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Farmer cuts and packages rabbits for many Twin Cities grocery stores

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Tim Duehn is owner of R.V. Processing, a rabbit-processing business in Hector, Minn. Duehn processes 200 domestic rabbits each week, and the all-white meat is sold under the Hoppin Fresh label. In addition to operating his processing business, Duehn is a crop farmer and pork producer. Agri News Photo by Amy Jo Brandel BUFFALO LAKE, Minn. -- Once a week, Tim Duehn substitutes a meat cutter's apron and locker plant for the tractor cab and farrowing barn.

For the past five years, Duehn, a Renville County farmer, has been in the rabbit processing business.

Duehn bought the business, R.V. Processing, as an alternative income source when hog prices were low, he said. A crop farmer and pork producer, Duehn farms near Hector with his father and a brother.

An average of 200 rabbits are being processed one day a week, and as many as 350 rabbits have been done in a single day, Duehn said at a commercial rabbit producers' seminar here.

Last year, Duehn marketed 11,500 rabbits.

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``It's picking up and we haven't pushed it at all,'' he said. ``There's a lot of people that want it.''

Each Monday, he rents the state-inspected locker plant in Hector and processes domestic rabbits raised by producers from across the state.

Duehn has 25 to 30 major growers providing the rabbits and is looking for more growers. The growers' sizes range from five to 100 breeding does.

The rabbit growers, who are from as far away as Worthington, Grand Rapids and Ortonville, deliver rabbits to Duehn for processing and marketing.

Duehn buys rabbit fryers weighing from four to six pounds from the growers.

Growers are now paid 70 cents a pound for white-haired rabbits and 5 cents to 10 cents less a pound for the colored breeds. Cut and packaged rabbit retails for $2.59 a pound.

The meat from colored breeds tastes just as good as that from New Zealand Whites, Duehn said, but the non-white hair sticks on meat and creates extra work during processing.

Summer is typically a high rabbit-producing season and a time for building supplies to meet peak winter market demands. Last year, Duehn had 2,000 rabbits stashed on ice for the winter, a time of low rabbit production and higher consumer demand. But this summer's sales are keeping the freezers empty, and Duehn is short of rabbits.

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Market expansion possibilities, Duehn said, are good. He delivers 600 pounds of cut, packaged and labeled rabbits weekly to distributors in the Twin Cities. The wholesale distributors then market to retailers.

Hoppin Fresh brand rabbit can be found in restaurants and meat cases from St. Cloud to Rochester and many points in between. Duehn said it's likely another distributor will be added in coming months.

In almost all cases, the rabbit leaves the locker plant as cuts. A cleaned, whole rabbit, Duehn said, appears unattractive and unappetizing. The rabbits do not undergo deboning, a process that is extremely labor intensive, he said.

Once people try rabbit, Duehn said, they discover that the all-white meat tastes excellent. The stigma associated with eating rabbit is what keeps many people from trying domestic rabbit.

``I've never had anybody eat it that didn't like it,'' he said.

Domestic rabbit is tender with a mild flavor, while wild rabbit is dark meat that's tough and gamy tasting.

``It's a healthy meat, and there's a market for it,'' Duehn said. ``If it had a different name, it would be easier (to market). People are turned off by the name. They think of the Easter Bunny.''

Matching rabbit production to sales hasn't been easy, Duehn said. It's a business where producers jump into rabbit production, discover it's not easy, and then discontinue raising rabbits.

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But maintaining a high quality product and steady supply is necessary for keeping his markets.

``I got into it as a sideline,'' Duehn said. ``Hopefully it will continue into the future if I can keep everybody going.''

Rabbits are difficult to raise, which surprises many first-time growers, he said. When compared to other livestock enterprises, it's cheap to begin raising rabbits, and it doesn't involve extremely heavy labor. But it is labor intensive, and it takes special knowledge and dedication to become successful.

``A lot of people think it's easy to raise rabbits,'' Duehn said. ``They think they don't have to go out every day, or they can have the kids do it.''

Those people, he said, end up having big feed bills, low production and no profits.

Individuals interested in marketing rabbits through Duehn can call (612) 848-2637 or (612) 365-4686; or write Tim Duehn, RR 3 Box 93, Hector, Minn. 55342.p

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