The path to agriculture is not always an expected one. Sometimes it means “hopping down the bunny trail.”
Larry Rishel (L) served in the United States Marine Corps from 1972 to 1976, providing security for the presidential helicopter squadron, HMX, during Gerald Ford’s term. Today, he lives in Farmington, PA, where among other pursuits, Larry has established a reputation as an authority on rabbitry.
Rishel began raising rabbits as a relaxing hobby, building his reputation as a breeder of winning Flemish Giants over the course of the last decade. Offspring of his original breeding trio are sought after throughout the US—his rabbits can be found as far away as Hawaii. The Flemish Giant, one of 47 breeds recognized by the American Rabbit Breeders’ Association, is one hefty bunny, sometimes weighing in at as much as 20 pounds. Along the way, Larry has coached and mentored kids and adults and shows widely.
Raising rabbits can be a hobby or revenue-producing operation for individuals or families. Unlike traditional 4-H animals like pigs and goats, rabbits are clean, quiet, and largely odor-free. Producers may raise for the hobby market, or for meat production. According to Penn State Extension, last year 298 farms sold more than 112,000 rabbits in the Commonwealth, making PA the top producer nationally.
Veterans interested in getting into a small scale hobby or production rabbit operation can do so with a relatively small investment of about $1000, according to Rishel. Unlike larger livestock that require acreage, an adequate rabbit facility or barn can be set up vertically with cages. An existing facility can be easily modified for use as a rabbitry. When considering converting your current barn or building, keep in mind that good ventilation, temperature control, fresh water, and lighting are needed to provide a healthy environment.
Reliable information on breed selection, production factors such as slaughter and packaging, marketing, housing, nutrition, and basics are available from Penn State Extension here. Rishel has mentored rabbit enthusiasts in the area, including Larry Daugherty of Heritage Farms, shown above. Daugherty got his start in livestock with rabbits, and now raises beef and pork on his Fayette County farm, but still keeps a few rabbits as a hobby.
In comparison to other small scale farming options, Rishel tells us raising rabbits can be “easy to get into with a small investment, and easy to get out of as well if it’s not for you”. He finds working with them calming: “If I can’t sleep, I go out to the barn.” And as he told us so succinctly, “At the end of the day, if it doesn’t work out, you can always eat them.”
Rishel favors the Bullyard line of Flemish rabbits, but there is a rabbit breed for everyone. Learn more at the American Rabbit Breeders Association website.
Are you a Veteran, Guard, or Reservist with questions about rabbit breeding? Contact us and we'll connect you with Larry.
Photo above right: Larry Rishel (R) with Larry Daugherty