Sugar Producer Grower of the Year: Jeff Henry

Published in the January 2013 Issue Published online: Jan 06, 2013 Symone Kennedy
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"Jeff Henry is a second-generation sugarbeet grower in Jerome, Idaho, and a representative on the American Sugarbeet Growers Association board for 16 years.

Like many growers, Jeff Henry of Jerome, Idaho, grew up on a farm. He spent his childhood working the family farm about eight miles from his current farm. And though he left for a time to get his degree, when his dad and brother gave him the opportunity to come back, he never really thought about doing anything else.

"It's hard to explain to somebody why you do it," Jeff said. It's something you have to love and really want to do. He's been farming for 20 years now, "so I guess I like it."

Jeff and his wife, Natalie, have three children, daughters Elizabeth and Kelsey, and son Jacob. The farm is family owned and operated by Jeff, his brother Bob Jr., his nephew Ryan, and maybe his own son someday. Jeff's parents, Bob and Colleen Henry, live on the main farm and are still involved in growing operations, despite being "as semi-retired as a farmer gets."

The Henrys farm between 2,000 and 3,000 acres where they grow alfalfa, malt barley and sugarbeets. They alternate sugarbeets and malt barley for four rotations, then alfalfa to replenish the soil, but they always have sugarbeets growing somewhere. The family also keeps cattle, which Jeff says are a good part of their operation. The Henrys originally had more cattle than farmland, but that has since changed. Now they "fill in the gap in winter" and give the employees something to work on. Plus, cattle prices are often good when farm prices are bad.

According to Jeff, the main challenge they face is the cost of inputs: fertilizer, diesel for the tractors, labor costs, etc. He said the prices have been pretty good in the last few years, though, which has alleviated that concern a bit. Another challenge they face is the availability of water. Idaho is considered a desert, so water is a common concern, but those who farm the area know how to deal with it. Water, a great deal of which comes from snowmelt, is stored in reservoirs in the Teton mountain range, then channeled throughout southeast Idaho in irrigation canals. Because of the way water is managed, growers know a year in advance how much water will be available each growing season, and they can plan their crop placements accordingly. If necessary, they can plant high-water crops in land watered by deep wells.

Jeff and his family are lucky that the Jerome area does not have the same disease pressure as other parts of the United States. They get a bit of rhizomania, but the seeds have an inbred resistance to it, so it's not as bad as it could be. They do have to deal with the other pests that bother sugarbeets: leaf miner, black bean aphids and curly top, for example. "But by and large," Jeff said, "we have the opportunity to control them genetically."

Aside from switching to Roundup Ready sugarbeets, the Henry family hasn't made any significant changes in their growing practices since Jeff was young. Their yields are at the top end of the spectrum and well above average, so they don't want to change their methods too much. Why mess with what works?

And what works for them is pretty simple. They make the rows for beets in the fall so they don't have to do ground work in the spring and can go straight to planting. They don't strip-till. They plant early and harvest early, and maybe water "a bit more than other people do. Beets like water." According to Jeff, the conditions on the farm are less important than the skill of the grower, which is evident in the success of his farm.

When asked his opinion on the importance of higher education for the next generation of growers, Jeff said he thinks it's important but not necessary. What is really important is a good work ethic, though "being sharp helps." In his opinion, the best benefit of an education is that it gives the next generation an opportunity to see what there is outside of farming and the life they're used to. It gives them the chance to decide if farming is really what they want to do. "Farming is not an easy job. You have to really love it and want to do it."

Jeff received a degree in plant ecology from Idaho State University in 1989. "I know that sounds like farming, but it was actually an environmental emphasis degree." His plan was to work in environmental research or a government position managing public lands. However, because of circumstances when he graduated, he had very little chance of getting a position in an area he was interested in. So when his family offered him the opportunity to come back and farm, he took it and then wondered why he had wanted to do anything else.

In addition to farming and raising his family, Jeff has served as a representative on the local growers boards for 18 years, and he's been a representative on the American Sugarbeet Growers Association (ASGA) board for 16 years. Because sugar is a pretty easy target for activists and other political groups, the ASGA deals with a lot of legislative challenges. Jeff says he isn't worried, though, because the industry is well-represented in Washington. They have a lot of good people on their side who work tirelessly for the benefit of the growers and processors.

According to Jeff the best thing for the sugarbeet industry is to educate people on sugar policy. Everywhere he goes, he tries to teach people about the good and the bad of the sugar industry. Jeff believes that it's important for growers to understand the political aspect of the industry in addition to the growing aspect, because without that understanding, they can't make informed decisions. He urges the next generation to get involved because their fresh perspective and unique skills will have a large impact on the future of the sugarbeet industry.