about will be the best way to understand the meats that we could offer.

Sold at the moment mostly to high-end restaurants, rabbit hasn’t returned to its common roots — yet.

Shevchenko sells to local butcheries including Thistle Meats (160 Petaluma Blvd N, Petaluma, 707-772-5442) and online at oldworldrabbitry.net.

He hopes to see his rabbits become more widely available in the future.

“You are supporting a revolution,” said Shevchenko. A rabbit revolution.

Want to support Old World Rabbitry’s Barnraiser? Rewards include a private dinner with Dominique Crenn, a dinner at the farm, rabbit meat or a dinner at The Lazy Bear in SF.  Click here for details.

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Comments

18 thoughts on “Old World Rabbitry

  1. I worked for Erick Shevchenko and he did not pay me! Still owes me money, moved and stopped responding, it’s sad that such people exist

  2. This is ridiculous. Rabbit is a “new” food? Oh what sheltered little lives you must lead. I was raised eating rabbit. Also raised eating deer, wild turkey, sheep, goat, squirrel, turtle….you name it. It gave me a respect for the animal and the environment they live in. I’m now raising my children in the same tradition. You people threatening violence should be ashamed. For those of you calling it “barbaric”…..stay in your castle and eat soy protein. I don’t judge your protein, don’t dare presume to judge mine.

  3. Our ancestors ate hare and rabbits. .As a chef I find recipes in my oldest cookbooks. This is not by any means a new practice. Been happening before any of us in this thread even existed. I prepare rabbit often. Wrap it in delicious bacon from a pig ……what you choose to eat is your choice and your choice alone….If you choose a meat free diet then good for you…As a chef I will cook for you with as much love as I cook for a meat eater. Noone should be scorned for what they choose to put on their dinner table. I have lots of Vegan&Vegetarian friends. We don’t point fingers at each other about our choice of nourishment. In my opinion this article is a great educational piece about animals being raised for consumption ithe right way. There are many others that might not follow good practices. Factory farming animals that are genetically modified, treated terribly, and fed horrible diets are the bad guys. Not small farms like Old World Rabbitry…
    Dropping the mic…….

  4. I am very saddened to hear about a number of hostile — even death–threats to the Old World Rabbitry owners. I’m up for intelligent debate and multiple POV’s, but threatening someone with bodily harm because you disagree with them is not activism. Or even sane.

    Humans are omnivores and have been since we evolved into existence. That is an undeniable fact. We can chose to eat animals or not. For those of us who chose to eat animal flesh, the best thing we can do is to honor and appreciate how the meat comes to our tables, and eat as much sustainable meat (such as rabbits) raised in humane ways.

    Will we someday look back on eating meat from animals as “ghoulish”? Maybe. Science is evolving rapidly, and meat grown from cells in a lab may someday replace actual animal slaughter. But until then, we eat meat.

  5. This is not a NEW food. Rabbits have been a staple in the diets of native people, farmers and country folk for as long as there have been rabbits. One choses to eat meat or not eat meat. Just because a cow is big and kind of dumb doesn’t mean it has less value than cute little rabbits (who strip bark off of new trees and kill them, by the way). Each of us make choices about how we live. Unless you are a true vegetarian/vegan your save the rabbits comments hold no value.

  6. After reading some of these comments I think they should brake California off and let it swim off into the sunset. I don’t know whats happened to the thinking in this country. Just because someone doesn’t feel the same way you do, you try to make what they think or do something horrible. Many people across this country grew up eating rabbits. I will pray for you to find peace and God!

  7. This is vile. How can you justify killing rabbits by saying you treated them well while they were alive for a short period of time? Domesticated rabbits can live up to 10 years, so killing them at 8 weeks is tragic. Shame on the PD for posting the picture of butchered rabbits.

  8. Question : does this rabbit farm practise certified humane raising and culling of the animals under their care ? Ca. or federal Certified Humane standards ?

  9. Good job Eric and Old World Rabbitry 🙂 Raising meat animals right. Rabbits are such a good fit for sonoma county too; Small, fast growing on an easy to grow diet and multi-use. Done right, highly sustainable even in this drought. Bravo!

  10. Rabbits taste delicious and are a great source of easy to raise protein. I hope these folks prosper to meet the needs of a population that needs increased food sources. Yum.

  11. Killing rabbits for food is barbaric. We Americans have been criticizing Chinese people for eating dog meat, but now we are doing the same with animals we love and take care of. Aren’t we supposed to be a civilized society? But yet you money-hungry rabbit killers seem so proud of yourselves for butchering innocent rabbits. We don’t need or want rabbit meat on our dinner tables or on restaurant tables! I am a proud parent of rabbits and love and nurture them and cannot tolerate you posting pictures of murdered rabbits.

  12. Horrible just horrible, agreed with Linda and for sure Johnny otis would not have been happy shame on the movement to kill and eat rabbits ….. terrible ….

  13. This is beyond disturbing. We should be removing animals from our diets, not adding new ones. I don’t care how much you snuggle her, it is morally wrong, and a brutal, horrific process, to butcher any animal. She wants to live. To feel the sun on her body, have babies, enjoy life! We have no right to take her life from her, especially when we live healthier without animal products. Don’t replace cows with rabbits, get the slaughterhouse out of your kitchen. You can learn more at the upcoming Sonoma County VegFest- http://www.socovegfest.org

  14. Ghouls. We might as eat dogs and cats. W might as well anyway, what’s the difference in suffering. Meat is not needed by any body to get protein.

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