Kelly Hensing’s farm journey began with her desire to feed her family unprocessed foods, and that included unprocessed milk. She calls her Hilltop Acres Farm, of Dayton, Maryland, a microdairy. But the farm has blossomed (she might say “spun out of control”) to also include beef cattle, pigs, sheep, chicken, duck and turkey. Kelly sells the meat. She’s also now milking six cows. It’s hard to say what type of animal might show up on Kelly’s property, and every time I’ve visited I think there’s a different mix. One thing for certain, though, is every time I’ve spoken with Kelly, there are babies on the farm, or babies on the way. Lots and lots of baby animals.
Kelly is a close friend of Nora Crist’s, whom I wrote about earlier, and Nora suggested I do a profile on her. My first meeting wasn’t such a success, and I like to laugh about it now, because subsequent visits with Kelly really taught me how many preconceived notions I had about farming.
I had spent a long, hot day photographing at Nora’s farm, and the plan was to stop at Kelly’s afterwards on my way home. I had spent a long time inside Nora’s chicken coop, trying to get some good chicken photos, and it was hot in there. I think I got dehydrated.
So by the time I got to Kelly’s I felt wrung out. Just done for the day. And not prepared for what was going on when I pulled up. I drove through lots of open farmland on my way there, but soon the houses got closer together, and by the time I got to Kelly’s it felt not suburban, really, but kind of rurally suburban. There was a nice front yard in front of Kelly’s brick home, but the place didn’t look like my vision of “a farm.” I was met in the driveway by a wandering cow, and I heard a lot of yelling and screaming. Kelly’s pigs had gotten out from their large wooded area next to the house and were busy trotting around the front yard and into the neighbor’s woods. Kelly and her husband and three sons were running after the pigs, trying to herd them back into their enclosed space. It was chaotic.
Kelly gave me a quick tour—muddy area behind the house with animals milling about, garage where she milked the cows, stalls for babies. Not very picturesque. And lots of yelling and pig squealing.
After having just come from the bucolic sprawl of Nora’s 540 acres, I drove away from Kelly’s thinking, “this isn’t a farm; this is a loony bin! I don’t think I should write about her.”
I really laugh about my reaction now, because Kelly is the perfect farmer to write about.
Because what if you wanted to raise animals so you could eat a certain way, but you didn’t have much land to work with? How would you do it, and what would it look like?
That’s essentially Kelly’s story, and I’ll report how she’s worked it out. But first, the why.
The plan: become a vet
Kelly had no intention of being a farmer for her career. She had always planned to be a vet. As a child her mother would take her to the open house at Ohio State vet school and look at the animals, but Kelly had no interest in the cows. She wanted to see the fluffy dogs. That was going to be her life.
She started working at a small veterinary clinic when she was 16. She was the receptionist, but the clinic was small enough that she got to do other things, like draw blood and help with lab work. Later she worked as the office manager at a large emergency veterinary clinic, all the while making plans to attend vet school. When she and her husband were living in Ohio, her plan was to attend Ohio State. But when her husband got a job in Charlotte, North Carolina, and the closest vet school was in Raleigh (about 150 miles away), and Kelly had a baby, her plans to become a vet got derailed.
She now thinks that not attending vet school was a blessing in disguise. “There’s a lot of people relationship involved in being a vet,” she said, “and I don’t think I would have enjoyed that part so much. That’s one of the things that I love about the farming. I still get to do cool animal stuff, and I still deal with people, but I get to deal with people I have a connection with.”
It all began with food
Kelly and her husband have three sons. “When we lived in the Carolinas [first in North Carolina and then in South Carolina], we all had health issues. My husband had high cholesterol. I had had severe allergies most of my life and got weekly injections and took medication. My oldest son had allergies and also was on medication. He had ear problems and had ear tubes.
“We had been the Standard American Diet Family. I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter, two liters of Diet Coke every day, pasteurized skim milk. If I got a frozen Stouffers lasagna, a bag of salad and a frozen garlic bread on the table for dinner, I thought I was Super Mom. ‘Look at me! I cooked dinner tonight!’”
But then something happened that made Kelly start to question what they were eating.
A close friend in South Carolina, Ruth, convinced Kelly that an organic diet would be much healthier for her three boys. Ruth had been a homesteader in Florida and Kelly enjoyed hearing her stories about her cows and the other things she had done. So Kelly gradually introduced more fresh foods into the family’s diet.
