Farming It Ourselves
1. Tell us a little bit about Smith and Smith Farms. Where are you currently located, and what kind of goods and services do you offer?
We are currently located by Meriden, Kansas, which is about 10 minutes north of Topeka on 10 acres. We offer eggs primarily, but also chicken, rabbit and soon-to-be turkey meat by special order. Additionally, we are hoping to expand with a dairy cow—first for ourselves and then added to our delivery/sales repertoire. We currently stock both Sugar Creek Country Store and Growers & Graziers in St. Mary’s proper, and we offer delivery to families in the surrounding area. We settled here in August 2020 as our wedding approached since we both had wanted to start a homestead, and everything fell into place with our upcoming marriage at Assumption Chapel in September of that year. Both of us are passionate about nutrition and personal health, and taking care of our own food supply is one of our continual goals that we are still working towards—and we try to supply any of the bonus outputs to those nearby.
2. How long have you been in operation, and what are some of the struggles and victories that you’ve experienced since then? What has been your proudest moment or fondest memory so far?
We started selling our eggs in Spring 2021—when they got to be too many for us to eat, we started a small sales operation. Since our community is built around St. Mary’s and the church, we ended up there multiple times a week, and it only seemed natural to start selling to families in town. From there we became known as the egg people—more particularly Jackie as the “egg lady”—and we started expanding our operation.
Most of our struggles come from growing and expansion, along with maintaining supply for the future. Most animals produce goods on a yearly cycle, particularly chickens, but everyone (including us) wants a steady weekly supply. Clay handles raising chickens and scheduling lays, which involves thinking six months in the future at all times due to the grow-up time from chick to layer. In particular, the expansion this spring and summer of 2022 was exceptionally troublesome due to the housing and input requirements of 120-170 new baby chicks in addition to 200 adult hens which were “rescued” from a commercial farm and turned into free pasture chickens. The influx of birds required Clay to set an entirely new routine for feeding, watering, and even the purchase and training of our livestock guardian pup, Marcy, to protect the investment. These associated growing pains made us consider downsizing to once again only suit personal consumption, sell chickens, and refocus our entire homesteading venture over a particularly troublesome week and a half.
However, this struggle led to, in all likelihood, our biggest accomplishment with homesteading to date, as we nailed down an entirely new feeding, raising, and pasture schedule with our new birds and have returned to being able to take care of them an hour each day, which is typically our baseline. Clay was even able to leave town for a business trip—which was unheard of as recently as earlier this summer. Not only that, our supply has begun increasing once more as the new hens pick up laying and we are able to take on clients rather than turning people down on a large scale, which is as rewarding as it gets.
3. What advice would you give to other small families looking to get more involved in their own land, or in farming in general? Where did you start, and where should they?
Start with chickens! They are great for learning what it takes to keep animals. Chickens are hardy, small, and easy to handle while still requiring the daily feed-and-care schedule that most livestock will need. You will gain valuable experience over six months raising them from chick to hen, and the first egg will be one of the most personally gratifying things you’ve ever seen. We also offer farm tours and information about basic chicken keeping and raising for anyone from the small family to the budding pasture farmer. We started with just 20 chickens, some layers and some fancy breeds, and have a number of them around the farm that we still point out and have names for.
With any stock that you keep, you will be inundated with info about it (many times contradictory or unhelpful). We have found that the Storey’s series of livestock-keeping books offer a great resource of basic information without overloading you or leaving no room for you to figure out a good system for your personal setup. For chickens specifically, the website Backyard Chickens offers basic breed info and troubleshooting with a handy forum and search bar.
It is a good idea to start with what your family needs, and expand from there or sell/give any excess on a person-to-person level. Since a lot of Catholics have large families, make a careful list of weekly egg (for starters) and eventually dairy or meat intake depending on what you want to raise next. From that, you can look at the time it takes to raise a hen to laying age, expected dairy cow output weekly, or the time it takes various meat stock to slaughter age. It is a lot easier to have a specific number that you aim for, so that you know when to add, remove, or expand (if you want to get into providing for other families around). Once you want to expand your sales, make a small income goal and then see what it takes to expand to there and beyond based on your previous experience with providing for personal consumption. One of the first things that Clay did when we wanted to start scaling up our egg chickens was to make a spreadsheet with expected inputs and outputs of various laying breeds so that we could calculate the expected number of chickens we need to cover our homestead expenses and then mortgage. Setting attainable but impactful goals is the most important part of scaling up any business, and since your farm income is so closely tied to your home, it only made sense for us to set these personal goals.
4. Prior to starting your own farm, what experiences were formative in your lives that led you toward this business?
In short, basically none. Clay and Jackie grew up in suburbs, with Clay even going to college for electrical engineering in New York City for a number of years. Clay has always had an affinity for animals of all shapes and sizes, and wanted to work with them on a closer level while not sacrificing his entire career. Jackie has crop farmers in her family, but not too much animal farming except large scale beef. We both bought into this lifestyle after seeing the supply chain breakdown during the 2020 pandemic and beyond, and we knew that we both wanted more agency in what we ate and consumed. Since both of us were/are relatively young, we were able to uproot what we were doing. We knew that homesteading would be a totally new experience for us both so we just plunged right in and did the best that we could—which is really all that you can do when God leads you somewhere and to do something.
5. In five years’ time, where do you hope to see Smith and Smith Farms?
Within the next year we hope to expand to personal dairy and honey production. From there, we will figure out how to add both of those to our sales repertoire and scale those operations. Additionally, we would like to scale up our rabbit production for more personal sales and keep our chicken flock growth constant so that we can keep taking on customers. Our goal in the long term is to get as many families as possible less dependent on food that they don’t know the source of and is just one truck breakdown away from not being stocked on the shelves. We are working with a couple of other farmers who run Growers & Graziers in St. Mary’s to stock complementary items to what we each produce, and we hope to expand with them to make this a reality for the entire area.
TITLE IMAGE: Kansas Farming at U.S. Courthouse, Wichita, Kansas. Richard Haines, ca. 1936.