Homestead for the Holidays

The Richardson family arrived in Spring Grove, Illinois in 1840, when brothers Robert and Frank each claimed 80 acres of farmland that had become available for homesteading. Successive generations of Richardsons tried their hand at cash crops, dairy cows and pig production. But it was the agritourism business that proved the most sustainable for the 175-year-old family farm, which today is operated by the fifth and sixth generations of Richardsons. The family sells cut-your-own Christmas trees during the holidays and operates the world’s largest corn maze in the fall. They’ve become experts in seasonal entertainment, offering a nostalgic rural escape from suburban sprawl.

If you liked our story about Richardson Farm, you might also enjoy our September episode about Silo City, a traditional family farm in Iowa covering several thousand acres. And you can subscribe to The Distance so you never miss an episode!

Also, starting with today’s episode, I’ll be posting transcripts for each show.

Transcript

WAILIN: The Richardson family has a holiday tradition. Every year on Thanksgiving, after they’ve eaten, they pick out their Christmas tree. Here’s George Richardson.

GEORGE: Take the afternoon off after our bellies have sat for a little bit from Thanksgiving dinner and go out and get our tree.

WAILIN: Lots of families put up their Christmas trees right after Thanksgiving. But there’s something unique about the Richardsons. When they pick out their tree, they just head to their backyard, where they grow Christmas trees on 130 acres of northern Illinois farmland that’s been in the family since 1840. The Richardsons are in the cut-your-own Christmas tree business, and they sell just over six thousand trees every season between the day after Thanksgiving and Christmas Eve. Here’s George’s son, Ryan, who’s the sixth generation of Richardsons to work on the farm.

RYAN: So we have Scotch pine and white pine, both wonderful trees. Scotch pine’s kind of the old stature of the Midwest Christmas tree and it’s kind of phased itself out culturally a little bit. Firs have overtaken the market, and so firs are in general shorter-needled tree and the most popular’s going to be a Fraser fir and it’s difficult to grow in this particular region of the country, in the Midwest. So a close cousin of them is a hybrid tree, it’s a cross between a balsam and a fraser, and it’s called a Canaan. That’s a beautiful tree. So Frasers, Canaans, blue spruce, Norway spruce, concolor firs are beautiful…

WAILIN: And that’s just Christmas tree season. In the fall, the family operates the Richardson Adventure Farm, which includes a pumpkin patch, a zip line, a carousel and the world’s largest corn maze. Over the last 175 years, the Richardsons have grown cash crops and raised dairy cows and pigs. But what has proved the most sustainable — and enjoyable — is the entertainment business. Learn how the Richardsons found their true calling on this episode of The Distance, a podcast about long-running businesses. I’m Wailin Wong. The Distance is a production of Basecamp. Introducing the new Basecamp Three. Basecamp is everything any team needs to stay on the same page about whatever they’re working on. Tasks, spur of the moment conversations with coworkers, status updates, reports, documents and files all share one home. And now your first basecamp is completely free forever. Sign up at basecamp.com/thedistance.

(CLIP OF ACTIVITY IN THE RICHARDSON BARN)

It’s the first Saturday of December and the Richardsons’ main barn is packed. The farm is in Spring Grove, Illinois, just a few miles from the Wisconsin border, and you can tell you’re close when you turn onto Richardson Road and see cars with trees on the roofs passing you in the other direction. Inside the barn, people are buying wreaths, homemade donuts, fudge, and holiday crafts, and drinking complimentary hot chocolate under a portrait of Robert Richardson, the first member of the family to settle here. He and his brother, Frank, were bricklayers who emigrated from England to Wisconsin in 1837. Robert was George’s great great grandfather. Here’s George again.

GEORGE: This is the original homestead from 1840, the ground that we’re standing on now. Milwaukee was the bustling port city in 1837, where Chicago was still kind of just getting organized, a little bit of a swampy mess, to tell you the truth, so Milwaukee was really the boom town at that time. When this county opened up in 1840 for homesteading, they moved down here and they each homesteaded 80 acres and then Robert subsequently bought out Frank some years later.

WAILN: While working in Wisconsin as a mason, Robert Richardson fell in love with Milwaukee cream brick — a light-colored brick made from local clay. In 1861, he built a house on his land with that cream brick, taking an oxcart up to Milwaukee to get the bricks and hauling them back to Illinois. George’s older brother, also named Robert, lives in that house today with his wife Carol. George and his wife, Wendy, live on a nearby farmstead. It’s these two families, plus George and Wendy’s son Ryan, who own and operate Richardson Farm. The business has two main parts: the Christmas trees and the fall adventure farm with the corn maze. But none of this existed until the early 1980s. That’s when George and Robert’s parents, who were pig farmers, started looking for a new business and landed on cut your own Christmas trees. Here’s Carol Richardson, Robert’s wife.

