The Business of Farming: Kelly Hensing Part 3

When Kelly Hensing and family moved to Maryland from South Carolina, they bought a house on 3.5 acres in Howard County. The county allows livestock on properties over three acres, and her place came with most of the fencing and buildings she needed, so she was good to go to move in with Abee the cow and her chickens. But as her assortment of animals kept expanding, and you can read about the exploding growth of her farm in Part 2, Kelly needed more land.

Over time she pieced together a number of rental agreements in various locations. At present she rents about 60 acres about ten minutes away, where she keeps her beef steers and pigs. She is blessed with generous neighbors, one of whom lets her keep pigs on four acres of their property. Another neighbor doesn’t own a lawn mower, so they said Kelly could fence their field and keep animals on it. Kelly’s husband mows their front lawn in exchange. Animals are moved about from field to field, depending on the needs of the field. All the land owners receive a generous agricultural tax break by allowing Kelly to use their fields.

She also rents about 25 acres of hayfield about 20 minutes away. I went with Kelly one day to watch her mow the hay, and I finally understood that the expression “make hay while the sun shines” actually means something! (You need a number of sunny days in a row for the hay to dry; moisture will cause the hay to mold.) I felt curiously empowered to learn this.

Farmer Kelly Hensing makes hay

The hay fields sit adjacent to a development of new homes, and it looked funny to see a tractor in the context of a housing development. In a nanosecond the visual oddity turned to sadness as I reminded myself that 50 acres of farmland is lost every hour to development, according to American Farmland Trust. Where are the livestock going to get their food if there aren’t enough hay fields? Not to mention enough land for willing farmers to grow food.

Calling herself a farmer

I love asking Kelly questions, because she loves to talk and gives long, colorful answers that often veer off in different directions. Kind of like the way she’s grown her farm, really.

I asked her when she started calling herself a farmer. “It took me a long time,” she replied. “I wanted to call myself a farmer, but, it’s weird, I felt that that was a really important title, and I didn’t feel deserving. Even though I was going out there to milk my cow twice a day, and I was going to farmer conferences and reading all this farming stuff. I don’t know if it was something like ‘well, you only have 3.5 acres’ or ‘you only have one cow. You’re not Nora Crist. You don’t have hundreds of acres. You’re not really a farmer.’”

I’ve spent a lot of time with Kelly and watched her get almost knocked over by some very large pigs as she fed them; I’ve traveled with her to take beloved pig Shelly to the butcher; I’ve seen her juggle animals and business and family logistics and cooking all the family’s meals from scratch. She’s a strong, no-nonsense woman. So to hear her express her vulnerability about calling herself a farmer was a surprise to me. I guess I had put the category of “woman farmer” on a pedestal, thinking these hard-working women didn’t have the same inner critic that plagues most women. Apparently not.

Farmer Kelly Hensing feeds grain to group of hungry pigs

“At the same time that I didn’t feel worthy of the title farmer,” Kelly continues, “I realize the term carried a negative feel for me too. I had always planned to be a veterinarian, and I think a vet is looked upon by society as so much more important than a farmer. If you had said to me when I was in high school, ‘I think you should be a farmer,’ that would have had such a negative connotation. Where I was growing up, we never even thought about farmers, unless my dad was stopping at the roadside stand to buy a dozen ears of corn or something. Nobody wanted to be a farmer. No way! So when I was starting this and bought a cow, my mom said, ‘You’re going to be a farmer?’ with so much negativity. ‘Are you going all Mother Earth News hippie on me?’

“But then, a couple years down the line, when things changed politically and it looked like the end of the world was coming, my mom was like ‘Oh! You’re going to be all prepared!’

“It probably wasn’t until a year and a half ago that I started writing farmer as my occupation. Before that it was always housewife. I guess I felt like I was homesteading, and that’s why I shouldn’t call myself a farmer at the beginning, like I was raising stuff for our personal consumption and not a business.”

