OWATONNA — Though the number of rabbits at the Steele County Free Fair decreased slightly this year, the overall trend points upward, with more bunnies on display the past three or four years than any before that stretch.
“Over the last three or four years, we’ve maxed out at about 225 rabbits,” said Tracy Ignaszewski, program coordinator for Steele County 4-H.
This year’s crop is about 200, as a few 4-H members who planned to show rabbits weren’t able to attend due to scheduling conflicts.
Though “we have cages for” only 220 rabbits, “we’ll take more,” Ignaszewski said. “We’ll figure out where to put the bunnies.”
In fact, “we have made more cages in the last few years,” she said. “We do some juggling.”
Showing rabbits has increased in popularity for several reasons.
For one, “it’s a project kids can have in town,” Ignaszewski said. “It’s not just a farm thing.”
Rabbits are typically “small and easy for kids who live in town,” echoed Tracy’s daughter, Lexie, who has been involved in 4-H since kindergarten and will be a freshman at South Dakota State University this fall. “You don’t need a farm.”
In addition, “you can show them year to year,” said Lexie, who plans to study Ag Education at SDSU. “You don’t have to buy a new one every year.”
“The people who do it really enjoy it,” said Rachel Winzenburg, a rising eighth grader in Blooming Prairie who has been showing and caring for rabbits for the past handful of years. “They get their friends and people in their clubs to do it, too.”
Winzenburg brought two rabbits to the SCFF, both Mini Lops, and Thumper will be in the Minnesota State Fair lineup, she said. This will be Winzenburg’s first appearance at the state fair with one of her rabbits.
“I like to show,” she said. “Showmanship is really fun.”
Though Lexie Ignaszewski also shows sheep and hogs, rabbits are her favorite.
“I keep them year-round, so I have more of a connection with them,” she said. In addition, she breeds and sells rabbits, so “it’s a business.”
Lexie can have as many as 60 rabbits at a time on her farm, but she brought only 13 to show at the SCFF, and her main focus is the Mini Rex, she said. In fact, one of her rabbits was named grand champion Monday night.
Judges were impressed by the coat of her white senior doe, which is dense and softer than a 1,500-thread count sheet, she said. “They’re judged mainly on their fur.”
As a breed, the Mini Rex is “pretty laid-back,” she said. “Only one time did I get attacked when I went into the pen.”
The SCFF has “a large variety of breeds, not just the popular ones,” Tracy Ignaszewski said. “We have large breeds and running breeds.”
In recent years, the breed “really pushing up is the Flemish Giant,” despite the challenges presented by the largest rabbit breed, she said. Because they can weigh 25-30 pounds, “they take up more space and need a bigger cage.”
However, they’re gentle giants, “very docile and pleasant-mannered,” she said. That’s in sharp contrast to the smallest breed, the Netherland Dwarf, which can be “ornery and feisty.”
The Mini Lop, while “cute,” can also be agressive, Winzenburg said. “They like to bite,” and “they bite me, too.”
Winzenburg was joined in the rabbit barn this year by her sister, Natalie, age 9.
Natalie brought one rabbit, a Polish, with her to the SCFF, and he’s been on his best behavior, she said. “He’s really nice.”
She also appreciates how her older sister has assisted her, both this week and leading up to the fair, she said. Rachel has “helped me a lot.”
When Lexie departs for Brookings this fall, her parents will take care of her rabbits, she said. “They’re alright with that.”
Local children can be “Cloverbuds” as early as kindergarten. Students can become bona fide 4-H members beginning in third grade and remain with the organization through their first year of college.
“Growing up on a farm, I fell in love with 4-H,” Lexie explained. “4-H gives you an opportunity to connect with your animals and other” 4-H members.