An Exploding Farm: Kelly Hensing Part 2

Kelly saw the dramatic results when she switched her family’s diet from the Standard American Diet to one of unprocessed foods, which included unprocessed milk, which we learned about in Part 1  of her story. When her husband accepted a job in Maryland, she wondered where she would get her milk, given that the sale of raw milk is illegal there. Not willing to turn back from the dietary choices to which she was committed, she bought Abee, a Jersey cow, from her dairy in South Carolina and brought her to Maryland when they moved.

Once the family and Abee were settled into their new home on 3.5 acres, and Abee was being milked twice a day in a large garage-like building in back of the house, Kelly began to wonder what she was going to do with all that milk—about five gallons a day. That’s a lot of milk.

Kelly and family used as much of the milk as they could, drinking it, making cheeses and custard, giving some to the chickens, and even putting it on the rose bushes, but she still had too much.

Her solution? Buy some pigs, of course.

Pigs on the farm

The move to Maryland was in 2010, and the first pigs came about six months after they moved. She started with three of them. Rob, Kelly’s husband, was willing to buy one. But the woman who was selling the piglets had way too many on hand and offered a “buy two, get one free” deal. Kelly’s mom bought her the second pig as a birthday present, so the third one was free.

Female farmer Kelly Hensing and her favorite pig Shelly

Part of the pigs’ diet was all the milk from Abee that the family couldn’t use. All three pigs ultimately went to the butcher; Kelly sold the pork meat as halfs or wholes, and kept one whole for her family. She sold by word of mouth. “I didn’t have much time for marketing. But my first customers became repeat customers.”

Within a month or so Kelly bought a new batch of piglets to raise. From that second group she kept one female, named Shelly. The original plan was for Shelly to go to the butcher along with the others, but a friend had a boar for sale, so Kelly decided to keep Shelly to breed. Now she was really in the pig business.

A pregnant sow lies on the ground, with her boar friend resting his head on her backside

A very pregnant sow and her special friend

“It was very sporadic. I can’t say that it paid the bills. We started with just a few pigs, and I’m not sure they even paid the pig bills. We were breeding pigs, and we kept a few pigs to raise up for meat and sold the rest as piglets. That became a little more steady income.

“That worked for a while. I think at one point we were up to 30 or 40 pigs. Right now we’re just at about 23, but we need to get that operation going again.

“Everything just grew naturally. When we lived in South Carolina we had chickens, and those we brought up with us. And chickens are like the gateway drug. Once you start collecting chickens, you have to have one of each kind. So the chickens just exploded. [She thinks she now has 20 different breeds.]

“And I guess I was spending too much time on Craigslist. I found some Muscovy ducks, so we started having ducks and duck eggs. We sell the meat and the eggs.

“The sheep came sometime in 2013 because a friend was at the Fauquier County [Virginia] livestock auction, and she called me up and said ‘They have sheep!!’ and I said, ‘I don’t have any money!!’ And she said, ‘They have sheep!!’ And, I said [sighing], ‘I have $500. Whatever you can get me for $500.’ So she called me back and said, ‘Ok, you have to come tonight. I got you ten Katahdin sheep.’ Eight of them were females.

“My husband got home from work and I’m like, ‘Guess what we’re doing tonight! We’re going to pick up my sheep!’ And he’s like—what? So we piled all the kids in our truck and put the sheep in the back.”

The sheep joined the cows and the chickens and the ducks in the back yard. The pigs were in the adjacent wooded area, separated by an electric fence. And I’m kicking myself right now that I don’t have an adequate photo that shows off the entire back area. It’s quite a menagerie. “The other cows just sort of came along. I don’t know. When you have cows to milk, they’ve got to have babies, so you’ve got to breed them.”

A newborn calf on Hilltop Acres Farm nurses

All that animal acquisition sounds like so much fun. Of course it sounds like fun to this observer—I’m not the one doing all the hard work and paying to feed them. But I know that Kelly enjoys the variety and the sometimes-chaotic nature of her enterprise.

