Farmer/musicians to perform for PDPW

Jan Shepel

Madison -  While the upcoming annual business conference of the Professional Dairy Producers of Wisconsin features loads of information in its seminars, hands-on sessions, panels and workshops, it will also feature live entertainment. The Henningsens are a farm family from Illinois who have developed into country music recording artists and they will appear for the second straight year at the conference March 15-16 in Madison.
    “They are home-bred and down-home and really connected to the heart of what we do,” says Shelly O’Leary, communications and outreach specialist for the PDPW.
    The band will perform original music throughout the two days of the conference. O’Leary said they will ring in each of the general sessions at the conference, performing 15-20 minutes ahead of each session so people will have a cue that the big events are starting.
    There will be other opportunities for attendees to listen to the band throughout the large event, held each year at the Alliant Energy Center’s Exhibition Hall. The annual business conference features speakers in one end of the hall and a trade show with seminar events in the rest of the building.
    The New Holland Pavilion is used for “Hands-on” sessions that include cow and calf necropsy seminars and other workshops that require more space and logistics.
    O’Leary said the Henningsens will perform at the Wednesday evening celebration and banquet to commemorate the group’s 25-year history.
    Brian Henningsen, the patriarch of the family and of the band, is a farmer in Illinois. He and his wife Debbie raised 10 kids on their farm – doing the work of agriculture but also developing their love for music, performing and songwriting.
    In addition to working their farmland, the family restores fixer-uppers in their construction business and has created a family band which has been successful enough to make recordings in Nashville.
    As a farm family, the Henningsens are seventh generation, having farmed their land for 146 years. Their music career began – like many Nashville artists -- writing songs for others and eventually branched out into touring and recording themselves.
The group includes lead singer Clara Henningsen, her brother Aaron Henningsen on lead guitar and vocals and their dad Brian Henningsen on bass and vocals.
The group sang at several points during the PDPW conference last year to an appreciative audience of fellow farmers. Last year the group opened the conference with their song “Why I Farm” with lyrics that bring to life some of the thoughts, feelings and experiences that were shared by their audience.
“Why I farm is in my blood. It’s more than just a living; it’s my way of life. It’s who I’m meant to be,” they sang. The song’s lyrics mention the flood of ’93 and the Drought of ’88 – two events which stand out for anyone who was involved in farming during those tough periods. “We always pulled through when we thought we would break,” the song lyric adds.
Their “Why I Farm” was produced a year earlier in collaboration with Beck’s, the largest family-owned retail seed company in the United States. The music trio partnered with the seed company as part of a mission to honor family farmers.
The Beck’s “Why I Farm” movement began in 2013 to honor farmers by sharing their personal, heartfelt stories of dedication, passion and triumph. (For more go to The Henningsen’s video of the new song is also on that website. It is shot in a barn where the group performed and is filled with family photos of grandfathers and young sons – depicting the generations that are often involved in farming operations.
Dad Brian Henningsen played in bands on and off in the 1980s and early 1990s until his music career took a back seat to taking over the family farm. As his kids grew, he instilled them with a love of music and eventually several of the family members were performing together.
Fast forward to a chance meeting at church that brought his son Aaron together with country music great Wynonna Judd’s husband Cactus Moser, who is also a member of the band Highway 101. After that serendipitous meeting, Moser shared some demo recordings from the family trio with producers he knew.
Since then the group has had success writing songs for The Band Perry – like “All Your Life” and “You Lie,” which they performed at the PDPW meeting. Their songs have also been recorded by Wynonna Judd, Sara Evans, Billy Currington and Moser’s band, Highway 101.
In addition to signing with a record label and putting out their own record, “American Beautiful” the Henningens have toured with Brad Paisley.
The Henningsens said they were very pleased to put their thoughts and feelings about farming into words and music for the Beck’s project and are thrilled to perform at events where farmers are gathered, like the PDPW conference. Last year was the first time they performed at the Madison conference.
“People don’t realize the time, heartache, energy, money, and most of all the risk it takes to bring food to the grocery store,” said Brian Henningsen. He says he hopes that his family’s songs about why anyone would farm will help bring that image to life for consumers.

Family farmers from Illinois as well as country musicians, the Henningsens performed for PDPW members during the dairy group’s business conference last year in Madison and have been invited back to entertain this year. Especially poignant for farmers is their “Why I Farm” which explores what it means to be part of a family farm.