Studies show that for many people, a top regret is not being “true to yourself” and following your dreams. That won’t happen to Steve Richardson. In mid-life, he left the city, moved to the country and made his dreams come true.
He’s known by many local folks as “the chicken man,” but not everyone knows the journey he took to arrive here. “I was 42 years old, owned a trucking company in the Chicago area,” he says. “But what I really wanted was chickens.
“I had this idea that there must be more to life,” he adds. Even after he became successful in business, he still had doubts. “I had a house, a car, a business. I didn’t want more things, I wanted a different life. I began to think that stress and pressure didn’t have to be default conditions.”
He read everything he could find on how to raise chickens and began looking for land to buy. “The further north I went, the cheaper the land got,” he recalls. “I wanted something picturesque with some privacy, and that’s how I ended up in Rhinelander in 1992.”
Even after all his research, Steve was a bit nervous about diving into chicken farming. “I know there’s nothing that compares to experience, and I had none,” he says. “I figured that I’d meet other farmers and get some tips, but that didn’t really happen. In fact, pretty soon I became the go-to chicken expert myself.”
While he didn’t set out to become a market farmer, it wasn’t long before he felt the urge to sell his eggs and meat. “I wanted to see if this could be a viable business. I got together with other growers and producers in the area and helped to organize the Hodag Farmers Market,” he explains.
That in itself was very rewarding, he points out. “The idea of being totally independent isn’t realistic,” he says. “We are all interdependent, that’s a fact. Building self-reliance is absolutely positive, but in the real world, we need each other.”
Somewhere in the midst of the success, Steve’s marriage ended and he lost his land. It was a blow, he admits, and it took him a while to get up and going again.
But he’s home again now, living on and working a beautiful piece of the Northwoods near Hat Rapids Dam that he has dubbed Shaky Acres. Over the course of a year, he shares the place with more 1,500 poultry, including turkeys, geese, meat chickens and laying hens, a couple dozen pigs, a cat and a dog named Gizmo.
“It can be a hard business,” he admits. “Animals die; I have a nice flock of buzzards overhead. And butchering day is not my favorite. I don’t do much of that myself, though. I ship my animals to a licensed plant for processing, so the meat can be sold.”
And, of course, producing the eggs and meat is only part of the deal. As with most business enterprises, the entrepreneur learns to multi-task.
“Marketing is a whole different discipline,” he says. “You have to like people and like selling. During the summer months, I set up at three or four area markets every week. I explain my products hundreds of times a day.”
His stall is quite elaborate, containing freezers and a refrigerator all hauled in a trailer. Large signs advertise his meat products and a table displays the latest Shaky Acres garden produce.
Watching Steve with his customers, it’s easy to see he’s a people person. Many folks who pass by his stall are greeted by name; those coming late to the market are disappointed but not surprised that he’s run out of eggs and say they’ll make sure to come early next time.
Unlike many of the sellers at the market, Steve doesn’t deal strictly in cash. Several years ago, he invested in what was then ground-breaking technology to process credit cards through a smart phone.
“This isn’t like buying a bunch of carrots for a couple of bucks,” he says. “I sell chicken and pork by the pound, so I need to offer this convenience.” Steve also brings his laptop computer along. “I’m able to update my inventory at the point of sale,” he says. “That makes it easier for me to keep track of what I have and where.”
He maintains a website and Facebook page where his friends and customers can see how things are growing and what they might expect to find at his stall. Although he doesn’t consider himself a great authority on computer technology, he’s made good use of social media to make connections.
A couple of years ago, Steve began to realize his operation had gotten a bit too large for his comfort. “There’s only so much one man can do. I’m not any stronger, but I’m thinner,” he admits. “It was just getting to be too much.”
He brought on two partners, Katie Schramke and Ben Yonker, to share the work and the homestead. “I’ve never been much of a gardener, and Katie is very good,” he says. “Ben agreed to help with the pigs, so we’ve expanded that part of the operation.”
This spring, the three farmers fenced off a large area beside the existing garden and let the pigs loose. “The pigs did a great job,” says Steve. “They not only got rid of the weeds, but dug up the roots and rhizomes. Now the garden is much bigger and Katie has it looking great.”
Come late autumn, Shaky Acres will start to wind down. Steve will butcher the last chickens and turkeys, sell most of the laying hens and pack his market stall equipment away. With Katie and Ben there to watch over the farm, maybe he’ll do some traveling.
His old life in the city is just a memory now. “There was always an ambient hum of stress,” he recalls. “I have stress now, sometimes, but it passes quickly. I can be high energy when I need to be, but I can relax when the time comes. I can do the chores and take a long nap.”
And that’s just the way he likes it.
Sue Schneider is a freelance writer who lives in Rhinelander. Her articles have also appeared in Northwoods Commerce™ and Living on the Lake™ magazines.