Joe Henry and his ag enterprises embody the traits of a Master Agriculturist. He has diversified his Dane, Wis., farming operation through additional businesses and products. He has shown an ability to thrive in the face of adversity and follows through on his vision for his farm and family.
Henry grew up the only son of Jerry and Helen Henry. He detasseled seed corn as soon as he was tall enough, and learned every aspect of the farm and seed business as a young man. He attended the University of Notre Dame and earned a bachelor’s degree in finance in hopes of working as a banker. Upon graduation, he passed over his plans of a career in banking. The family farm was in foreclosure and he returned home to save it.
“Henry Farms was at a point where I would either need to take over or we needed to exit the business,” he explains. “Blaney’s rented the farm and seed facilities for several years, and I worked for Richard Blaney. Around 1979, we started raising our own seed corn and soybeans and selling it under the Henry Seeds brand again.”
With the help of a small community bank and the Production Credit Association, Henry was able to assume a hefty debt load and operate Henry Farms. Over the years, the farm has survived in the seed production industry, which has been marked by numerous buyouts and acquisitions. 2019 marks 40 years of Henry’s leadership of Henry Farms.
“Farming was tough when I came back in the late 1970s,” he says. “The interest rate rose to over 15%. It made for challenging times to operate in. One way or another, we got through it. Knowing our costs and being realistic about what we can and can’t do has helped us get through those times.”
For many years, Henry Farms has been a reliable leader in seed corn production. In the 1990s, independent seed sales was discontinued and focus was moved to custom and contract production of seed.
Since taking over, Henry has purchased additional farms and implemented best practices and modern technologies of the day to create efficiencies and stay ahead of the curve. This year, Henry Farms will grow about 1,500 acres of seed for several seed companies with which it has had long-standing relationships.
Several employees have been with the Henry family for their entire careers. Some are second- and third-generation families working with Henry Farms. When making business decisions, Henry thinks of his family and employees, and the impact decisions will have on the people.
In 2008, Henry and his wife, Liz, traveled to Louisville, Ky., and took part in the bourbon trail. It was there that they decided they were going to make bourbon. In 2009, the first batch of J. Henry and Sons bourbon was made. It aged for five years and hit shelves for the first time in the spring of 2015. Their product is going on its fourth year on the market and enjoys growing sales due to its high quality and growing distribution. J. Henry and Sons bourbon has gained national and international recognition for its high quality.
Henry’s formal education in finance has been an asset to maintaining and growing his businesses. Each enterprise has to be logical and make sound financial sense. Business plans are drawn up prior to jumping into any capital improvements, expansions or investments. The seed corn business has made the bourbon business sustainable in its infancy. The bourbon business is ahead of its payback schedule and already employs three of four family members: Henry, his wife and their oldest son, Joe.
Henry Farms Prairie Spirits complements Henry Farms. It is a value-added enterprise that has created opportunity for the next generation of the family.
“The bourbon and seed business are a lot alike,” Henry says. “You can’t sell a farmer a bad bag of seed and expect him to buy again. In the same way, you can’t sell someone a bad bottle of bourbon and expect them to buy again. We rely on repeat business.”
One hundred and fifty acres of red corn, wheat and rye are grown on the home farm and used in the bourbon. Henry has worked closely with University of Wisconsin-Madison to grow heirloom varieties of corn, wheat and rye for use in J. Henry & Sons bourbon. In 1939, the original hybrid variety of red corn used by the Henry family to produce bourbon was developed at the University of Wisconsin. It took an initial handful of seeds and subsequently several years of successful growing seasons to gather enough seed for use in the first batch of bourbon.
“The bourbon business is positive as we look to the future,” Henry says. “I wish we would’ve put more barrels down five years ago to have the supply now. We see that the bourbon business has the potential to eclipse the seed business.”
Today, distribution for J. Henry & Sons bourbon has expanded beyond Wisconsin and now includes purveyors in Illinois and Minnesota. One of the most recent investments in the bourbon enterprise was a rickhouse that will house up to 5,000 barrels. Previously, the only storage for bourbon barrels on the property was an old dairy barn converted for that purpose.
Henry has served his community and his fellow agriculturists on the board of directors of the local co-op, Wisconsin Corn Growers Association, Community Business Bank, Henry Vilas Zoo, Jaycees, Lodi Optimists and Arlington Lions. He has also enjoyed supporting local Cub Scouts and high school athletic booster programs.
The Henrys have two sons. Their oldest, Joe, holds a degree in business and has returned to the family operation as the manager of sales and marketing. He spends a great deal of time on the road, building relationships and marketing for the bourbon business. Jack, the youngest, and will soon graduate from UW-Madison with a degree in global economics. The Henrys are hopeful he will bring home his talents and join the family business as well.
“I’m thankful for the family I have, all of our great employees, our vendors and our wonderful customers. I’m especially thankful for my wife, Liz, for putting up with me,” Henry says.
Giebel writes from Baraboo, Wis.