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March 19, 2011

Shop Talk: Rabbit Track Farms

Rabbit Tracks Farm 1688 McDougal Road, Oneonta Owner: Charlotte Allen and Keith Ballard Established: 2003 Employees: None (selves)

Daily Star

---- — Shop Talk is a weekly column featuring locally owned and operated businesses. This week, we talk to Keith Ballard and Charlotte Allen, who goes by Charlie, of Rabbit Tracks Farm in Oneonta.

How long have you lived in the area?

Charlie Allen: We have both lived here our entire lives.

Tell me about your business:

Keith Ballard: We raise healthy alternative foods, primarily rabbits, but we have expanded into providing Boer goats, chickens, ducks, roosters and eggs.

Allen: We are also trying to establish ourselves as a co-op raiser _ this is getting other people who want to raise the same type of animals but do not want to sell and market them.

Describe a typical day in your business:

Ballard: Never any such thing around here!

Allen: Well, there are some things that have to go on every day: milking goats, feeding, watering, cage cleaning and the basic care routine but from there, the list is endless and usually it ends up being what needs to be done. For example, a hose unexpectedly froze last night so that will occupy a few hours of Keith's time this morning. If there are orders for the specialty rabbit cages that he makes, he will work on those, contact our regular customers about their orders, fix, repair, install _ it's all part of a typically not-typical day.

How did you get started in this line of work?

Allen: Keith went overboard with my hobby. We are both country people; we like animals, and we wanted to have a farm business. There is a great demand _ more than we are able to fill _ for these alternative meats, so the business just evolved into what was in demand that fit into our property and schedule.

Where do you see this business in five years?

Allen: This is where we differ somewhat in our opinions, I would like to expand the manure management side of things. This would be a composting setup so that we can start selling some of the very valuable composted rabbit manure which we have an ample supply of.

Ballard: In five years from now I would like to have worked out better production and inventory as well as linking with other responsible growers to form a cooperative.

Describe a memorable moment in your workplace:

Allen: Every day is memorable around here. We are so lucky to live in a spot and do something that brings back memories to our customers and inspires them. Once we had some people from the city stop in and I had time to bring them up to the goat barn where just as they walked in, baby kid goats were just being born. The children especially were in total awe over the experience of seeing the babies born.

What have you learned from your work?

Allen: I have learned about what my limitations are, that I don't want to expand a great deal because the numbers we have now allow for excellent care without making life too crazy. I have also learned that when someone says "breed like rabbits," they have never raised rabbits. I wish it were as easy as that makes it sound.

Ballard: We have become aware of how withdrawn society is from their food source. It is almost a reversal, where some of the city people are more knowledgeable about food origins than people right here in this rural region.

What is the most challenging part of what you do?

Ballard: It's challenging to keep prices reasonable so that we keep our customers and make a living.

Allen: Yes, with grain prices rising, it is a challenge, and Keith plans to build a bulk feed bunker so that we can save money with quantity. The type of feed we buy for the rabbits needs to be specific and fresh with consist ingredients, so bulk buying will definitely help us. The other challenging part, the part that any animal farmer knows about, is the death part. Even though we raise these animals for meat, and I know their destination, it doesn't make us insensitive. It means putting an even greater effort into the quality of their care and their lives. It makes a difference for the animals and for us.

The most enjoyable?

Ballard: Happy repeat customers is really enjoyable. It means we are doing a great job.

Allen: I love the animals, and having babies around all the time is really fun.

How do you define success for your business?

Allen: Success is that we are doing what we love to do, doing a good job, having more customers than we have product.

Ballard: Success is also that what we do has a low carbon footprint. It is a farm venture that doesn't have a negative impact on the land.

What are some advantages as well as drawbacks of doing business in this area?

Ballard: The cost of living here is cheaper and the pace of life is not such a rat race. The drawbacks of our particular business is that there is a very small local market. Most of our customers are from downstate, and if it was not for them, we wouldn't have a business.

What sets you apart from your competitors?

Allen: We have none.

What advice would you give to someone trying to enter your field of work?

Ballard: Learn by doing; that's the best way to enter this field of work. Talk to everyone; you can't get too much information from others, and be flexible.

Allen: Know your limitations of time, land, resources and interest. Do right by the animals. This is a great business for someone who wants to take on a part-time venture while keeping their day job or classes. You might not get rich, but it can fit into a schedule better than many other farm businesses.

Shop Talk interviews are conducted by Terry Hannum. For information, call The Daily Star at 432-1000, ext. 217, or e-mail