Approaching the large red-roofed sheep shed at Syðri-Kárastaðir, a farm just north of the village Hvammstangi in the northwest of Iceland, there’s no indication that it’s any different from any other, save for a rabbit-shaped sign at the gate. The pungent scent emanating from the shed is first real indicator that something might be different about this one, even if it’s no less pleasant than the ones you’ll find at your average sheep shed, it is different. Once you enter, you learn why: instead of stalls filled with woolly lambs and sheep, the space is crowded with cages where cute and fluffy rabbits with fluttering snouts spend their days. Yup, it’s a bunny farm. Iceland’s only, as we learn.
Coming up with something new
In Iceland, rabbits are usually regarded much like the dragons in ‘How To Train Your Dragon’, either as pets or pests. The enterprising Birgit Kositzke sits comfortably on a hay bale in the roomy barn at the back of the shed, stroking her only employee, a former stray cat called Napoleon, who has taken on the self-proclaimed role of rabbit-watcher.
She tells me of her plans to change Icelanders’ rooted view of her furry fluffballs, and how she came to found Iceland’s first and only rabbit farm dedicated to meat production.
“When I moved to Iceland around 2010, I thought to myself: ‘What do I want to do in the future? What do I enjoy? What are my possibilities?’ I definitely did not want to do what I was doing before I moved here. You don’t move to a new country and keep doing the exact same things you did before,” says Birgit, who used to work as an environmental engineer in Germany before moving to Iceland.
After some time, she got set on the idea of starting a rabbit farm. “At some point, it dawned upon me that there was no rabbit meat available in Iceland. I wanted to have other options than just lamb—even though I really like lamb, you sometimes want something different—and I realized that rabbit meat was completely unknown in Iceland.”
Hard but rewarding work
Born and raised in East-Germany, Birgit is not a stranger to keeping rabbits. People there had to be self-sufficient to survive and commonly kept a few rabbits or chickens for personal consumption.
However, running a large farm is another matter entirely, which sent Birgit on a fast learning process. She took courses on how to make a business model, found a slaughterhouse near Hvammstangi, willing to take the gamble, and finally bought a few dozen rabbits that have since multiplied to around 400. Birgit tends to all of them by herself every day, and she clearly respects and cares dearly for her animals.
“I usually do everything myself, except the butchering. About a hundred rabbits need to be butchered each month, and I can’t do it alone, so I get some help with that. But I come here at least twice a day, and I have to feed them and clean their cages, especially the ‘kindergarten’ where I keep the younger animals. Then, I have to remove the young from their mothers and shovel away dung, and there’s always plenty of paper work. It’s a 100% work, seven days of the week. So yeah, I guess I’m a bit tied up,” says Birgit laughing.
She regrets nothing, though. In fact, she’s very passionate about her work, even if its rewards don’t yet to support her and she must work a part-time job in Hvammstangi—where she lives, with her dog—to make ends meet.
“Working with animals is very rewarding, and besides, it’s my project. The idea, the execution, all of it from A-Z – I did it myself. Rabbits are particularly rewarding, they have so much personality and they are so grateful when they are well treated. I have learned so much from this process; it’s more than work, it’s a lifestyle. And I feel it’s very important that I was able to do this on my own terms, emphasising the animals’ well-being.”
As there were few actual broiler rabbits in Iceland, and importing them was impossible, Birgit’s work has involved a lot of breeding experiments to create new bloodlines and get the best results possible.
“I bought the first rabbits from Dalatangi in the east of Iceland. Four females and a male, whose name was Daddy Cool, he was quite extraordinary,” Birgit recalls with fondness. “But it seemed to me that the existing pure-bred broiler rabbits were all related to one another, so I started a breeding program to avoid problems due to kinship. I don’t think I have one pure-bred animal now. I would like to import live males to improve the fertility and get new blood, but I can’t do that so I must find my own way.”
According to Birgit, rabbits in large European farms are most often fed high-protein fodder which speeds up their growth. Birgit, however, strongly values animal welfare and her rabbits are mainly fed organic hay and barley, which makes them grow more naturally and therefore slower. Birgit believes this, in addition to her breeding program, gives her product more quality.
Rabbit meat was first sold in 2014 at the Artisan Food Fayre, which is a regular event at Harpa, where independent and enterprising producers get the chance to introduce their products and meet buyers face to face. The restaurant Kolabrautin in Harpa, also has a rabbit dish on the menu and recently, rabbit meat has become available to individuals at Matarbúrið, a meat shop in Grandagarður, one of Reykjavík’s most flourishing areas.
Birgit’s product has been well received but it remains an expensive one, due to all the work that goes into the production. “Last year, at the food fayre, someone asked me why it’s so expensive,” she recalls. “I told him, if I could set baby rabbits loose in the wild where they could feed themselves and then I could just herd them together later, then I would probably lower the price.”
Indeed, the running of a rabbit farm, let alone by one person, is not an easy task but the greatest of obstacles remain on the financial front.
“Permits and financing were always the main issues,” says Birgit. “When I was starting around 2010-2011, there was a lot of talk about entrepreneurship, doing something new, but then—like now—investment options for new ideas were scarce. Talking to banks is so difficult because they only think about numbers. But you can’t ask an entrepreneur after a five minutes’ conversation: ‘So when do we start profiting?’ and you are supposed to say: ‘Well, after three years there will be so-and-so much money.’ You can’t say for sure when you have a brand new idea, except by lying. That was all very difficult for me, dealing with the banks, but I got a grant from Atvinnumál Kvenna [an institution that funds innovating women’s projects] and Svanni [a similar funding set-up] to get me started.”
Help is needed
Creating something new is always a struggle. Sadly, Birgit now faces the loss of her rabbit farm. In an attempt to save it from bankruptcy, she has started a funding project on Karolinafund.is to keep the farm going until the output matches the cost.
“My aim has always been to keep animals and not to run a big business,” says Birgit. “But I have some ideas for improvements in the future. I don’t necessarily want to make a bigger farm in terms of numbers or size, but this house needs some repairs. And I read that you can grow grass in greenhouses, which would be fantastic, so the rabbits can always get fresh grass. But mostly, I just wanted to do something new and create a new option for consumers.”
Rabbits are a nutritious, protein-rich and delicious food, so if you’re bored with lamb or chicken—or are just generally excited about tasting something new (or something familiar if you’re from the mainland of Europe)—head over to karolinafund and contribute to Birgit’s brave venture and help her save Iceland’s only rabbit farm (also, you could win a visit to her farm!).
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