Kelly Hensing, Hilltop Acres Farms, Dayton, Maryland - Part 1
First You Buy a Cow
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.
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Kelly Hensing, Hilltop Acres Farm, Dayton, Maryland - Part 2
An Exploding Farm
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.
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.
“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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
Kelly Hensing, Hilltop Acres Farm - Part 3
The Business of Farming
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.
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.
“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.
“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.”
“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.
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.
“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.