When Ruth became pregnant with her third child, she fell into a crippling depression and withdrew, eventually losing her battle with her depression.
Kelly went through a horrible time at that point, second-guessing what she could have done, what she should have done, to help her friend. She remembered conversations that she and Ruth had with each other the summer before her depression got so debilitating. Ruth confided that she was treating the kids to Dunkin’ Donuts and buying and keeping more junk food in the house, which didn’t seem strange to Kelly because she had Pop Tarts and all sorts of snacks in her pantry as well. Ruth also told her she wasn’t working in her garden as much. “I remember her feeling really guilty one day that she didn’t have time to go pick what was ready in the garden.
“After Ruth died I said, ‘Ok, I really need to look into this food thing.’ Robin O’Brien’s book The Unhealthy Truth was a huge game changer for me. She delves into the government politics of our food system. [This is her famous Tedx talk.] It wasn’t until I started learning more about the food-health connection that I wondered if sugar played a role in Ruth’s depression.
“Friends of ours had introduced us to the Paleo diet, and we started pretty much eating Paleo. It was Ruth who had introduced me to raw milk, and there was a raw milk dairy not far from us, so we started doing that too.”
Drinking unpasteurized milk is a controversial subject, and you can find lots of information to support consumers’ and food activists’ claims that it is extremely nourishing, beneficial to the body, and safe to drink. You can also find lots of information to support claims that raw milk is unsafe to drink. You can find stories of the government shutting farmers down who sell raw milk, and accusations of gross government overreach.
The sale of unpasteurized milk is illegal in many states. In some states, such as my home state of Virginia, it’s only legal if you own part of the cow, which you can do through buyers’ clubs.
Kelly had done much research on the topic of raw milk and had come to the conclusion that it was safe and good for her family. It was legal to buy in South Carolina, where she was living, and the dairy was close to her house. She got to know the farmer who produced the milk, something Kelly says is important. “You need to talk to your farmer. Not just with your milk, but also with your lettuce, your beef, your other foods. Just because your vegetables come in a CSA, doesn’t mean they haven’t been sprayed with chemicals. Same at the farmer’s market. Just because you are shopping at a farmer’s market doesn’t mean the food is raised naturally—or even grown in that county. You need to know your source.”
Kelly saw immediate improvement in her son’s allergies once he started on the unpasteurized milk, and she became a big fan of raw . “Once we were committed to it, there was no turning back. My kids would sometimes buy pasteurized milk at school, and their reaction to the taste was ‘Yuck!’”
In 2010, Kelly’s husband accepted a job in Maryland, where the sale of raw milk is illegal. She wasn’t sure where to get her milk. “I could drive to Pennsylvania to get it, but then you are committing a federal offense coming back across state lines with the milk.”
So she bought a cow.
The dairy where Kelly got her milk in South Carolina raised Guernsey cows, but they happened to have a little Jersey dairy cow that they had bought for their kids for 4H, and they offered to sell her to Kelly, provided she met the farmer’s test. “Tommy, the farmer, told me that he wasn’t going to let me take that cow off the property until I could look out over the field and tell him if all the cows out there were healthy or if there was something wrong with them. He really cared about that little cow, so he made sure I knew what I was doing. I would go over to the farm and help with milking. Tommy and his wife taught me a lot about cows.
“By the time I got Abee [her Jersey cow, pronounced like A.B.], I had read so much about cows that I was just excited to get her. I fell so much in love with her. But it wasn’t so much ‘we’re going to own a cow,’ but more ‘we’re going to produce our own milk.’
“I remember one night soon after we got to Maryland, and I had all this milk. What am I going to do with all of it? So I made a big batch of paneer cheese—really simple to make. I sautéed it up and served it with vegetables. I made this incredible meal, and it occurred to me that night how invaluable this cow was. I mean, she could feed us every meal of the day. She gives us everything we need. It was just this revelation—Wow, I could make dinner from her milk.”
Illness in the family
After they cleaned up their diet, Kelly and her husband each lost 30 pounds, and his cholesterol went down 80 points. Once her son was on the raw milk, his allergies and ear infections disappeared. “We are a ton happier now, and I wouldn’t have that food we used to eat in my house if you paid me.”
