I first met Lenny Hensgens on a very cold, fall morning in Lafayette, La., in the early-1990s.
He rapped gently on my hotel door at 6 a.m. He was a big, friendly fellow and possessed a bone-crunching handshake that I was still feeling an hour later. I was there to write a story on Lenny's duck-hunting extravaganza and rice farm in Louisiana, but Lenny had his own plans.
Before granting me an interview, he introduced me to a slice of Louisiana life — from crawfish etouffee and frog legs to riding through duck habitat on a four-wheeler in the freezing cold.
One year, Lenny invited Arlie Bowling, the former executive vice-president of the Rice Foundation, and me out for a duck hunt. Lenny was so excited to have us at his duck cabin on the property.
The night before the hunt, he served us duck gumbo for supper and offered up Wild Turkey for a nightcap.
The next morning, Arlie and I received personalized wake-up calls at 4:30 in the morning — via Lenny Hengens parading through the cabin blowing on a duck call.
Lenny loved to farm rice. But he loved to talk it too. He was a spokesman for the industry and worked hard to protect it. He chaired the USA Rice Council, the Louisiana Rice Promotion Board, and the Louisiana state committee of the Farm Service Administration.
USA Rice Federation chairman Al Montna said, “Lenny was one of the first leaders I met in the 1980s when I became involved in rice leadership activities, and his contributions to the industry and actions on its behalf have left a lasting mark.” Lenny knew rice policy as well as anyone. That's because Lenny's knowledge came from his deep affection for all rice farmers. With Lenny, you always knew what you were getting.
Lenny died Sunday, Jan. 27, 2008. He was 78 years old. I knew something was wrong when I hadn't seen him at the USA Rice Outlook Conference in a couple of years. He loved rubbing elbows with his fellow rice producers almost as much as he did sitting in a duck blind.
The last time I talked to Lenny, I asked him about his rice crop, his 54th. “We had a pretty good crop, but the prices were down so much that it was not a profitable year,” he said. “Because of the high input costs, fertilizer and diesel fuel, rice farmers are really having a problem showing a profit.”
Lenny lived long enough to see rice prices soar again. Let's hope he's talking to someone about getting some good rice growing weather this season.
Lenny is survived by his wife of 57 years, Sarah Smith Hensgens of Crowley; two daughters, five grandchildren, a sister and two brothers.