Diversifying your farming portfolio: The ‘etc.’ is key at Rabbits, etc.

Growing new veggies in innovative systems is the easiest way to diversify your farm. Here, container-planted zucchini foregrounds a wide selection of produce in stocked pot towers.

Diversifying your portfolio takes on a whole new meaning when it comes to farming. This advice is often given to investors, new business people, and young college students getting ready to enter the field. However, the words that follow ‘in this economy…’ can apply to any one of us, students to experts, architects to biologists, engineers to farmers. Whatever the economists want call the current state of affairs – recession, depression, dip, bust – times are tough. This is why I keep furthering my education with more degrees, and why diversifying your portfolio is more important than ever – even for farmers.

Mike and Dee Blaha of Rabbits, etc. come from the corporate world and pride themselves on the business  savvy minds they brought to their new career as farmers. Mike’s family has owned the 20+ acres since the 1940s. Mike and Dee have been tilling the land since 1992. They started with raising commercial rabbits (2 rabbits and $200). The business soon gained momentum and a close relationship with a local broker and processor kept business booming. That is, until the processing plant burned down and the Blaha’s were left with no selling outlet. “That is when we learned not to put all of our eggs in one basket,” Dee tells me as she shows me around the 20 acre farm that truly grows a bit of everything.

Warms and warm castings, harvested from below the rabbit cages, account for nearly 50% of the sales at Rabbits, etc. Dee's dog serves a dual purpose of farm tour escort and chicken wrangler.

Rabbits are still the star of the show, though the greatest market is actually the worms that are harvested from below the cages. The worms were introduced to help turn the waste into compost, but has since become the most profitable yield at the farm, providing  live worms for bait and vermaculture, worm castings from at-home composting, as well as general all-natural compost for fertilizing.

The rest of their business is comprised of a long inventory of meat and produce: cattle, pigs, turkeys, lamb, chickens, eggs, swiss chard, peas, beans, beets, lettuce of all types… the list goes on and on… and of course, the rabbits! “We have up to 5,000 noses on the property at any one time,” Dee says with a grin.

The couple has recently taken on a CSA membership base, offering their members a diverse mix of meat and veggies in their year-long weekly share, and further diversifying their farming portfolio.

“It was never a plan, it all just came up and developed naturally. Everything here we just sort of fell into,” Dee continues. As my tour goes on, I am repeatedly surprised at what I find around the corner. I am most impressed by the recent foray into corn – a rarity among small farms. A drip irrigation system with a rain barrel has been assembled to help the small rows along. “We’ll try anything once!” Dee exclaims.

Rabbits are breed and raised on site, though no artificial processes are used. "The animals already know what to do," says Dee.

But even with all the experimenting in production, they do stick true to their farming techniques. Though they breed and raise their own rabbits, pigs, lamb, and cows, they allow the process to happen naturally. “We don’t artificial breed. It may be more profitable, but… oh well,” Deb shrugs. “We let nature do its thing, allowing most of the animals to hang out together and let what happens, happens.” The rabbits are bred in a more structured system that is tracked through a software program, allowing Deb to identify even the great-great-great grandma of any rabbit in-house.

Baby rabbits nestled in a nest their mother made from paper scraps and tufts of fur. Reminiscent of an Easter basket.

This is just one example of the high level of professionalism at the farm that seems to balance so much. Contracts are used for all CSAs members and business partners. Dee excels at grant writing and is a stickler for spelling. “I don’t care if it’s the white board at the front stand. It needs to be spelled right!” Her eye for detail and mind for business  has been the secret of their success.

But their motivation comes from a heart for farms, and doing it right. At Rabbits, etc., sustainable practices means having your hands in many pots, literally and figuratively, though Dee doesn’t use the term: “I don’t worry about the newest buzzword. I just do it. We’ve always grown stuff life this.”

Think before you eat,
Elizabeth Murray
Winter 2012 Tampa Food Warrior

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