Farm Leader of the Year: Gerald Henry
SADORUS — During his 40-plus years in farming, Gerald Henry grew corn, soybeans, wheat and alfalfa. But his real love was raising and showing shorthorn cattle.
“Right behind the family was cattle,” Henry said.
It came naturally enough. When he was growing up north of Sadorus, his family always had livestock — beef cattle, a dairy cow, hogs and chickens.
While working on an agriculture degree at Southern Illinois University, Henry was a member of the university’s livestock judging team.
And before, during and after his kids were in 4-H, he showed cattle at county fairs and — if they were good enough — at the state fair.
He loved the competition and the camaraderie of others showing cattle.
“If Juanita and I took vacation, we went to shorthorn sales,” said Henry, 68, who retired from farming two years ago.
At its peak, his herd, ranging from 1-day-olds to 20-year-olds, numbered about 100 head, he said.
They required feeding twice a day — which Henry did before dawn and after nightfall. Those being prepared for market got about 24 pounds of feed apiece, generally a combination of corn and oats.
In addition to that, they fed on 1,500-pound hay bales.
“Twenty cows can eat one bale in two days,” Henry said.
The aim, of course, was fattening them up.
“Yearlings will convert 6 to 8 pounds of grain into 1 pound of gain,” Henry said. “The minimum weight you want them to gain is 2 pounds a day. Some of the best will gain 31/2 pounds a day.”
As a consequence of those early morning and late night feedings, Henry never really “saw” his cattle until the weekends, when he would grind feed, haul manure and move hay around.
Among the dozens and dozens of red, white and roan Shorthorns he raised, Henry remembers two in particular: a bull calf that became reserve champion at the Illinois State Fair and champion at the DuQuoin State Fair; and a cow he bought for $650 that had four sets of twins in a row.
“We had her until she was 15 years old,” he said. “She had 17 calves. She was good.”
But six years ago, Henry had an experience at the state fair that he’d rather forget. He took eight to 10 head of cattle to the state fair without the help of others.
One bull “got away from me at the state fair and pinned me up against a wall,” Henry said, an experience that he found “embarrassing.” But he escaped injury, thanks to the quick work of those around him.
“The highlight of raising cattle,” he said, “was seeing a brand-new baby calf.”
Henry, The News-Gazette’s Farm Leader of the Year, was selected by the men who previously won that distinction. Since 1972, 44 others have been named Farm Leaders for their contributions to agriculture and the community.
In addition to farming in the Sadorus area, Henry has been active in:
— The Champaign County Farm Bureau, where he served four terms on the board of directors, has been co-chair of the Land Use Committee and chair of the Ag Leaders of Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow and has been a delegate to the Illinois Farm Bureau convention.
— Sadorus United Methodist Church, where he chairs the administrative board and serves as treasurer.
— Sadorus Sportsman’s Club, where he has spent 20 years on the board of directors.
— Sadorus Fire Protection District, where he has been a trustee for 12 years and chairman for six years. He was chairman of the building committee for a new fire station.
— Okaw Drainage District, where he is chairman of the board of commissioners. The board oversees a 12-mile stretch of the Kaskaskia River in southern Champaign and northern Douglas counties and the 17 subdistrict tiles that drain into it.
— The food pantry at the Sadorus Community Center that serves families in southwestern Champaign County. The pantry is operated by volunteers from St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in Sadorus and the nearby Sadorus and Parkville United Methodist churches.
Henry was born April 6, 1945, the son of Marion and Gertrude Henry. He was one of four children and the only boy among them.
His mother was an avid gardener, and the farm was pretty much self-sufficient.
“She would go to the store only for flour, sugar, soap and toilet paper,” Henry said, adding that his mother made his shirts as well as dresses for his sisters.
Gerald graduated from Unity High School in 1963, attended Eastern Illinois University and transferred to SIU in 1966.
There, he concentrated in livestock production and feeding as he earned a bachelor’s degree in agriculture.
As a member of SIU’s livestock judging team, he traveled to competitions throughout the Midwest, and the team’s coach stopped at farms along the way to give the students practice in judging livestock.
After graduation in 1968, Henry briefly worked at Wickes Lumber west of Tolono — now the site of Premier Cooperative’s Apex location.
He was drafted into the Army in 1969 and served in Vietnam from March to December 1970 as a sergeant in the 173rd Airborne Brigade.
When he returned to the U.S., he returned to SIU briefly, and from there he wrote family friend Juanita Danenhower to see if she would go out with him.
She consented, and that May he proposed. They were married Nov. 21, 1971.
Their daughter, Tiffany, was born in 1974, and son Aaron came along five years later.
Today, Tiffany and her husband, Daniel Korte, live on a farm northwest of Metropolis in southern Illinois. They have a son, Logan, and a daughter, Larkin. Tiffany, a former manager of the Massac County Farm Bureau, handles information technology for a real estate firm.
Aaron Henry and his wife, Kathy, also live in southern Illinois, near Creal Springs southeast of Marion. They have two boys, Alexander and Benjamin. Aaron, who once worked at United Prairie, now sells fertilizer, chemical and seed for FS, and his wife is a physician assistant.
When Gerald (whose name is pronounced with a hard “G,” not a “J” sound) returned from Vietnam, his dad bought land southwest of Sadorus so Gerald could farm with him and they could expand operations.
Eventually, the Henry families moved to that location, and Gerald farmed acreage for other landowners.
“My basic farming operation was 560 acres,” he said.
Along with the standard corn and soybeans, he grew wheat — which supplied straw for his cattle to bed on — and alfalfa, which provided the cattle with hay.
For many years, Henry had a custom baling operation, supplying horse owners with hay and using some of it for his cattle.
Baling kept him busy during the summer and fall, helping fill the period between planting and harvest.
In the winters, Henry worked jobs off the farm: measuring grain bins and inspecting filter strips for Farm Service Agency and working at Paul’s Machine & Welding in Villa Grove.
Meanwhile, his wife worked at Christie Clinic, initially as a receptionist and later as a data entry clerk in the lab.
After 40 years in farming, Henry decided to retire. His machinery was getting old and used, and he didn’t feel he could afford to replace it.
So in January 2012, he “lined up everything” on land just to the west of his house and “sold it, cattle included.”
“There were 23 mama cattle and some yearling calves,” he said.
Don Wood, a fellow cattle farmer, said he has known Henry since the age of 10, having gone through 4-H and serving on the Farm Bureau board with him.
“You could always depend on him,” Wood said. “Anytime you’d ask him to do anything, he’d do it. He’d do it right and do it well.”
Raising cattle takes “a lot of work and a lot of desire,” and Henry has that, Wood said. But Henry’s enthusiasm for showing cattle stemmed largely from the social aspect of it.
“Gerald loves people, and when you love people, you are active,” Wood said.
Chuck Ehler, a retired farmer who belonged to the same fraternity as Henry at SIU, said Henry has always taken on the tough jobs.
“He has raised dozens of head of livestock, and when you do that, you’ve gotta bale hay and clean up after them — it’s not pretty work,” Ehler said.
Hundreds of kids have benefited from Henry’s work as a livestock judge, Ehler said.
“He’s like a referee at a football or basketball game. You may not like the outcome, but it’s gonna be exactly what he sees,” Ehler said. “He’s an expert at it.”