JACKSON — Not only is Mackenzie Henning one of Minnesota FFA’s newest shining stars, she’s the second generation member of her family to earn one of the state’s highest honors in the organization.
During virtual ceremonies last week, the Jackson County Central senior and president of its FFA chapter earned the Minnesota FFA Star in Agribusiness. The honor came 26 years after her dad, Brad, was honored as Minnesota FFA’s Star Farmer.
Brad earned the coveted award through leadership, 40 acres of owned farmland and rearing a herd of sheep during his years in the FFA. The younger Henning, meanwhile, earned her award after four years of labor-intensive work at a Jackson-based hybrid seed corn business during which she has advanced to lead work crews.
“I started the summer going into my freshman year of high school,” Henning said of her job at SureFlex Hybrids since 2017, the same year the company was established.
When she became an FFA member that fall, she joined the chapter’s crops Career Development Event (CDE) team, thinking it would be a good fit with her job. The team finished first in the state in the spring of 2019, and competed in nationals that fall.
“That was an awesome opportunity and a great learning experience,” shared Henning.
Not only did the learning experience and FFA competition further her knowledge of crop science, it helped spark her career goals.
“About my sophomore year in high school, I really began to take an interest in genetics through my science classes,” Henning said. “I started looking into career paths in genetics. I thought plant genetics would be an area I’d like to pursue more.”
This fall, after yet another summer of work at SureFlex, Henning will begin her classes at South Dakota State University in Brookings, where she intends to major in biotechnology and ag science. She has the ultimate goal of becoming a plant geneticist.
“The biotechnology program (SDSU has) developed, it’s really rare to find a program like that around here,” she said. “To have it that close to where we live, it’s a great opportunity.”
Learning by doing
For the past four summers, Henning has worked full-time for SureFlex Hybrids, spending the majority of her time in the 450 acres of corn the company grows primarily north and south of Jackson. One of her first duties is roguing the seed corn, which entails walking down each row and removing any “off” types — those that don’t comply uniformly with the rest of the plot.
“When working with seed corn, purity is your No. 1 goal,” Henning said. “When we’re roguing, we’ll go out and use a hoe and remove any plant that isn’t perfect. You compare each stalk to others in the field and remove those that are way taller so no pollen in that plant can compromise the field that you’re working in.”
Henning leads a four-person crew while roguing, and it was that leadership and responsibility to make management decisions that propelled her to the forefront of others vying for the FFA’s Star in Agribusiness honor.
Each field of seed corn is rogued three or four times, explained Henning. Once that is done, the work begins with detasseling — the most time-consuming process in growing seed corn, which involves removing the tassels from all female plants in the field.
“We will choose male plants that are stronger pollinators with females that produce a larger ear," she said. "We cross pollinate those to produce a pure seed."
A field typically contains four rows of female plants, alternating with one row of male plants throughout the field.
“That gives us a substantial number of the seed we need to be able to sell it,” Henning said.
She leads a crew through each field about three times to ensure all of the female plants are detasseled.
“You’re not covering a lot of ground per day because you have to be so precise with it,” she said, adding that a detasseling machine is used prior to crews going in the field, and again after the crews have finished.
Last year, when the COVID-19 pandemic meant less time in school, Henning had the opportunity to help with planting for the first time. She’s also been able to help with seed bagging after harvest.
Having worked for SureFlex Hybrids since its inception, Henning said she appreciates the value in seeing the production of seed corn come full circle, as well as seeing the company’s growth in the last four years. Her dad is general manager of the company, which was founded by Jackson County native Mitch Rowe.
“I worked my way up into a lot of different jobs there,” Henning said, adding that she hopes to work into roles with more responsibility.
With her sights set on a career in plant genetics, Henning said she hopes to work for an area seed company some day as a plant geneticist.
“There’s all sorts of seed companies in the area,” she said. “We’re lucky to have so many options.”
Henning grew up as the fifth generation on the family farm north of Jackson, where it produces some of the seed corn for SureFlex Hybrids. She is heavily involved in the JCC FFA chapter and competed last week in both the parliamentary procedure Leadership Development Event and the Discussion Meet contest, in which she placed in the top four.