Jason Ainslie never intended to go into the meat processing business, nor did he ever intend to become an expert in the history of rabbit meat production in the United States. As an Army veteran, he was forced to change his plans after a combat injury ended his military career. That shift has led to a new career and an opportunity for other ex-military to get in on the ground floor of a business that’s meeting a growing consumer demand for rabbit meat.
“I was cavalry and was in a couple different wars — the first Gulf War, Iraq and Afghanistan. I was finally wounded enough in Afghanistan where they retired me,” he explains. “Because of injuries I received in combat, I can’t eat red meat. It won’t go through my digestive system very well, so I had to eat white meat.
“What white meat was out there? Chicken and fish, those are the easy ones. That was probably going to get boring after a while, so let’s see what else was out there,” Ainslie says.
Ainslie has a BA in archaeology and an MA in museum studies, so he put his research skills to good use and discovered the benefits of rabbit meat. Though it has been several decades since rabbit was consumed in any measurable quantities in the United States, the meat is a favorite in several countries overseas and is extremely nutritious.
Ainslie, who had bought a farm for his family in his native Oregon, bought a few rabbits to experiment with them. Not only did he find a good protein source for himself, but his friends and neighbors showed interest as well and asked to buy some rabbits for their own meals.
Wagonhoffer Meats grew from that initial rabbit meat experiment. Ainslie has teamed up with several other veterans to provide not only rabbit fryers and rabbit sausages and bratwursts throughout the state, but also pasture-raised chickens and, soon, quail and pheasant. Demand has grown so quickly for the company’s products that it is planning a large expansion to its processing and storage facility, located in Sutherlin, Ore. Once the expansion is complete, the company will be USDA certified and will be processing more than 20,000 chickens a year. The expansion will also go a long way toward meeting the demand for rabbit that Ainslie has found. The company processes about 500 rabbits a month; he says he has a demand for about eight times that amount.
Sales have quadrupled from last year to this year. Along with processing and delivering rabbits, Ainslie has also stepped into the role of salesman, getting his products into more than 70 stores in Oregon.
“Like any business, it’s been stressful, especially starting out, but I get to meet some great people. We all have the same kind of mindset,” he says.
One of those people is Kerry Olson. Like Ainslie, Olson was in the Army and served in the Viet Nam era. When he returned home, he became an electronics engineer and designed microchips.
“The company I was working for folded up,” Olson explains. “I didn’t necessarily want to retire because I’d created a lifestyle that I’m happy with, so I went back to my roots, which is farming.”
Olson grew up on a dairy farm in Wisconsin and took to raising his own chickens on his farm. He built a small processing facility, obtained a state license and filled out his facility with freezers, processing and packaging equipment.
“All the equipment that you see is used government surplus,” Olson says of the plant. “The walk-in freezer is a US Army walk-in. The feather picker and scalder I bought at a processing facility that was put together in the 1950s. It’s all really robust and all stainless steel, so if anything does break it’s all repairable.”
Olson’s state license allows him to process rabbit and poultry. Several miles away, as Olson was producing his chickens and selling them in farmers’ markets, Ainslie ran into his first business roadblock. The processor who had been processing his rabbits decided he had enough in his stock and cut off further work, leaving Ainslie with a lot of rabbits and no place to deliver them. Through word of mouth, he heard about Olson’s operation. The two men talked and agreed to process some rabbits to see how it would go. It worked out so well that they agreed to go into business together as Wagonhoffer Meats.
The most recent addition to the company is Josh Sullivan. He’s a former Marine who also served overseas and saw action in the Middle East as well.
“I’ve been working in law enforcement for the last ten years,” he says, “and with everything I deal with, working with animals is very low stress and relaxing.”
Sullivan raises show pigs for local 4H and FFA groups on his farm. He came from a rural background and raised bobwhite quail for hunting season with his father in Oklahoma. That early experience is preparing him for his next venture, as he will start raising quail and pheasant for the Wagonhoffer Meats label. His plan is to start with supplying 400 quail a month.
