Many young farmers have a hard time getting one business going. Joe and Jenell McHenry are juggling three: a 500-acre grain operation, a custom harvesting business and a direct-to-consumer beef operation, McHenry’s Beef, all in Kennedyville, Md.
Throw in a young toddler and Jenell’s off-farm job as an ag policy consultant, and it’s a lot for this young couple to juggle, but they have a passion for farming and have found efficiencies to make their business work well into the future.
The farm has been in Joe’s family since 1965. It was a dairy for most of that time, with up to 300 head at one point.
But a big event happened in 2012 that would change the farm’s future forever. Joe’s father, Lee, who ran the dairy, died suddenly in a motorcycle crash. It was a tragic event for Joe as he had been close to his father, but it also put the farm’s future in doubt.
His two older sisters had no interest in running the dairy, and Joe, only 14, was too young to take over. Two of his uncles — one an engineer, the other a dairy farmer — worked with him on setting up a plan. They decided that his grandparents would continue running the farm until Joe was old enough to take over, and Joe would only be able to legally take over the operation when he was 25.
Finding his way
The farm always had a small herd of beef along with the dairy, but Joe’s grandparents decided to change the focus of the operation and sold the dairy cows, leaving just beef and grain. While in high school, Joe worked for several local farmers and got advice from them.
“They said to me, ‘Well, if you want to farm and you want to do it, you can spend the money to go to college. What are you going to get? A plant science degree? A business degree?” he says. “They said, ‘Why don’t you run a farm; why don’t you go out with a good agronomist? Why don’t you keep some time with very knowledgeable people that have been there? You’ll learn more than you ever will going to college.’”
He and Jenell met in 2015 at an FFA event at a local high school. Jenell was a past Maryland FFA state president and grew up on a poultry and grain operation in Ingleside, Md. She attended Chesapeake College and transferred to the University of Delaware, where she earned a bachelor’s degree.
Joe decided against college and decided that his goal was to become a “big grain farmer” after high school. He harvested his grandfather’s 500 acres and did some custom harvesting for other farms. He started the custom harvesting business, in part, because it got too expensive for his grandfather to hire his own custom harvester. So, he convinced his grandfather to buy him his first combine, a Case IH 1440. In exchange, his grandfather got custom harvested crops for free for two years.
Soon after, Joe asked his grandfather to trade in the old combine for a newer John Deere 9650 STS.
But things didn’t go smoothly. He and his grandfather disagreed about the future of the farm, and according to Joe, they had a “falling out.” He then found out about harvesting crews out West and decided that he wanted to do a little bit of traveling.
In May 2017, he left Maryland and joined a custom harvesting crew in Kansas. He and his crew followed the wheat harvest down through Oklahoma and Texas, but that year’s devastating wildfires cut down on the amount of work available for custom harvesting crews.
By the end of that season, Joe had the urge to come home.
“So, I ended up calling my grandfather and asked him if he was ready for me to come back home yet or not. He was very, very happy for me to ask that question because they were having a lot of trouble back here,” he says.
Although Jenell was still at college, the couple stayed in contact. “We knew what we wanted to do from the start, which was farm together, have some sort of operation,” Joe says.
Joe came home and started up the custom harvesting operation again, along with farming his grandfather’s farm.
Then in 2020, right around the time COVID-19 lockdowns were put in place, Joe says his grandparents struggled to sell their beef. Packing plants struggled to stay open because of COVID outbreaks, and the nearest packing plants were hours away.
“And by the time you sell everything, pay fees, you aren’t making that much,” Joe says. At the same time, local beef sellers were doing very well as people, frightened to go to the grocery stores, wanted beef directly from farms.
The couple and Joe’s grandparents sat down and talked about direct-marketing beef and decided to make a go of it, but it was hard getting it going.
“The biggest struggle was finding appointments,” Jenell says. “So when we called Sudlersville [Sudlersville Frozen Meat Locker], they were a year out before we could even get beef in.”
But they were patient.
“We weren’t really looking out for ourselves when we started this business [beef],” Joe says. “ My grandparents … they were barely making enough to make it worth it. The reason we started this beef operation was so that they would live a little better. It worked out because I was very passionate about it; I wanted to be here. So that’s why this beef business, this is something I could step up and support them.”
Joe’s grandparents still own a portion of the cows, so the couple buy fed cattle from them at market price and then slaughter them locally.
But the timing of the lockdowns proved advantageous. When the lockdowns went in place, many people flocked to the Eastern Shore to get away from densely populated Baltimore and Washington, D.C. This is where the couple started cultivating local relationships and grew their customer base.
They used social media to advertise meat that was available, and they allowed people to come to the farm to pick up their orders, something Joe says his grandparents were leery of at first because they never allowed people on the farm before.
But sales kept growing.
“They [consumers] want to step foot on a farm. That’s the goal. Everyone wants to see the calves out in the field, mothers out in the field,” Jenell says. “And by them coming to the farm and picking up, I think it’s also a benefit. They get to see it. We get to build that relationship with them and build that trust.
“We don’t market; we tell our story. People want to know what we’re doing. ‘What’s that big machine, a combine? Why are we out in April in the middle of a field?’ They just want to understand what we’re doing,” she adds.
Joe has five older cows that are half Angus and Holstein, left over from his father’s operation. But he has incorporated Charolais into the herd. He bought a Charolais bull last year to get better-tasting meat and a bulkier animal. He has 25 calves on the ground right now, many of them Angus-Charolais crosses.
Learning from other farmers, Joe says, has been a big influence on his farm businesses.
“I don't have any right or wrong way,” he says. “I just figure everything that flows best for my operation, and I give all the credit working with those farmers.”
At 24, Joe still has a year left before he will be able to legally take over the farm from his grandparents — his grandmother is 85, his grandfather is 87. But they have transitioned most of the farm’s day-to-day operations to him, and Joe already has shares in the business that have increased over time.
Joe has two trucks, a 1,000-bushel grain cart and his combine. Last year was his biggest year for custom harvesting — nearly 4,000 acres of barley, wheat, sorghum, corn and soybeans, and even some sunflowers. He has about 15 clients, the average farm being 250 acres, although it ranges from 30 to 1,200 acres.
“I'm very efficient where I'm at. I have a newer, decent combine, and I’d like to keep that one around," he says.
The couple’s goal is to build their own home farm to 1,500 acres, and to get into more rotational grazing of cover crops, which Maryland pays farmers to plant.
"I’d like to level out with the harvesting and then build the other two,” Joe says.
The couple’s young age has been an advantage and a liability, especially when they were building their business. “You kind of get a lot of chuckles. You’re not really looked up upon, so that was a struggle for us. Getting the first few people to trust us was hard,” says Jenell, 25. “But after we gained that trust. we felt like we have been able to get to where we are today.”
"I earned their trust,” Joe says. “No matter how old you are or how young you are, that trust means the most, but at a younger age, you’ve got to earn the trust first.”
Jenell works for Thompson Ag Consulting doing ag consulting work, analyzing public policy and lobbying.
The couple also have a 9-month-old son, Joseph Lee, whom they often call Lee in honor of Joe’s late father.
What advice do they have for other young farmers? Establish trust, and do what you say you’re going to do. Sounds simple enough, but it’s gone a long way for Jenell and Joe.
“You can have the best meat in the world … but I think a lot of the times why ours has blown up as it has … the picture that we show, the quality is excellent, so you got those two things. But it's also the connections we keep," Joe says.
“None of this is about us; it's about family," he adds.
“And serving the community,” Jenell adds.