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Success Story

Heart of Texas: Family Farming Focused on Continuous Improvement, Development and Innovation

Free range chickens at Benson Family Farm in Lorena, Texas.

Andrew Benson and his mom, Shannon, work together to run their award-winning farm in Lorena, Texas. Improving their operation with the help of NRCS has been a game changer.

ArcGIS Storymap, story and photos compiled by Dee Ann Littlefield, Public Affairs Specialist, Henrietta, Texas

Heart of Texas: Family Farming Focused on Continuous Improvement, Development and Innovation ArcGIS Storymap

Andrew Benson holding a chicken near Waco, Texas.

Andrew Benson built his first chicken coop at 14 years old, starting off with a respectable 12 chickens. By 18 years old, he’d built his own mobile chicken coops (for an ever-growing number of chickens) when he realized he could move the flock over the grass to graze, allowing for better grass management and a healthier diet for the birds.

“I really love chickens. I started selling eggs at the farmers market and then got a couple restaurants and started knocking on doors of retail stores,” says Andrew, wearing the smile of a confident young entrepreneur, while sporting a playful button up collar shirt covered in a bright green and red watermelon pattern.

Not only does Andrew wear his personality and charm on his sleeve, so does the breathtaking plot of land otherwise known as Heart of Texas.

Four years and 700 chickens later, Andrew and his mom, Shannon, work together to run the award-winning farm in Lorena, Texas. Not just a home to laying hens, the land now encompasses a healthy herd of cross-bred Angus cattle, a blackberry U-Pick program, and a pollinator planting on a cropland field.

“People still remember me from when I was younger and so I’ll have customers for life,” says Andrew, who is currently exploring the possibility of expanding from Waco to sell his eggs. It’s clear he’s right where he wants to be, standing in front of an assemblage of blackberry cultivars on his family’s property, looking forward to a bright future in agriculture.

While it may sound as though everything’s happened in a whirlwind, it’s because it has, however not without a lot of forethought and hard work. The diligent mom and son team began to navigate best practices and conservation methods, working closely with the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) to find opportunities that would work for them. Specifically, they were interested in finding long-term solutions to grow their farm in the most sustainable and productive way possible.

“My son and I have worked on growing a farm,” says Shannon. “We started with the chickens and added cattle, and then he decided that he wanted to do blackberries, so we’ve just been very busy trying to figure out how to make everything work together—have a symbiotic relationship.”

On how she became involved with NRCS, Shannon explains that she was turned onto them after attending a women’s farmers conference who recommended she go to the NRCS and talk to them about her goals for the farm. 

“With their expertise and knowledge, we were able to do what’s best for the soil here and for the animals and so I’m so happy that we got to know them.”

Family Farming from the Ground Up

Andrew’s dad, Mark Benson, inherited the land, now known as Heart of Texas Farms, from his family and since moving in back in 2013, they have added new plots with each passing year. A pilot for United Airlines, Mark supports Shannon and Andrew’s operation by serving as the resident “fix it” guy. He also had a hand in helping Andrew with the construction of the mobile chicken coops.

Their daughter, Annalise, is a culinary student who is also studying to be a pilot. She enjoys putting her culinary skills to work, baking and cooking with fresh eggs from the farm. Annalise also helps Shannon with the cattle.

All of this together makes for a full-family operation. As Shannon puts it, “Everybody has a role.”

So far as how Andrew developed an interest in farming, Shannon explains that she and her husband, Mark, homeschooled him. Part of the style they used for his education involved encouraging their son to find skills and subject matters that he was passionate about.

When Andrew was younger, he’d worked for a man in town who’d had a blackberry orchard. Her son came home one day announcing, “This is what I want to do.” A few years later, he went online to order some twigs from Arkansas, planted those in the ground, and hoped for the best.

“We didn’t know anything at that point. We just hoped they would take off.” 

Three years later, they opened it up to the public and the rest, as they say, is history.

Today, they run a booming U-Pick blackberry operation, where visitors can come to their property in early summer and pick pounds of blackberries for an affordable price. Shannon says one of their better years to date yielded 250 lbs. of blackberries.