But now Kelly is settling in comfortably with the notion that she is, indeed, a farmer, and Hilltop Acres Farm is, indeed, a business. And now she’s proud to fill in the Occupation blank as farmer.

Running the numbers

Kelly was transparent when we got down to talking about the nuts and bolts of her farm’s economics. She is doing better financially this year than she has in previous years, but she was clear that her farm work wouldn’t be possible without her husband’s well-paying job off the farm. Just a few weeks ago her business was able to buy a newer truck without her husband’s signature. “I’ve never been able to do that before! That truck cost almost as much as the house I bought when I was 20. It’s pretty fancy!

“I’m definitely paying my own bills,” she said, “but I’m not going to say that I haven’t taken a loan from my family, because I have. We’ve made several changes that should make a difference, though. For example, our pig grain bill was a huge expense. Recently we had somebody come to us from a brewery down the road. We now get their spent grains for our pigs. To do that, we bought a dump trailer. I did take a small loan from our family for the trailer, but it’s going to pay for itself because of all the grain savings.

Pig and her piglets eat from tough on Hilltop Acres Farm

“We were buying two tons of grain every month, and now those two tons will last us three or four months.”

Kelly’s chicken operation is now up to 400 birds total: 300 meat birds and 100 egg layers. This is the first time she’s raised chickens at such a scale. “People really want chickens, so I do it to offer my customers more variety.”

Her meat birds are Kosher Kings, a heritage breed. Heritage birds take longer to grow to maturity—three months—than a non-heritage breed. “They actually forage; they’re not a sit-in-front-of-the-feeder type of bird. They haven’t been bred to be gross little growing machines. They’re more expensive, but buying the Kosher Kings helps support another Maryland farmer, and that’s important to me.”

Kosher King chick held by farmer Kelly Hensing

“I ran some numbers on the chicks I just bought. I buy 100 a month. Let’s say they weigh four pounds each, and I’m going to sell them for $5.50 a pound because they’re going to be raised on non-GMO soy-free grower feed. So that’s $22 a chicken (and hopefully they’ll be a little larger than four pounds), which comes to $2,200 for each batch of 100 birds. I’m going to buy a ton of feed, and I don’t think they’ll go through the whole ton, but let’s say that’s $400 in feed, and the chicks cost me $300, so the profit is $1,500 a month just on those chickens.”

Kelly butchers the birds herself in batches of 25 a week, so she didn’t factor butchering costs into her equation. She failed, however, to factor in any salary for herself.

I learned that from farmer Jennie Kahly.  She and her spreadsheet-loving husband Brian have figured out down to the penny what every part of their farm operation costs, and exactly how much salary they can take from the farm.

Kelly’s chicken figures are just for the meat birds. She also sells chicken and duck eggs and a variety of meat.

Pigs eat next to a trailer on Hilltop Acres Farm

Some of Kelly’s pigs on rented land

The business of selling milk

Kelly figured that the most marketable and valuable thing she produced on her farm was her milk, “but everything I wanted to do with the raw milk was illegal in Maryland, so I had no idea what to do.

“But this past November a little blurb came across my newsfeed that P.A. Bowen Farmstead had gotten a registration through the Maryland Department of Agriculture to sell their milk as pet milk. Years ago I had read an article in Acres magazine about using raw milk as fertilizer, and I had contacted the Maryland Department of Agriculture to see about getting the milk registered as fertilizer. But I wasn’t sure how many people would want to buy and keep fertilizer in their refrigerator.”

So the idea of trying to sell the milk got put aside. But when she saw the item about pet milk, she called the MDA and learned that all she had to do to sell her milk as pet milk was to fill out a form and mail it in with a label and $50. Within a short time she was registered.

She listed herself on realmilk.com and eatwild.com, and from those two sites she gets about 15 people a week who come to her farm to buy milk. “There’s a demand for raw milk. Last week I sold every drop I had.”

