Ryan Watkins wants to sell you some rabbits. Are you ready for the pitch? Here it is:
"I think they're the foundation for the sustainable property. Someone who's into homesteading, or somebody who's got a small backyard, you could fit three rabbits in a grow-out hutch ... Rabbits are pretty much for everyone. There's some people that don't like the idea of eating the Easter bunny, but as far as a meat source, it's one of the only sustainable meat sources that almost every family can have."
Watkins is standing beside a row of suspended rabbit cages at Brownswood Nursery, the Johns Island farm his family has owned for 30 years. Inside the cages are two different breeds. The flop-eared Holland lops, gorgeous and inquisitive and the stuff of inspirational calendar photos, are meant to be kept as pets. The New Zealand whites, with their eerie red eyes and massively meaty haunches, are meant to be raised for food.
Brownswood sells some rabbit meat to high-end restaurants like Butcher & Bee, Two Boroughs Larder, the Stono Market, and Fat Hen, and as anyone who has sampled one of their dishes can attest, rabbit is mighty fine eating. With a faintly gamy flavor and the texture of chicken, rabbit goes well braised, baked, or wrapped in bacon. And it's low-calorie, low-fat, and high-protein to boot.
By Watkins' estimation, the offspring of a single buck and two does will produce anywhere from 125 to 180 pounds of meat in a year. In addition to the meat, a rabbit produces some excellent natural fertilizer, with their droppings containing high amounts of nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium — the trifecta of essential nutrients known to gardeners as NPK.
Beyond the practicality of backyard meat and supercharged gardening, there is one other, less tangible, benefit to raising rabbits at home. Watkins would even call it a spiritual benefit, and it might explain the past few years' renewed interest in homesteading in America. When you grow your own food, you smell the wet tang of dirt, run your fingers along the gnarled tendrils of a root system, and feel the fluttering heart of the animal that will soon give its life for your meal. And on a deep, abiding level, this return to nature simply feels right.
"I believe that we were meant to grow," Watkins says. "God put us in a garden. He could have put us anywhere. He could have put us in a skyscraper." Walking through his family's garden, Watkins alternates between plainspoken observations — the hounds guard the chickens from predators; the rabbits need shade and cooling fans in the summer sun — and proclamations of Edenic ecstasy.
As a younger man, Watkins never would have thought he'd end up working in the same fields as his mother, stepfather, and grandfather. He grew up on the farm, but the chores were tedious, and when he left home about 13 years ago to intern with a traveling student ministry, he bid the farm goodbye. "I am never going to be in the family business, never," he remembers telling the family. "So get that out of your heads."
But farming wouldn't get out of Watkins' head. After two years at the internship, he enrolled in the management program at Oral Roberts University. As he studied the fundamentals of business, his mind drifted to his family's business, and after getting married at age 20, he and his wife moved back to the island.
Starting over, Watkins consumed books and attended seminars on agriculture. The crops came in, and business was booming. 2008 was the best year in the farm's history — and then the economic downturn caught up with the family. It was around this time that Watkins started thinking about building up provisions, the stuff that would get the family through hard times. He thought of his grandfather, Cecil Williams, telling Great Depression stories about feeding the chickens through the floorboards and having the bank repossess the family cow. Watkins took an interest in livestock, starting with a single dairy goat purchased from a farmer in Aiken. He liked the idea of giving his young daughters milk without added hormones, and on a deeper level, he felt it was a sound philosophical choice.
"I believe that there is a strong connection with us in being able to grow our own food," Watkins says. "I believe the further away we get from that individually and as a society, the worse it's all going to get." At the time, he ate McDonald's three times a week and knew little about the cows that produced his family's Coburg milk. But as he acquired more animals for the farm, his eating habits became healthier.
These days, his daughters, ages 5, 3, and 1, spend a lot of time on the farm with their dad, gradually picking up chores and learning the facts of life. They collect the chickens' eggs, they see how the goats are milked, and when they are old enough, they watch the humane killing of the animals they've raised for meat. He remembers taking his 4-year-old daughter to see her first chicken killing. "She had that moment, and she cried," he says. "But she had to have that reconciliation: This is an animal, we are killing it, and we are going to eat it. So there is that tension, but it needs to happen early, not when you're 30."
Part of Watkins' ethos is sustainability, that great ideal of our eco-conscious times. He wants to be able to live a low-impact life and provide for his family, but at the same time, he rejects the idea of rugged individualism.
"Because of my faith, I'm not self-sustainable," Watkins says. "I believe that God provides every day for us, and He brings the growth. And most farmers that have been farming for any period of time, I think if they were honest, would tell you it's a miracle when you plant a seed and something pops up out of the ground."
At the rabbit cages, tufts of white fur float by like tiny clouds. The air is warming up with morning, and Watkins speaks like a man fully in his element as he tells the story of his return to the farm. God drew him back to the land, and the land draws him back to God.