Md. woman embarks on livestock adventure
DAYTON, Md. — Unassuming and on the small side, the sign for Hilltop Acres marks the bottom of a long straight driveway to the 3-plus acre farm. Blink and you’d drive right by it. Quite the opposite of its owner, Kelly Hensing.
Although petite in stature, Hensing’s vivacious personality stands out at the farmers’ markets she attends in Baltimore City and Howard County. Like other farm producers, Hensing has a wealth of information about the dairy and meat products she sells. Yet, unlike many of the longtime farmers near her compact operation, Hensing came into that information, as well as the animals that populate her farm, quite by happenstance.
As Hensing explained, their farm adventure actually began in South Carolina where they were living before the family moved to Maryland for her husband’s job.
“My youngest has autoimmune issues and we were drinking raw milk in South Carolina and didn’t want to stop.” Not wanting to skirt state or federal laws, the solution became obvious: Buy a cow.
“We had two horses at the time, so it wasn’t that big of a leap to a large animal,” said Hensing.
That first cow, a Jersey cow Hensing named Abee and still owns, had a male calf. Hensing named the calf Dinner to reinforce the notion that it would be raised to ultimately feed the family. With Dinner’s birth, Abee began giving 5 to 7 gallons of milk a day, way too much for her family to consume. The solution: Buy pigs and feed the pigs with the excess milk.
Shortly after the arrival of the pigs, Hensing also began processing and selling that part of her growing livestock.
“We started out by selling pig halves and wholes,” Hensing said, “Plus, we were also doing meat chickens at that point and we did the poultry class to qualify for [the ability] to sell chickens.” It was yet another step towards providing healthy food for both her family and the small loyal following she had developed.
The sheep, the next livestock addition to her family’s farm adventure, arrived “sometime in 2013 or 2014.” As Hensing tells the story, “I got a phone call from a friend who was at an auction in Virginia. ‘They have sheep!’ she says, ‘Do you want sheep?’ I told her I only have $500 to spend. She calls me back and says, ‘I bought you 10 sheep for $450.00, but you need to come and pick them up tonight in Virginia. My husband, Rob, comes home and I said, ‘Hi! We need to go get my sheep in Virginia.’ And, that’s how I started with sheep.”
At one point, Hensing, who only processed the males for the lamb meat she sells, had a herd of 40 Katahdin sheep, a popular low-maintenance breed of hair sheep raised for meat only. Today though, her herd numbers 15.
“Two years ago, we culled the herd back hard, and kept only the ewes who were raising nice babies,” she said. “We kept 10 ewes back then and had five males this year, all of whom went to the processor.”
In between all the chicken, pig and sheep adventures, Hensing’s diary and beef herds continued to grow in number. Fast forward to the fall of 2015 when Hensing put in for and received a pet milk registration certificate through the Maryland Department of Agriculture.
The following spring, she began selling her labeled pet milk, along with grass-fed meat products, at the farmers market established at the River Hill Garden Center in Clarksville, Md. When that market got picked up by Howard County the following year and moved down the street to the Clarksville Commons shopping center, Hensing moved with it and added an additional Howard County market held at the Miller Library in Ellicott City to her sales route. She also qualified for the Baltimore City farmers market held Sundays under the Jones Falls Expressway.
Although she doesn’t take a salary from the farm, the farmers’ markets have made a big difference in her income. In addition to her ability to cover her bills, including adding building improvements and equipment to cover her growing herds, the greater income has allowed her to have a part-time employee who comes in early each day during the week.
“It means I don’t have to call my husband in a panic in the middle of the day because I got the truck stuck in the middle of a field. Instead, Roger fixes all the [stuff] I break and cleans up my messes.”
The growing income and herds also meant that, with the assistance of other Howard County farmers, she and her husband were finally able to locate and purchase a nearby 50 acre tract of land to begin both consolidating and expanding their herds in one place. The first phase of this new adventure will hopefully fall into place next spring when Hensing plans to have the infrastructure in place to move her diary herd over to the new property.
“I might be flying by the seat of my pants for a while,” she said, “but, it’s what I do every day.”
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P.O. Box 2026 Easton, MD 21601-8925