Yielding NRCS Partnership Benefits

Despite their continuing success with the chickens, cattle, and blackberries, Shannon admits to wondering where they’d be, had they spoken with NRCS even earlier than they did, admitting that at the start of things, they had no idea what they were doing.

“There needs to be a playbook when you start a farm that says, ‘go here first’ because when we started the blackberries we just said, ‘we’ll just figure it out as we go,’ but now I wish we’d known about NRCS at that point before we even put the first plant in the ground, so they could advise us.” Andrew feels the same way, mentioning how he would have done things differently, had they known more. One of those changes would have been to run the chickens on the blackberry plots before they’d been planted, allowing the chickens to help fertilize that soil. Instead, they were battling difficult growing conditions from the start.

NRCS employees working with the Bensons at Heart of Texas Farms in Lorena, Texas.

When they did finally get into contact with NRCS, though, it was a game changer. Clete Vanderburg, the District Conservation with the NRCS office in McLennan County, was their primary contact.

“We started out with the Bensons with a phone call asking about drainage issues they were having with their blackberries,” he recalls. Upon figuring out a solution to their problem, he says his involvement was kind of “a snowball effect.” They met the Bensons and rode around the entire farm, talking about their hopes and dreams for the farm, and what they wanted to do and incorporate.

After having assessed their needs during the tour, Vanderburg determined that the agency’s Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) program would work well for Shannon and Andrew. Right away, this would help to remove some of their old fencing on the property and replace it with new fencing.

“And that started the conversation about livestock water. So, we found a spot for the livestock pond, which was worked in with the EQIP program. And then we started talking about grasses.”

He and the NRCS returned to help the Bensons with the cross fencing for rotational grazing with the cattle, as well as with adding in a pond in the pastures for a water source for the livestock.

Going Mobile

After Andrew built his first chicken coop, he realized he wanted something that could move the chickens over the grass to graze, providing them with great nutrients beyond just feeding them chicken feed every day. Having mobility also allowed for better fertilization, pest control, and grass management, all with less clean up!

“It’s better for the grass and keeps everything healthier. It’s really good for the birds and the people,” he says.

Shannon points out where the coops are now, the grass used to be thin. “It looked pretty bad, there were lots of weeds. Just your general unkempt pasture. And then, over the years, it’s just really gotten green and thick and lush. So, we think it’s been a huge benefit.”

Andrew’s interest in the unique chicken coop was also something relatively new for their NRCS connections.

“Mobile chicken coops were something new that I hadn’t seen before,” says Vanderburg. He was impressed to witness an 18-year-old put together something so innovative. He learned a lot by observing how the coops incorporated with the rotational grazing of the chickens; and how coops have subsequently benefited the Bermudagrass on that portion of land where they’ve rotated the chickens.

Also impressive to Vanderburg was the fact that the Bensons did not use any pesticides or fertilizer. Rather, they’ve kept it all natural with the chickens.

“The Heart of Texas work ethic is extremely contagious. Especially when you come to the farm to visit. Meeting Andrew, Shannon, the entire family. Just seeing them out on the farm, working and learning by doing, is something that makes you feel good when you go back to the office.”

Up to four 720 square-foot mobile chicken coops now, Andrew assigns one coop per age group of chickens. For example, chicks, a few months old, a few years old, and oldest.

After spending some time figuring out what the coops were missing, he’s added on a few features with the help of his dad, including a solar-powered door on the side of the coop that opens and closes with the sun, so the chickens can go in and out during the day, but remain safe inside at night; a sprayer system that goes across the interior top of the coop to manage temperature during the summer by misting the chickens; and a water bowl system along the interior sides of the coops, giving the chickens water spickets to drink from. He also installed roll out nesting boxes, which means when the chickens lay the eggs, they roll up into a tray preventing the birds from stepping on them, keeping them cleaner and easier for processing.

The coops are moved by hitching to the tractor with chains, where they can be easily dragged a few feet forward to the next spot.

“I’d like to grow to be as big as I can be, and if I can find good people to work with me and have a good team, I could probably have maybe 10,000 to 15,000 chickens one day. You never know,” says, Andrew. “That’s the goal.”