Kelly thinks switching to raw milk made a big difference, but she says what really put their health over the top was when they moved to Maryland and started farming. They were all outside more, drinking milk from the cow that lived in their backyard. “I’m a firm believer that when our cow is eating what’s in her immediate environment, she’s immunizing us through her milk, building up our immunity.
“Granted, we had also started eating more local and ate less processed foods when we moved here, and I think that plays a huge role too.”
Since the time she was 18 years old, Kelly visited an allergist two to three times a week for injections to help with her severe allergies. She was 36 when they moved to Maryland, so that’s 18 years of allergy injections.
When they moved, “I was busy milking a cow and unpacking boxes. I had my allergy serums in the fridge, but I was so busy that I didn’t find an allergist. My serums sat in the fridge for a year. I had been taking Allegra, and I was on an inhaler. But when I moved here I quit cold turkey, and I haven’t taken anything since. There might be a day here and there when we put up 400 bales of hay that I might be sniffly that night, but other than that I haven’t had to use an inhaler or take an Allegra or anything. No sinus infections. No headaches. Nothing.
“I think back to how much money I was putting into the health care system. All that money! All those years!”
She thought they were doing well with their diet when her youngest son, six-year-old Drew, started spiking high fevers. Tests revealed that he was predisposed to Type 1 diabetes, and the doctor told her, “If he’s going to have Type 1 diabetes, there’s nothing you can do about it.”
Kelly thought otherwise.
“Even though we were pretty much Paleo, the boys still got bread in their lunch boxes. I thought about it for a while, and then I took out everything that could be considered inflammatory from Drew’s diet. All of the bread, anything white. We started doing a lot of bone broths and soups. We took a step back and just did a healing diet. We followed the Weston Price guidelines. We cut out sugar, any fast food. Now he’s 10, and he’s not diabetic and he hasn’t spiked any fevers since I got strict with his diet. The year he became sick, he missed about 22 days of school, and now it’s rare if he misses more than two days a year.
“Had I had Drew first, he probably would have become diabetic. Because I didn’t know what I didn’t know. But I was more educated by my third child. And now we haven’t been back to a doctor in three years.
“We are led to believe that everything in that grocery store is safe for human consumption. If it’s on a grocery store shelf, it’s been tested, it’s safe. It’s blue, it’s green, it’s beautiful colors. It’s fancy. And feed it to your kids. And it’s not true. It’s sad. It’s really the downfall of a lot of things these days.
“People don’t sit around and enjoy a meal anymore. We don’t cook. People don’t know where their food comes from.
“They also don’t know how hard it is to produce. It takes a lot of work and commitment. Dairy cows—twice a day, every day. For several years I was here at home. Dairy farmers don’t leave the farm very often. And I’m not like ‘woe is me.’ But people just don’t know. I have no spare time. I can barely get the laundry done. The other day my littlest comes up to me and says, ‘So can we talk about the laundry situation?’
“Doing the dairy is a commitment. I think all food is. But I’ve taken this on for the health of my family.
“And I love my jersey cows!”
Coming up, what does Kelly do with all that milk, and how does owning one cow turn into a farm? You can jump to Part 2 here.
During our conversation about raw milk, Kelly shared two blogs that she likes a lot. These links are to two articles about raw milk.
http://nourishingtraditions.com/milk-prices-and-the-decline-of-rural-life/. This is the blog written by Sally Fallon Morell, author of Nourishing Traditions, considered by many to be the bible of the traditional foods movement.
http://www.davidgumpert.com/behind-cdcs-raw-milk-probe-doubts-ca-illness. The Complete Patient, David Gumpert’s blog, is devoted to providing news and analysis about food rights and raw milk.
You might also find this article from the Weston Price Foundation interesting.
I’m interested to hear your thoughts about raw milk. Do you serve it to your family? Have you experienced health benefits? You can comment below or on the Grounded Women Facebook page.
If you are enjoying the Grounded Women project, you can support the work in two ways:
- Subscribe to the blog (hit the Subscribe button at the bottom of this page or at the very top in the menu bar). You will receive an email every time new material is published.
- Grounded Women is a labor of love. Your contribution will help cover the costs associated with producing the project. You can make a contribution here and have my unending gratitude.