Scott and Erica Hensley are living proof that it doesn’t take thousands of acres to make money farming. They’re doing it on 1 acre. And while they have visions of growing, their idea of enlarging the farm is adding 1 acre under cultivation at a time.
Until 2016 the Hensleys lived in Indianapolis. They got their start in agriculture as urban farmers, growing vegetables on city lots. Kevin Allison, a specialist who works with urban agriculture and small farmers for the Marion County (Ind.) Soil and Water Conservation District, became acquainted with them. Now Elli Blaine, who does similar work through a Clean Water Indiana grant for both Hendricks and Marion counties, also works with them.
“Our job is to provide information and help them look for answers when they have questions,” Allison says. “A lot of it turns out to be trial and error.”
Leap of faith
Scott and Erica made a commitment when they purchased a very small farm in Hendricks County and moved to the country. “The 2017 season was our first year to raise crops here,” Scott says. “We had to build our beds. We also spent quite a bit of time figuring out how to market our crops.”
You won’t find big tractors and lots of high-dollar equipment here. “Most of it is hand labor,” Scott says. “The first year was especially tough because we had to build our own beds by hand.”
The beds are 50 feet long and 30 inches wide. Currently, they have 120 beds.
“I grow flowers for the cut-flower market on some, but we grow vegetables on the rest,” Erica says.
Scott says they raised and sold about 25 different types of vegetables in 2017. They sold most of it through farmers markets. The Danville and Brownsburg farmers markets became staples for their marketing plan. They may offer a CSA, or Community Supported Agriculture, opportunity in the future, where families pay a subscription fee and get a box of vegetables each week, depending upon what’s in season, Scott explains.
Scott works part time off the farm, especially during the fall and winter. Otherwise, their family income depends upon 1 acre.
“We’ve got enough land here to set up another acre in a different spot, but we wanted to get this going first,” he says.
When you’re growing 25 crops plus flowers on 1 acre, record keeping and intensive management go without saying. “We have a rotation system so we won’t grow the same crop on the same beds more than one year in four,” Scott says. “We keep careful records to track rotations.”
Cover crops are a big part of their plan to improve the soil and keep it productive over time. They use straw and other materials as mulch between the beds to help suppress weeds.
When it comes to cover crops, the Hensleys turn to Allison and Blaine, plus rely on past experiences. Some of the covers winter-kill, while others last all year.
Learn more about the Hensleys’ cover crop program, and watch for a related story about another small farmer who raises organic products tomorrow.