Twice a day, 71-year-old Don Higgins makes his rounds, feeding hundreds of hungry mouths.

Twice a day, 71-year-old Don Higgins makes his rounds, feeding hundreds of hungry mouths.

He's one of the largest rabbit growers in Jackson County, which the U.S. Department of Agriculture lists as the No. 3 rabbit-producing county in the nation.

For 30 years the Sams Valley man has tended his animals — a task that consumes 30 to 35 hours every week — never spending more than two days at a time away from his farm. His wife Helen helped run the farm for the better part of three decades until she died last year.

He continues, more out of habit and a labor of love than anything else.

"There's too much work in it and not enough money, and I'd say that's everywhere," Higgins said. "Right now, I'm staying about the same."

Rabbit farmers' profits are shrinking because the rabbits compete with cattle and horses for alfalfa, which is a big part of their diet, and hay prices have skyrocketed.

"In the last 18 months, feed — it's 60 percent alfalfa mixed with soybean and wheat mill run — has gone up 50 percent," Higgins said.

Still, rabbit production is making its mark in the region. According to the agriculture department's 2007 census, there are 29 farms raising rabbits in Jackson County and 12 reported they sold rabbits. Local farmers sold nearly 21,500 rabbits, although the number on hand at the time of the census was fewer than 6,400.

Sales topped the $600,000 mark in 2007, with the rabbits fetching an average of $5.75 apiece when they were sold to butchers, other farms or 4-H clubs.

Forrest Hawk, a field supervisor for the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture, said the Southern Oregon climate is good for raising rabbits.

"It's not too awful cold in winter and not too awful hot in summer," said Hawk, who covers Jackson, Josephine, Klamath and Lake counties. "It doesn't take too much to keep rabbits cool, and it doesn't take that much heating in the winter."

Proximity to Interstate 5 helps, too.

"The vast majority of rabbits produced on the West Coast are for foreign shipment to the Orient," he said.

While Jackson County may be one of the nation's top rabbit producers, Higgins says the numbers are declining. He said there were quite a few people raising rabbits in Jackson and Josephine counties back when he left his career with Xerox and took up rabbits. He was a board member for the Southern Oregon Rabbit Producers, an association that had more than two dozen members during a brief existence of two or three years.

Back in 1992, Higgins was selling 2,200 rabbits a month and as recently as 15 years ago he said Oregon shippers were sending out between 30,000 and 35,000 monthly. Today, he said, that figure has dropped to between 2,000 and 3,000 monthly.

Oregon State University also ran a rabbit research center, one of the best in the nation at the time, Higgins said. In 1992, OSU shuttered the center, and growers no longer had the resources they once had.

"The whole industry went downhill after that," Higgins said.

Then one of the California processors where Oregon growers shipped their rabbits closed down.

"I don't think (the processors) even knew they put people out of business by going out of business," Higgins said.

These days, Higgins owns 200 does, down from the 600 he kept at the peak of his operation. In ideal conditions, does will produce six or seven litters a year. The rabbits are kept eight to 10 weeks, growing to between 41/2; to 51/2; pounds, when they are sold as fryers. If they grow bigger than 51/2; pounds they are considered stewers, which don't fetch as much.

"I weigh each one individually before I put it on the truck to see if they are 41/2; pounds," Higgins said. "But once (the processors) have them, they weigh 30 or 40 at a time on a platform scale."

The rabbits are loaded at night and trucked to Cloverdale Rabbit Co. in Hollister, Calif., for processing.

"You don't get rich raising rabbits," said Deb Brown, who grows them and works with 4-H groups. "But you can make your living. It's a wonderful meat, all white and easy to digest. It's often prescribed by doctors for people with cholesterol problems or heart conditions."

While farmers don't get a lot of money for the fryers, by the time rabbit meat ends up on a restaurant menu or in a store's meat department, the prices are anything but cheap.

"The last time I priced it, it was almost $9 a pound, if you can find it," Brown said. "It's very labor intensive."

Although watering can be automated, feeding requires a hands-on approach, Brown said. "You have to handle them a lot. Whereas you never have to touch chickens."

Hawk said the cost of feed and farmers' shrinking margins may curtail the industry in this area.

"Farmers have to watch the market and might have to change from whatever they're doing to something new," Hawk said. "In Klamath County, they're into alfalfa and cattle, but at one time it was sugar beets. When they closed the (processing) plants in Walla Walla and Pasco, (Washington, growing sugar beets) was no longer lucrative because of the shipping costs. You just have to play the field and do what you can based on making a reasonable return on your investment."

Reach reporter Greg Stiles at 776-4463 or e-mail business@mailtribune.com.