“I remember in the third grade, they asked us what we wanted to be when we grew up, and I said, ‘A farmer.’ It’s only taken me 30-something years to get there,” he says with a laugh.
Sullivan admits to spending some sleepless nights online, looking for all the information he can find on quail production.
“It’s been a definite learning curve, seeing what has worked for people and what hasn’t worked for people, and combining both sides into something that would work for me,” he says.
Sales multiplying like rabbits
All the principals at Wagonhoffer Meats have valuable skills that they bring to the company. Olson has the agricultural and processing know-how and has taught Ainslie and Sullivan about slaughtering chickens and processing carcasses. He can also fix any piece of equipment should anything break. Sullivan has an accounting background and will be able to help the company stay on track as it navigates these times of explosive growth.
Ainslie has some regional distributors to help move product, but he has done the lion share of work to grow Wagonhoffer Meats’ distribution. As part of his self-taught sales skills, he has become an expert on the history and benefits of rabbit meat.
“Nobody knows about rabbit meat, because it hadn’t been on the menu for decades. About the ‘80s is when it kind of went away,” Ainslie says. “I had to educate myself on it, and then I had to educate everybody else on it.”
While there is not a lot of knowledge about rabbit preparation, it’s an easy meat to prepare. Since it’s white meat, any chicken recipe works on rabbit just as well. It is also the most nutritious protein available, per the USDA. Ainslie says that rabbit meat has about 30 vitamins and nutrients in it, and doctors are even starting to advise Baby Boomers to eat more rabbit meat because of its attributes.
Meat managers at supermarkets either had no rabbit on their stores or were importing Chinese products, and they were receptive to trying Wagonhoffer’s products as Ainslie approached them. Sales have grown steadily as more stores have come online.
Early on, the company experienced a lull in sales, and Ainslie needed an outlet to use the whole rabbits in his freezer.
“Kerry, in his infinite wisdom, said why not go to Taylor’s Sausage, which is a sausage plant in southern Oregon. They are the only USDA-certified sausage producer for private label [in the area],” he explains.
The sausage company began producing breakfast sausages, and they sold well. Next came bratwursts, along with Ainslie’s budding skills in product development. He has created a line of 16 varieties of rabbit bratwurst, with a world traveler theme. There is a British banger, a German Oktoberfest brat and a Romanian/Transylvanian brat (think garlic), each with the country’s flag on the label. The brats include 15 percent pork fat, and a couple (a white wine and Romano cheese brat and a shawarma brat) use lamb fat for those who cannot eat pork products.
One of Ainslie’s latest creations, is a Pirates Bounty brat, complete with a skull and crossbones flag on the label.
“It’s made with grog, which is a type of rum that pirates used to drink. My buddies in St. Helens [Ye Ol’ Grog Distillery] are the ones who distill it,” he says.
Another product that is a work in progress will be the world’s hottest sausage, if Ainslie has his way. It uses locally brewed Oregon beer and Carolina reaper peppers in its recipe.
“It’s not quite hot enough for me yet,” Ainslie cracks. “Nobody’s died yet.”
Wagonhoffer Meats’ location in the Pacific Northwest certainly helps the business. Ainslie acknowledges that there is a hipster foodie element in the population that is willing to try something new and exotic, and they are more likely to pick up some rabbit brats in a grocery store or a whole fryer at a farmers’ market as an experiment. However, the company’s sales growth indicates that even if consumers spend a little on rabbit at first as a novelty, the taste and nutrition turns them into regular customers.
“This is a continual operation that’s growing. People are having it as one of the staples that they buy now,” he says. “With the revenue going over six digits this year, it’s not a novelty.”
Currently, the company has the three principals and a part-time employee. As Wagonhoffer Meats progresses with its expansion plans, the company will expand its workforce. A friend of Ainslie’s, Kerry White, who served in the Navy before being medically retired himself is getting ready to join the operation, and others have expressed interest in coming on board as the business grows. Ainslie wants to hire more veterans and believes the low stress of an agricultural business is a good environment for them.
“Every branch knows how to work. We work long hours, we work dirty jobs, and coming into agriculture, it just fits,” he says.