New processing plant will make rabbit sector “a major player”

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A new processing plant is just what Alberta’s rabbit sector needs to hop to the next level, says Marion Popkin, who has been the spark plug for developing the sector.

Popkin has been raising rabbits at her operation in Valleyview since 2008, one of about 20 producers in the region, and helped form the Alberta Rabbit Producers Association (ARPA).

So she’s naturally a major supporter of a new rabbit-processing plant slated to be built in Valleyview later this spring.

“We’re moving from rabbit being a cottage industry to a major player in the meat commodity market,” said Popkin.

She believes that if consumers can get past the Easter bunny sentimentality, there’s good money in the rabbit business.

To get more established producers are also getting some real support. Community Futures Grande Prairie (CFGP) has approved a loan which has helped get the plant off the ground in Valleyview later this spring.

Rabbits are prolific, but whether the species is the key to an emerging market for Peace region producers remains to be seen. The new plant will be a boon to rabbit producers in northwestern Alberta, says Popkin. She estimates there are about 20 growers in the region, including her own operation near Valleyview.

Popkin has been instrumental in developing the rabbit meat industry in Alberta. She got into it herself in 2008 and then helped form the Alberta Rabbit Producers Association (ARPA) shortly thereafter.

Owned by members

The plant, expected to open in May, is owned by Raw-Bitz, a company formed by some ARPA members. Construction plans were expedited when a provincially approved meat abattoir near Rouleau, Saskatchewan was purchased and moved onto a lot in Valleyview. The 2,300-square-foot facility became available after a farmer was forced to sell due to flooding.

“We had enough investment to go ahead with the project without CFGP, but its input allowed us to buy a container and a lot,” said Popkin.

The loan tripled the commercial investment.

Popkin estimates the cost of the plant to be around $250,000. It will contain a blast freezer so whole carcasses, cuts, and ground meat can be processed. About half of the production will go to pet food.

“The plant will be a real advantage for rabbit producers who get bounced at slaughterhouses for other species,” said Popkin.

Although Alberta rabbit producers have doubled their sales every year for the past three years, an inability to consistently meet demand has slowed development of the market, she said.

According to Popkin, that market is significant. One doe at $50 will net over $400 per year. And at the end of their breeding life, they can be sold for $20 as pet food. There are also fertilizer possibilities: rabbit manure has no need to be composted and is ready to use.

Alberta rabbit producers have doubled their sales every year for the past three years.

“We have promises for orders for five times what we fill now,” said Popkin. “We have export orders for three container-loads of product monthly.”

The organization currently has about 22 retail clients, mostly restaurants and delis in Edmonton. Members enjoy reduced processing and packaging fees, sales management, promotional materials including a brief on this growing industry, reduced feed costs, and a chance for their voice to be heard as a united industry, said Popkin.

Other species

The Valleyview plant will have capacity for 2,000 rabbits a day, and since meeting that target is still up to two years away, Popkin said other small animals will be accepted. Goats, sheep, alpaca and llama will eventually be processed.

Currently, rabbit is shipped to Stony Plain for processing, while sheep and goats go to Heart Valley, about an hour north of Grande Prairie or Tofield. Popkin said about 17,000 sheep are marketed annually in Tofield, and said the new plant hopes to capture five per cent of that market.

It’s hoped the plant will be licensed to process goats by the end of this year, she said.

“Prime goat meat will still go into the human food chain, but this plant will be a good alternative for those producers who have too few goats to ship to Tofield to feasibly meet transportation costs, or for older animals who no longer meet prime standards.”

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