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Young farmer standing at crossroads

You don't know Dan Henry. But what he does with his future makes a difference in yours.

You might not guess that at first. With his sandy brush-cut, amber eyes and wiry build, Henry looks like he could have played for the teams at Michigan State he used to root for. He's a typical guy in lots of ways: He skis, plays softball, relaxes with ESPN.

But Henry's also got other, less typical things to think about.

He tunes in to the Weather Channel more than your average person, for instance; and then there are all those agricultural journals filling his mailbox.

"Competition," said Henry, patting the walkie-talkie clipped to his belt, "is the name of the game. It's pretty tough."

Here's where Henry is not your typical 25-year-old guy. Success for him is not a sharp suit or 401(k). He measures it in pounds and bushels: cauliflower and sweet corn, hot peppers and winter squash.

That's because Henry is two things at once. He's the descendant -- and only male in his generation -- of an Eden farm family with roots in agriculture dating back to 1888.

And he's an anachronism.

In 2008, the age of wiki and Wii, Henry finds himself the most unlikely of young men, a full-time farmer in a wireless world.

That's partly why he stands at the present juncture in his life.

To understand that, you need to know this: Henry left Eden a few years ago. He headed west and tasted a bit of what many would call the good life. He attended Michigan State -- a decision that made him, he jokes, the "black sheep" in a family of Cornell alums. Then he moved to Chicago and took a job at a giant food conglomerate.

It was a good place to be. He lived in Wrigleyville, splitting the $1,900 rent with two other guys. He earned decent money and saw a side of the food industry -- huge, powerful -- he had never experienced.

There was only one problem. He wasn't getting his hands dirty.

"It was a great job, and I loved Chicago," Henry reflected, staring out at acres of pepper fields gone fallow for the fall. "But it was kind of strange. I sat in an office all day. I never even saw the things I was selling, unless somebody in our marketing department e-mailed me a picture."

Big changes hinge on small moments. Sitting at a desk in Chicago, Henry made a decision.

Feeding people all over the world was OK. Feeding people in Western New York was better.

So he came back, to take up the mantle as the fourth generation to work the 450-acre spread that is W.D. Henry and Sons farm, on Route 62. You buy their produce at Tops and Wegmans.

Today, Henry doesn't worry about rent and traffic. He's got different concerns.

Like the big barn addition under construction, and the 50,000 poinsettias sprouting in pots in his greenhouses. National and global issues, too: the price of oil, which determines the cost of plastics used on the farm, and the presidential election, where the outcome of the Obama-McCain race will affect Henry's ability to hire crews of nonnative workers every summer.

"People ask me why I don't play cards, and I tell them, I gamble every day," said Henry, in neat blue jeans and a fleece pullover, the only clue to his profession the mud on his work boots. "You don't sleep at night, some nights."

It will be a few years yet before Henry inherits the farm. He could change his mind; 120 years of history comes with its own weight.

Let's hope he doesn't. He came back because he needed us. Maybe we need him, even more.


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