That was in 2008, in the aftermath of hurricanes Katrina and Rita, and people from the Gulf Coast were moving inland in droves. The Pankows were lucky enough to find a place that would become One Acre Farm.
As its name suggests, the farm operates on one acre. To put that acre to work, the Pankows began raising rabbits in 2010 with three does and a buck that they intended to use simply as meat for the family. Shannon runs the operation, which now includes a hundred or more rabbits. Most of what everybody else already knows about raising rabbits came to her in what she admits was a steep learning curve.
“We wanted a source of fresh, hormone- and antibiotic-free meat that we could trust was not going to adversely affect our family’s health by eating it,” she says. “Rabbits seemed to be the natural choice, since they are small, quiet and relatively clean.
“There was quite a learning curve, but we were enjoying having them.”
They suffered a catastrophic loss in the first year, however, after bringing in a rabbit they did not know had pasturellosis, also known as “snuffles,” an upper respiratory infection that is contagious and usually fatal.
“There is no cure, so dispatch is the only way to rid your herd of this disease,” Shannon said. “I started over, a little smarter, and have grown to where we are today.”
The other big thing she had to figure out was how to keep the rabbits not only alive but healthy during the heat-brutal Southeast Texas summers. Again, there was a certain amount of trial and error. A combination of shade, ventilation and breeding for heat tolerance turned out to be the best option for an outdoor rabbitry in the semi-tropics.
“The main barn is partially shaded, and we have fans installed on all the cage rows to help move the air,” she says. “Also, the barn is situated to take advantage of the prevailing wind. When it gets really hot, we put a sprinkler on the roof of the barn with a timer that periodically turns on and cools down the roof.”
Shannon bought her first rabbits, Californians, from AA Rabbits in Willis and Fox Meadows in Silsbee. Choosing rabbits that were born and bred in Southeast Texas helped create a rabbitry with good heat tolerance. She also raises New Zealand Whites and Rex. She has two lines of New Zealand White, including one that was bred at the Rabbit Research program at Texas A&M University-Kingsville. A second line is from another local breeder, Basgil/Borden rabbit in Crosby.
The family also has an automatic gravity-fed water system with five-gallon buckets to make sure the rabbits always have a fresh supply of water. The rabbits are housed in wire mesh cages that hang from barn supports, which allows the manure and urine to fall to the ground, where the urine is absorbed and the manure dries out, reducing odor and flies in the process.
One Acre Farm does not sell pet rabbits. For one thing, the farm has an Agricultural Sales Tax exemption, which precludes selling pets. For another thing, Shannon doesn’t see rabbits as pets.
“I personally see rabbits as a livestock animal,” she says. “Don’t get me wrong, I love my rabbits. They are cared for, held, petted, and generally loved on until the day they are dispatched or sold. My rabbits are happy, healthy and live a good, although generally short, life. That can’t be said of most meat you can buy in the store.”
The Pankows use rabbit manure in the garden, and they also compost some, even though it is a “cold” manure and doesn’t have to be aged or composted. They have more than they need — there hasn’t been much time for gardening during the last two hot and dry summers.
Shannon has come to look at the world a bit differently since she started raising rabbits.
“What I used to see as an undesirable weed I have now come to see as rabbit food!” she says enthusiastically. “We don’t really mow the back of our property in the spring or summer because the clover, grasses and weeds are free food for rabbits, and the less pellets we have to purchase. You do need to know what you can feed and what you can’t though.”
Raising rabbits can be hard work, and the critters have to be taken care of ever day. It’s hard to lose a breeder or a litter, but she has found much to love in raising rabbits.
“To me, it is like therapy,” Shannon says. “I go to the barn and all my breeders come running to their cage doors for head scratches and treats. They trust me to handle their babies and take care of them when they are injured or ill. It is a responsibility that I don’t take lightly.”
Most of her help comes from her husband, but her sons are starting to get interested in helping out around “the farm.”
“My biggest goal is to encourage others to consider rabbit as an alternative livestock and raise them for themselves,” she says. “That is one reason why I keep my prices reasonable, especially for 4H and FFA kids. I try to have as many rabbits available as I can during show season, and I also have a reservation form on my website so they can order rabbits for a particular show.”
To find out more about One Acre Farm and its rabbits, visit their website, www.oneacrefarmrabbits.com.