CAROL: We planted 300 trees that first year and we thought that’s all we had to do was just plant them, and we got them in the ground and then we let them go and the weeds grew up around them and the grass and we thought well, this isn’t as easy as we thought it was.

WAILIN: The Richardsons joined the Illinois Christmas Tree Association and picked up some tips on weed control, among other things. They found that they liked growing trees and interacting with customers.

GEORGE: Then in 1986, we sold like 180 trees or something like that, just put a sign out on the road and people came in and oh, they had a wonderful time going out in the field and choosing their tree and coming back in. We gave them hot chocolate and we had a wonderful time because we were making more money than with pigs and so after a few years of that, we kind of figured out that the Richardsons, we kind of liked talking to people a lot more than we liked talking with pigs.

WAILIN: Here’s the thing about Christmas trees, though. If you want to grow them, you have to think about the long term. The Richardsons buy four-year-old seedlings that are around 14 to 20 inches, and plant them in one-acre blocks of a thousand trees each. Then it’s a multi-year process of nurturing the seedlings until they get to six to eight feet in height. Here’s Ryan Richardson, George’s son.

RYAN: You have to put your money and love into them for seven or eight years before they’re even going to think about repaying you back, so you need to budget out. We’re planting around eight or nine thousand of new seedlings every single year and we take very good care of them because in the end, they’ll take care of us.

(CLIP OF WAGON RIDE)

WAILIN: Outside the barn, customers pick up their hand saws and climb onboard tractor-pulled wagons to ride out to the field. Families walk between the rows of pines and firs, looking for their perfect triangular, fragrant tree. Here’s Natalie, who’s with her husband, their three children and their dog. Until this year, they’ve always had artificial trees.

NATALIE: The last one died because (laughs) the lights that came along with it—the middle part didn’t light up, so we’d have the top part of the tree lit up and the bottom part lit up, and my husband had to get a set of lights to just cover the middle part. And we’re like, you know, I think it’s time to get a real one this year. So yeah, it’s been 20 years of us being married and we’re out here picking a nice-smelling tree.

(CLIP OF TREE BEING SAWED)

WAILIN: It takes just around a minute and a half to cut down the tree. The trunks are still pretty tender at this age, and the saws are sharp. When the tree’s down, it’s loaded on the wagon for the short ride back to the barn, where it’s put through a baling machine that secures the tree with cord.

(CLIP OF BALER)

GEORGE: Our customers, God bless ’em, they seem to be happy with what we have. They’re really loyal to us. If it’s 50 degrees and sunny the Saturday after Thanksgiving, they can spend hours with the kids and the dogs and Grandma and Grandpa choosing their perfect Christmas tree and it’s just so happy. But they will also come out if it’s 10 degrees with a 30-mile-an-hour wind and it’s just, they choose their tree a little more quickly (laughs), but they still are in a really good mood when they come back into the barn to get their hot chocolate and buy their donuts.

WAILIN: After Christmas tree selling season ends, the Richardsons spend the winter on bookkeeping and making plans for the next season. New trees get planted when the ground starts to thaw, followed by corn and soybeans, which the family still grows as cash crops. Then comes the corn for the corn maze and the pumpkins. On Labor Day, the Richardson Adventure Farm opens to the public. The farm’s signature attraction is the corn maze, which spans 10 miles of trails over 28 acres.

GEORGE: We started the corn maze out of necessity because my brother and I were raising pigs and they weren’t doing so well at that particular time, 1998. The market crashed and we lost a lot of money. We used all our Christmas tree income to pay for pig feed and we’re like, this is not what we planned on. This is not going to be very, not very much fun. So we needed something else and we kind of figured out that we liked dealing with the public, so we weren’t afraid of something like that that dealt with agritourism.

WAILIN: At that time, the late 90s, the idea of agritourism — turning agricultural activity into a consumer-facing entertainment business — was still fairly novel. But the Richardsons felt they had a knack for it, based on their success with the Christmas trees. They decided to expand their tourism business on the 540 acres they owned. They hired a corn maze designer from Idaho to help them get started.

GEORGE: He had manufactured up this huge aluminum backpack thing that must have weighed 50 pounds, with a GPS on it and a battery to operate the whole thing, and he would walk, so the GPS locator dot followed the lines of the trail on his computer screen. He would walk the pattern into the cornfield and we would take spray cans of paint and paint behind his left heel a dashed line (laughs) where he was walking. Oh man, that was fun to see the design to take shape; that was really something. Now, of course, he’s much more sophisticated. Same guy that we used our very first year, we still design the maze with him and he comes out and cuts the design into the cornfield. We plant the corn north-south and east-west, so we don’t have rows of corn, we have a nice dense stand, so it looks very good in the aerial photograph, and he still comes out when the corn is about 12 inches high, has GPS mounted on his tractor, hooked in with his computer that’s got the design.