“I do love being this busy and connecting with all these people. I love that people are finding me, and coming to the farm to buy their meat from me. But balancing is still hard. Some days I just feel like I’m putting out fires.”

Shelly’s worst day

Kelly is in the meat business. She raises her animals with love and high standards, knowing that she is raising them to be meat. The first steer she raised for meat was even named Dinner. She wanted her kids to understand that he was being raised to eat. Nevertheless, she and her kids form close relationships with the animals.

I asked her about those first three pigs she raised and what it was like to take them to the butcher. “It was really hard,” says Kelly. “It’s always hard.”

Kelly had chosen to take the pigs to a butcher in Virginia, about two hours away. Before she would take the animals, though, she made a trip to the facility. “I wanted to meet the people, see how they handled the animals. I wanted to make sure they would be treated humanely.”

Returning home from delivering the pigs to the facility was tough, too. “That first time I pulled back into the driveway and there were no pigs there, it felt empty. Other times I’ve come back home from delivering pigs to the butcher and there have been more pigs waiting for me at home, but that first time, the farm felt empty.” She couldn’t face taking Dinner to the butcher when it was his time; she had a friend deliver him for her.

I accompanied Kelly when it was Shelly’s time to go to the butcher.

Female farmer Kelly Hensing takes a ride on the back of her favorite pig Shelly

Kelly and Shelly

Even though she started with the three pigs, Kelly referred to Shelly as her first pig. She loved Shelly and the two of them seemed to have a special relationship. Shelly had one litter but then never got pregnant again, so she had to go to the butcher. Kelly didn’t feel good about it, but that is an economic reality of the farm.

Female farmer Kelly Hensing coaxes her pig Shelly out of a trailer

Coaxing Shelly from the trailer

Kelly had switched from the butcher in Virginia to one she liked even better in Pennsylvania. We would just be dropping Shelly off, and the actual slaughter would take place the next day. When the man in charge saw me with my camera, he emphatically barked “No photos!” Not that there was anything gruesome or horrific to photograph. There were nice-sized pens where Shelly would spend the night. Her death would come swiftly the next morning.

Kelly’s horse trailer didn’t have a ramp that would extend directly into the facility, so Shelly had to be coaxed down out of the trailer and then back up again into the facility. Getting her out of the trailer was tough. And getting her up onto the platform was even more difficult and took a few men and Kelly and I to accomplish it. Shelly was freaked out. It was hard to watch.

Female farmer Kelly Hensing drops off her pig at the butcher

The empty trailer

The ever-talkative Kelly was quiet on our drive back, eventually exclaiming, “Well that sucked.” Shelly was stressed, but I realized that in her entire life, that was the most stressful day she had ever had. She lived well and roamed freely on Kelly’s farm. I compared it in my mind to how industrialized pigs are raised in torturous conditions and reaffirmed the commitment I’ve made for myself, personally. If I choose to eat meat, which I do, I want the animal to be treated with care and respect it’s entire life, from birth to death. So I choose to buy my meat from a farmer I know.

I’ll add that after that day, Kelly went out and bought a livestock trailer to make loading and unloading easier for her animals.

In Part 3, we’ll look at the business side of the farm and Kelly’s new endeavor.


5 Comments / Add your own comment below

  1. Pingback: Grounded Women - First You Buy a Cow: Kelly Hensing Part 1

  2. thank you so much for this. It does make my day!

    1. Lise Metzger

      I’m so glad, Perri!

  3. Pingback: Grounded Women - The Business of Farming: Kelly Hensing Part 3

  4. My first two pigs (Bacon and Pork Chop) sauntered into the utility trailer for their last ride and back out again at their Final Destination like they were going on a fun vacation. It was me who was a mess with emotion, but I had to take them myself or I would have been a farming (or perhaps more aptly, homesteading) fraud. The next year, it took two men and myself 4 hours to get the three very ornery pigs up that trailer ramp. I too, plan to get a livestock trailer as soon as I can.
    Many thanks to Kelly for sharing her stories and to Lise for her prose. Both make the rest of us all the more wiser.

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