In the 1902 children’s classic by author-illustrator Beatrix Potter, gardener John McGregor finds his nemesis in the mischievous Peter Rabbit, a marauding young trespasser who snacks his way through the gentleman’s Victorian vegetable patch.
At Spellcast Farm in Lincolnton, North Carolina, farmers Michelle Bernard and Walter McSwain mean to rewrite the narrative. Their farm integrates vegetable production with Silver Fox rabbits, using open-bottomed pens that move daily so the creatures can forage freely on pasture grass, unmarketable vegetables, and cover crops, depositing a liberal dose of fertilizer in the process.
“I’m trying to show people who are already raising vegetables that adding rabbits to their farm is a really good idea,” says Bernard. “[Farmers] can sell rabbit meat alongside their vegetables and use the manure to boost fertility.”
Developed during the 1920s as a dual-purpose meat-and-fur breed by an Ohio hobbyist, the 11-to-12-pound Silver Fox has a friendly disposition and makes an attractive pet. “They’re really calm,” says Bernard. “They’re cute.” The breed is included in Slow Food USA’s Ark of Taste, a catalog of foods that are being squeezed out of existence by industrial agriculture.
Even more so than other rabbit breeds Bernard has tried, the Silver Fox seems to thrive on forage. “They’re hardier,” says Bernard, who launched Spellcast in 2009 and added rabbits in 2011. “The mothers seem to have more milk than the other breeds, so their babies grow faster.” Even after it’s weaned, the thrifty Silver Fox reaches market weight up to a month sooner than the heritage CrËme d’Argent and American Chinchilla breeds with which Bernard started, is less susceptible to parasites, and is more tolerant of extreme weather.
Bernard sells her rabbits at the Charlotte Regional Farmers Market, where the meat fetches $9.00 to $9.50 a pound. Ken Newbill, an enthusiastic Spellcast Farm customer, grew up eating wild rabbit prepared by his grandmother. “It has a slightly nutty characteristic to it that can enhance a meal,” he says, noting that the meat doesn’t taste like chicken. And unlike its wild cousin, he says, Bernard’s pastured Silver Fox has a fuller carcass with bright pink meat. He credits her care. “I think it really comes down to the simplicity of how they’re raised and the conditions in which they’re handled.”
Originally published in Organic Gardening Magazine August/September 2013.