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Home Grown – How agriculture shapes Commissioner Champ Henson’s outlook on community, public service

Pickaway County Commissioner Harold “Champ” Henson has an interesting story to tell. Many know of Henson’s accomplishments as a star fullback at The Ohio State University in the 1970s, later going on to play for Paul Brown with the Cincinnati Bengals. Henson is quick to note, “I’m probably the only county commissioner who has scored touchdowns in both the Rose Bowl and the Michigan game.”

He’s probably correct.

Today, instead of scoring touchdowns, Henson is known in the Central Ohio region for his locally-grown produce. As the owner of the Henson Family Farm & Market, he continues the agricultural tradition his family started over 100 years ago.

Henson’s journey in agriculture has taken many twists and turns. Following his time in collegiate and professional football, Henson returned to Pickaway County to raise his family and pursue a career in production agriculture. He and his late wife, Karen, started their operation in 1979, just as the 1980s farm crisis began. “Timing is everything,” he jokes.

Despite the challenges, the Henson farm adapted. Originally, the farm grew wholesale produce for the Big Bear grocery store chain. As the grocery industry consolidated, the Henson farm changed as well. Today, Henson Farms focuses on its direct sales retail markets, selling produce to friends and neighbors in the area.

The farm is well known for its sweet corn, tomatoes, and melons, and it also partners with neighboring producers to sell peaches, apples, and locally-raised beef. There’s a small stand located at the Henson farm homestead, just outside of Ashville, but occasionally the farm comes to the city, setting up shop at different community markets in the Columbus area.

It takes a team effort to make the farm work. The operation employs mostly high school workers during the summer months to pick corn and perform other farm tasks. Working with his young farm crew is one of the most rewarding parts of the operation for Henson. “We have been blessed with really good kids who for years have gone on and done great things with their lives,” he shares.

For many of Henson’s employees, this is their first work experience. While some enjoy the farm life, others learn quickly that agriculture might not be in their long-term career plans. Henson jokes with his teenage employees, “For all the life lessons you’re learning here, you should be paying me.” He hasn’t had any takers on that offer yet, but the results speak for themselves as his employees go on to bright futures.

One of the more recent challenges on the farm is earlier and earlier starting dates for local high schools. With some districts starting classes as early as August 10, this greatly reduces the farm workforce during some of the busiest weeks of the growing season.

Despite the challenges, Henson finds the work incredibly rewarding. There’s a strong sense of satisfaction in making things grow, putting out a quality product to friends and neighbors, and hearing the many compliments on the high quality of his produce.

The direct-to-consumer nature of the Henson farm is unique to agriculture today, and Henson sees that as an added benefit to his operation. “Few consumers know where their grain comes from,” Henson states. “For the most part, few consumers know where their meat comes from. We are able to hand our product directly to our customers, which makes us effective advocates for agriculture due to the close relationships we have with our customers.”

Outside of managing the daily farm responsibilities, Henson is kept busy with the duties of serving as a county commissioner. Just like agriculture, public service runs deep in his family. Henson’s father served 24 years as a township trustee, and like his father, Henson began his public service through 11 years of service as a Walnut Township trustee. In 2012, at the urging of locals and with the help of his sons Clayton and Colton, Henson was elected Pickaway County Commissioner.

Going into county service, Henson envisioned the work of a commissioner as a “just grind it out” type job, similar to the Woody Hayes-style rushing attack of his college days. However, similar to the farm, Henson learned that county government is successful because of the people around him. “It has been a very rewarding experience because of the people I’ve been associated with at the county and the staff in our offices whose work is second to none,” Henson says looking back at his county government experience.

Reflecting on his career, Henson is grateful for the opportunities he’s had, whether it be in sports, agriculture, or public office. “I’ve been very fortunate in my life; I’ve done what I wanted to do,” he shares. Whether that’s setting NCAA football scoring records, growing a successful business alongside his family, or serving the public as a county commissioner, Henson continues to make his mark on the world around him.

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