WAILIN: The Richardsons pride themselves on their intricate maze. This year’s design was Chicago Blackhawks-themed in honor of the team winning the Stanley Cup. It’s not a true maze because there are multiple exit points, a nod to people who are short on patience or might just need to get out in a hurry to use the restroom. Others spend hours exploring it. More than half of the farm’s fall visitors come after 6 pm so they can walk the maze on a starry night, using the light from their cell phones for extra illumination. During full moon weekends, the farm stays open until midnight. And the Richardsons didn’t stop at the corn maze. You can reserve a campfire and have a picnic, feed goats and try something called zorbing, which involves getting strapped into a clear plastic ball and rolling down a hill.

GEORGE: I think we added a 50-foot long slide at first, and then we had some pedal carts. Then we added some kiddie tricycles and the 50-foot tall observation tower at the base of the world’s largest corn maze because you can get up and look at part of the design, it’s really fun. And then we’ve continued to add jumping pillows and a carousel and now we have a train ride and a 700-foot zip line, zorbing, lots of activities. We have to keep up, keep adding value to it so we fight for that consumer dollar and make it worth their while.

WAILIN: Eventually, the Christmas trees and the fall activities did well enough that Robert and George Richardson were able to get out of pig farming entirely. The only pigs you’ll find today are the ones competing in the pig races during the fall. Here’s Wendy Richardson, George’s wife.

WENDY: We do call the pig races and afterwards, people are amazed that really there are Richardsons, that the name didn’t come from the road or whatever, and they like to talk to us. They like to talk to Carol, she’s up front, one of the first people that they see. Robert’s always right around the front and they love to see there are actually Richardsons to talk to. And they like the history.

WAILIN: The ability to talk to a real-life Richardson is part of the farm’s overall appeal, which is about selling a certain kind of rural nostalgia or an idealized version of farm life, an escape from suburban sprawl. It’s romantic in all the ways that pig farming most definitely was not.

GEORGE: Sometimes my brother and I, we’ll just chuckle with each other, remembering some horrendous zero-degree day when we were trying to keep all the pigs warm or the water thawed and how different our life is now. There is nothing I miss about pigs. That was a fine business, raised my family, put the kids through college, it was just fine. But I really love entertaining people, having folks come to the farm and have a wonderful time, and it makes me feel very good.

WAILIN: Ryan, George’s son, joined the business in 2007. He had been living in Florida when the family asked him to help build the 50-foot observation tower overlooking the corn maze. At the same time, his grandfather was sick, and he had recently been a groomsman in a wedding where he hit it off with one of the bridesmaids, who lived in Illinois.

RYAN: I’m just happily living in Florida doing my thing, and then I had a tower to build, a grandpa to take care of and this girl Kristin I couldn’t get out of my mind. So that happened in like three days of each other, so I was like well okay, so I called my best buddy Marlon and said, “You better get a plane ticket, man. We’re gonna need a U-Haul. We’re gonna need to load all this stuff back up and go back to Illinois.”

WAILIN: Ryan’s the only one of his siblings who’s involved with the business, and it’s a natural fit for him.

RYAN: I’ve always been a little farm boy, always. Whenever Mom couldn’t find me in the house, you’d go look in the barn because I was totting my way out there after Dad, and that’s just kind of how I was.

WAILIN: Ryan is now married to Kristin now, and they have two children, but he’s still happily following a path that George, Robert and previous generations of Richardsons helped prepare.

GEORGE: We like to talk about our history because it is very unusual in the business world, to have a business go for this many generations. That does require sacrifices by the elder generations to make sure it gets into the hands of the younger ones and generally, the older generation has to forgo being a multimillionaire to make sure it continues. But we love seeing the business go forward, very happy to hand it over to Ryan lock, stock and barrel someday. And maybe when I’m 99, I’ll actually retire and enjoy life. (Laughs) No, I’m enjoying life now so that’s the wrong thing to say.

WAILIN: The Distance is produced by Shaun Hildner and me, Wailin Wong. Our illustrations are done by Nate Otto. This is our last episode of the year and we’re already hard at work on stories for 2016. If you know of a super interesting business that’s at least 25 years old, email us at tips@thedistance.com, or tweet at us. We’re @distancemag, that’s at distance M A G. The Distance is a production of Basecamp, the leading app for keeping teams on the same page about whatever they’re working on. Your first Basecamp is completely free forever. Try the brand new Basecamp Three for yourself at basecamp.com/thedistance.

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