Julie Engel & “The Coney Garth”
By Vanessa Herald | Photo By Vanessa Herald 1
“The rabbits and the project have stretched me way beyond where I thought I could go. The rewards are rich and deep.” –Julie Engel
If you ask Julie Engel, she didn’t choose rabbits, the rabbits chose her. In return she has committed to perfecting a sustainable system for raising them on pasture: a model that’s productive, replicable and profitable.
Julie raises rabbits for meat and has control over the entire process from kindling (birth of babies) to processing and selling directly to customers, all from the farm. She has just settled her herd of 8 does, 3 bucks, 4 junior does, and 12 fryers into their new home at the Token Creek Eco-Inn, just outside of Madison. Here, the rabbits will rotationally graze in the front few acres of the property. But first, they’ll spend the coldest months of the year in winter quarters: a yurt with a fenced outdoor area. Unlike large livestock, a herd of pasture-raised rabbits doesn’t take up much space and is surprisingly mobile. Julie and her herd have hopped around the country and Wisconsin, moving five times in the past eight years.
There’s a reason Julie and the rabbits have moved around so much: Julie doesn’t own her own farmland. Rather than focusing on purchasing and honing a specific piece of property, Julie is focused on perfecting a new model for raising rabbits; she calls her 100 percent grass-fed, colony-reared rabbit project “The Coney Garth.”
Grazing rabbits on a variety of landscapes over a long period of time has helped her to solve a variety of challenges, more than would be encountered if staying in one place. And she’s come a long way, evolving a pastured, pellet-free, cage-free method with portable rabbit housing; developing a rabbit-specific pasture mix; understanding target numbers for profitability; and even earning Animal Welfare Approved status.
Julie is analytical and purposeful. Her vision is for a successful system, not for an over-idealized farm lifestyle—at least right now. She is also creative and intuitive, listening to and learning from her herd over time.
Although Julie is known for her rabbits, her agricultural experience is diverse and deep, including livestock, dairy sheep and vegetable production, but the rabbits are woven through it all. In the long term, Julie has a vision for a diversified, horse-powered farm in her home region of Southwestern Michigan; but in her mind, what’s right isn’t just about what she wants—it’s about what’s best for the planet.
Julie grew up in a pet-free household, despite her strong wish to care for animals. As most youthful pleading goes, her mother eventually allowed her to raise pet rabbits. Julie quickly became a rabbit expert, showing rabbits in 4-H for two years. But, as many childhood hobbies do, the rabbits faded. They reappeared briefly in college, when Julie amazed her friends with her knowledge of rabbit anatomy while earning a degree in geology from the University of Dayton in Ohio.
With little more than her childhood rabbit raising experience to stand on, Julie applied for the Livestock Assistant position at the Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture in Pocantico Hills, New York, in 2005. She explained the job “sounded like fun,” an interesting change of pace. The job grew into a three-year educational experience, knee-deep in day-to-day work with livestock from lambs to pigs to chickens and working with incredible mentors.