Kelly’s milk is clearly labeled Pet Milk: Not for Human Consumption.

A higher authority: herself

What about health standards or regulation? “I pretty much follow the standards of any other state that allows raw milk sales,” she explains, “and I think I follow them a little more strictly. We test twice a month for somatic cell count [the amount of white blood cells in the milk, which would indicate a mastitis infection]. I believe that in standard commercial milk production, somatic cell counts are allowed to be 750,000 per ml. Most states that allow for raw milk sales allow 250,000 per ml. If any of my cows are over 100,000, I don’t put their milk for sale. My cows run anywhere from 20,000 to 60,000.

A laying chicken nestles in an overturned bucket on Hilltop Acres Farm

“Mastitis isn’t real common, but we’ve had it. From our six cows we might have to treat for mastitis once, maybe twice a year. On a traditional commercial dairy I think they are probably treating several cows each day. If any of my cows ever does get a mastitis infection, I try to treat with essential oils before I resort to antibiotics. If I do have to use antibiotics, which I have done, there’s a certain amount of “withhold” time stated on the antibiotic box, where you have to withhold the milk from consumption. Whatever that time is, I triple it. At least. If I can, and typically I can, I will leave her milk out for several weeks and then have another somatic cell count done.

“If the count comes back high, then I go to the state animal health lab in Frederick [Maryland] and have a culture done.

“So am I opposed to regulation? Absolutely not. I would love to be able to sell raw milk for human consumption.”

Selling the pet milk is a new venture for Kelly, and she’s recently signed up to be at two Maryland farmer’s markets—The River Hill market in Clarksville and the Howard County Miller Library site—to sell the milk and dehydrated pet treats along with her eggs and meat. “I’m hoping that the farmer’s markets are going to be a big thing for us.”

And if they are? “I’d love to hire a person or two to help me.” Not too much to ask for.

11 Comments / Add your own comment below

  1. Pingback: Grounded Women - An Exploding Farm: Kelly Hensing Part 2

  2. Lise, another great description of the challenges of farming!

    Although I know I would never farm, I dated a man one summer, who was renting a farm next to Annapolis Mall so the landowner could keep the agricultural tax benefit until he was ready to develop the land. I learned then about the challenges of “making hay.” It was one of our hottest summers on record, but I loved every minute of raking and baling and closely watching the weather so as not to cut the hay if we were expecting rain too soon. It was a wonderful experience–I didn’t need to practice mindfulness–in that setting, it came naturally!

    1. Lise Metzger

      Love it, Judi!!

    1. Lise Metzger

      Thanks, Jamie! Sounds like you are doing great things at Playtime Pastures. I’m so happy to have you as a reader.

  3. I also struggled with the word Farmer. Most people think farming is not a real job. It is only a half-time-for-fun-on-the weekends-if-your-crazy job. But, sustainably farming and feeding people is a real job that requires much effort and planning. Responsibly raised food costs more to produce precisely because it is not raised conventionally. There are more man hours involved. I love the label Agronomist. If more “farmers” called themselves agronomists I think we’d get more recognition for the multi-disciplinary knowledge that is required to grow something that is edible.

    1. Lise Metzger

      Great point, Jenny.

  4. Wonderful articles about farmher Kelly. Kelly has been my mentor for my dairy cow for four years and I know she mentors others as well with her knowledge and big heart.

    1. Lise Metzger

      Thanks for reading, Denny. And aren’t you a lucky mentee! Kelly is so generous with her knowledge.

  5. I love that you now know “make hay while the sun shines” I remember many a summer hurrying to bale the hay and being assigned to drive the tractor while others threw the bales onto the wagon. I felt so important to the operation at age 11.

    1. Lise Metzger

      I did that with the family we WWOOFed with in WVa (Jenny Kahly whom I wrote about). We had to hustle to get the hay baled and loaded onto the wagon before the sun went down. The whole family was involved, and it felt wonderful!

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