His vision includes someday having chickens out in the cow pastures to do pasture rotation and help to improve the soil health out there. “It’d be beneficial to the other animals, too.”

Diversity as a Means of Sustainability and Growth

Not satisfied with being a one-chicken show, mom, Shannon, has been happy to support her son and his dreams, constantly working with him to diversify their farm and the agriculture produced.

So, while Andrew is the full-time operator of the poultry and U-Pick Blackberry side of the farm, Shannon, runs a handful of black angus cattle, which she processes right at the farm, selling the cuts herself. She loves working with the cows and is happy managing a small herd.

“The cattle herd has fluctuated up and down. It’s a little low right now, but we’re still working on the grass, waiting for it to come back, and once it increases, then we can increase the cattle herd,” she says. “The idea is to not ever have to bale.”

She uses an integrated application of livestock, focusing on a local customer base for sales. “We sell meat by the pound,” says Sharon, who explains that she also takes any extra to auctions.

In addition to the cattle, Heart of Texas is home to a few roaming donkeys who protect the cattle out on the pastures, quick to run after and chase out coyotes and bobcats, the primary threats in the region. Closer to the house, and the chickens, they have Cupcake, a purebred Great Pyrenees, to patrol the property.

The Bees Are Back!

The Benson family at Heart of Texas Farm in Lorena, Texas.

The Benson family also maintains pastures of native grasses and pollinator plants, improving their soil and bio-diversity health on the property.

“I thought I knew what I wanted to plant, and they told me ‘No that’s probably not going to be the best for you,’ and so I was glad they were able to educate me on what needed to be planted. They’ve been a huge help,” Shannon says of the guidance she’s received from the NRCS.

While the first application was for a smaller plot of pollinators for blackberries, they have since planted nearly 33 acres of pollinators, with the help of the NRCS.

“The pollinator mix, and then the high density of native mix, being 12 species, to be planted out here on not only 60-acres, but their additional 120-acres at the house, has been extremely beneficial to them with their rotation on their cattle operation,” says Vanderburg.

The pollinators, in turn also increased the insect count and the butterfly and bee sightings! “I love to see the bugs and the bees and the butterflies flying around. I’m glad we were able to bring that back to the land,” says Shannon.

Mentoring the Mentor

Named 2020 Conservation Farmer of the Year by USDA NRCS Texas Area 5, possibly what’s most impressive about this fast-growing mom-son operation borne out of homeschooling and a love for chickens is that the Heart of Texas now serves as a base for NRCS employee training.

“Heart of Texas has been one of those producers that I definitely can send people to learn,” says Vanderburg.

It’s no surprise then the agency now points new employees to the Heart of Texas as a mentor property, so they can learn about their practices and their innovation with the mobile chicken coops.

“We were part of the Corsicana resource team through the NRCS, which is six counties of employees. We were able to have the entire team come out and drive around to look at the operation. We had a team field day where it was extremely beneficial because we had new employees who had never seen an operation like this. We also had employees that had been working for 20 plus years that had never seen an operation like this,” says Vanderburg.

So, What’s Next on the Horizon?

When asked what their plan is next, Shannon laughs.

“You can’t stop Andrew. He’s just going to do what he wants to do,” she says, in admiration of her son’s drive and commitment to the farm they work together. “He’s only 20. I don’t know where he’s going to go next. Who knows? He wants to go bigger and better and he’s figuring that out along the way.”

One thing’s for sure. Andrew has no plans of leaving Heart of Texas anytime soon, with its soft calming breezes, surrounded by acres of lush green rolling pastures, dotted with arrays of flowers showing off every color in the rainbow. “I really like the farm because it’s a place to come back to where you can really enjoy yourself and not have to worry about all the stresses outside of farm life. It really is peaceful here,” he says.

Looking 10 years ahead, Andrew says he hopes to be at a point where he has a system built, enabling him to have all kinds of mobile coop houses and over 10,000 chickens. He’d like to see his business expand beyond the Waco area. “I want a lot of people all over Texas to experience the eggs that we produce here.”

 

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