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Landowner, tenants share how they communicate with each other

By Jean Caspers-Simmet

Date Modified: 03/20/2013 9:05 AM

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CLEAR LAKE — When Chris Henning graduated from high schoo she left her Greene County farm home with no plans to return.

"I didn't realize how much farming and living in the country were in my blood," Henning said.

She worked for Meredith Corporation and 25 years later, her husband, Max, convinced her to sell her West Des Moines home and make a down payment on a farm.

The farm was a half mile from where she grew up. Max operated a company that asphalted railroad crossings and had little interest in the farm. He died in 2003.

"I've come full circle," Henning said.

She learned about the Women and Food and Agriculture Network shortly after her father died in 2008. He started farming= with the help of the GI Bill, $900 of his own money and $600 from his wife. When he died, he left each of his six daughters a farm, free and clear.

Henning and her tenants Chris and Troy Thorpe of Scranton talked about how to work with your tenant to reach your farming goals at WFAN's recent "Sorting Out the Pieces: A Conference for Women Landowners" in Clear Lake.

Henning, who lives near Cooper, gained a new awareness of the importance of soil and water conservation in 1993 when she saw how flooded rivers and creeks dug big crevices in the road continued downstream to Des Moines.

"I learned that what I did on my land makes a hell of a lot of difference to way more people than I ever imaged with 400,000 people getting their drinking water out of the Raccoon River," she said.

She installed buffer strips, planted prairie through the Conservation Reserve Program and restored wetlands.

She joined area farmers in searching for a crop other than corn and soybeans. They grew azuki beans, which are small red sweet beans used in desserts. For several years, they sent containers of beans to Japan, but "today there are no azuki beans because corn and soybeans now rule the world," she said.

During that experience she got to know Tom Thorpe. Today and Tom and his son, Troy, farm her ground.

"If I say I want to grow non-GMO crops, Tom will at least listen and try to find a way to do what I want," Henning said.

"We sit at the kitchen table and talk about what Chris wants to do," Tom said. "I tell her if it will work or not. We hash it out and come up with a plan."

"Tom is not shy about questioning things," Henning said.

Henning wanted to grow non-GMO crops and they came up with a plan.

"I told Chris that the field where she wanted to grow non-GMO corn probably wouldn't work because the neighbors on both sides raise GMOs and the crop would get Roundup drift from both directions," Tom said. "She has another field next to a farm where they grow organics, and I told her we could try non-GMO beans there because it won't be susceptible to drift."

The Thorpes and Henning farm on shares and don't have a written agreement.

"It works for us," Henning said, adding that she didn't like cash renting because she felt like she couldn't walk in her own fields.

Troy said Tom always told him that "making your landlord happy is the first thing that should come to mind."

"I have a good relationship with Chris," Troy said. "She has taught me a lot, too."

Tom said women land owners shouldn't be afraid to speak up about what they want.

"There are plenty of farmers who would be glad to farm your land the way you want," he said.