by Sally Colby
The Richardsons takes a big approach to everything they do, and it’s paid off for the multi-generation Spring Grove, IL, family. After graduating from the University of Illinois, brothers George and Robert Richardson returned to the farm and have since initiated a variety of farm enterprises.
“Robert was in agronomy; I was in ag engineering,” said George. “We had real jobs off the farm, about four years each. Robert came back to farm with my parents and a couple years later, I came back.” The brothers became the fifth generation to continue on the farm and have since welcomed George and Wendy’s son Ryan as the sixth generation in the farm business.
Although the family had been raising corn, soybeans, pigs and beeves, the 425-acre farm wouldn’t support more than one family. The brothers decided to focus on raising pigs, and did so on several properties.
“I remember my dad saying ‘What’s next after pigs?’” said George. “We were young and had just started, so that was a crazy question to ask. We talked about pick-your-own strawberries but they’re way too close to the ground, then considered apple trees, but there’s a good apple orchard close to us. We decided to try Christmas trees.”
The family planted 1,000 trees in 1981, but George said they weren’t familiar with weed control and other cultivation practices. They joined the state Christmas tree association and the National Christmas Tree Association, attended field days and talked to as many people as they could to learn how to grow saleable Christmas trees.
“In 1986, we put a sign out on the road and sold about 186 trees,” said George. “We lined an old two-car garage with plywood and added some insulation and a heater – that was our sales barn. It was a small start, but we loved talking with people who were ecstatic to come to the farm and choose a tree.”
The Richardsons continued growing Christmas trees along with raising pigs, and after about 10 years of selling trees, they decided they preferred the people business. The crash of the pig market in 1998 spurred new perspective on the farm’s future.
The family knew they needed to consider other ag enterprises to keep the farm viable. “There was an article in a magazine about corn mazes, and how you only lose about one-third of the crop to the trails and can still harvest the corn,” said George. “Corn mazes were just starting to become popular so it sounded like an easy gamble.”
The Richardsons attended a seminar on corn mazes and saw the potential for creating one on their farm. “We planted the corn north-south and east-west, about half population each way,” said George. “Robert thought ‘As long as we’re doing it, let’s try to be the world’s largest.’ We planted 18 acres with seven miles of trails. It didn’t cost that much to go big.”
When the maze opened in October 2001, a steady stream of cars arrived on the farm. “I have no idea where they parked or how many people came that day,” said George. “The first year we had almost 25,000 people – we were flabbergasted.”
The second year, the family planted corn for a maze across the road, which allowed more space for campfires and picnic tables. They choose a different theme every year in their quest to be the world’s largest corn maze with an impressive picture. As private pilots, both George and Robert could take aerial photos for advertising. “A picture in the corn got everyone’s attention,” said George. “We spent a lot of time designing spectacular pictures and printing those on the maps we gave people so they could see how it looked from the air.”
Crowds grew each year as the Richardsons promoted the farm as having the world’s largest corn maze. “We kept the moniker,” said George, explaining the claim. “We qualified it with ‘world’s largest, most intricately designed corn maze’ because there’s a maze in California that’s bigger. The design of the trails is 20 feet on center, with empty spaces so the picture stands out, and we try to fill the whole field with trails.”
From the time they began their agritourism venture, the Richardsons were aware that people enjoyed visiting the rural countryside but wanted it to be nice when they arrived. To that end, the family maintains attractively painted buildings, an air-conditioned gift shop, shaded pavilions, ample flush toilets and permanent flower beds around the grounds.
Always seeking something new, the family hosted a tulip festival this past spring. The original design involved 10,000 bulbs, but then they decided 50,000 would be better. They eventually settled on putting 300,000 bulbs in the ground. “We covered about five acres with walking trails,” said George. “In Richardson style, with three full-time families, we needed to generate income to keep the farm going. It was go big or go home.”
It took about one week in November with a mechanical planter to plant all the bulbs. “They came up beautifully in spring, and we had a great tulip festival,” George said. “We had 30 varieties, with 10,000 bulbs of each variety.”
Rather than relying on last year’s bulbs to provide the same dazzle as they did in 2021, the Richardsons will plant 300,000 12-centimeter bulbs for a new color block this coming spring. “A tulip festival that size and outside Chicago attracts a lot of attention,” said George. “In a field situation, we don’t expect tulips to be as perfect from year to year as they are in a backyard where they’re more protected. We might have 15% to 20% loss [of last year’s] bulbs and the blooms may not be as large.” George said they’ll likely use last year’s planting for U-pick.
By now, the Richardsons had grown in the “people business” and knew that if they expected people to drive an hour or more to come to the farm, visitors wouldn’t be content to look at tulips and go home. Wendy said the tulip fields were near the farm’s 36-acre lake, with picnic tables, food trucks, music and yard games. “People sat at tables, laughed and talked and told us how happy they were,” she said. “They were excited there was something for the whole family.”
This summer, visitors will be treated to another new attraction: a sunflower festival. George said with a solid customer base, it’s worth adding another crop that draws people to the farm. “We’ll build a new festival area with food trucks, games, music and our own carousel,” he said. “The gift shop is open and we’ll feature sunflower related items as well as a local winery with tastings.”
In keeping with their “go big” mantra, the Richardsons selected 24 sunflower varieties planted in an intricate pattern on 13 acres. Seeds were planted by color and mature height to create a memorable visual experience.
Since the farm’s Christmas tree enterprise remains a major portion of the business, Wendy planted 13,000 seedlings this past spring. Each year, the farm sells about 7,000 U-cut trees and offers pre-cut trees. “We still love the Christmas tree business,” said George. “People have been coming here for 30 years – there are a lot of good stories around Christmas trees.”
With almost year-round attractions, the Richardsons make sure visitors are familiar with each season’s features. “Cross marketing is important,” said George. “We work hard on that to make sure everyone knows what we have. When people come to see the sunflowers and see the corn maze grounds, they’re going to see four-foot-square pictures of our tulip fields around the grounds and in the gift shop.”
Visit Richardson Farm online at RichardsonAdventureFarm.com.