Fourth-generation McLean County farmers continue "harvesting memories just on the edge of Normal"
By Mary Ann Ford
Each year when summer begins to wind down and fall is on the horizon, thousands of people exit the heavily-traveled Interstates and head to the corn-lined country roads in rural northwest Normal for a day of “farm-tastic fun” at Rader Family Farms.
“We usually have about 50,000 people come each year,” said Adam Rader, one of several family members involved in the operation. “They come from St. Louis and Chicago. We keep drawing people from further and further away.”
While Adam said, “This whole thing has been a surprise to us,” the family – which includes Adam, his brother, Arin; sister, Amy Hughes; and parents, Lynn and Linda Rader – has embraced the success. They are celebrating their 10th anniversary this year, and the Raders are adding activities to keep their visitors busy – and teach them a little about farm life.
Adam said the general theme of the 12 acres devoted to the Rader Family Farms operation is agriculture, and the family has come up with unique ways to re-invent common agriculture-related items throughout.
The 30 different activities for kids include two culverts that were converted into a double barrel shoot slide and two corn bins – now affectionately known as “Corny Bins” – where kids can play in a two-foot sea of corn kernels while parents watch through window portholes.
Tractor tires were used to make a climbing tower; tree logs were turned into a horse (complete with saddle) so visitors can try their hand at roping a steer; and old oil barrels were turned into a critter cart tram.
Old-fashioned water pumps are the force behind the duck pump races, and an old hog feeder was turned into a pub table.
This year, an old box truck was painted with chalkboard paint so visitors can use sidewalk chalk to “leave your mark on Rader Family Farms.”
Kids six years old and younger can play in a child-sized village -- shopping at a market, delivering the mail from the post office, counting money at the bank, or working on the farm.
There’s also a huge jumping pillow; an apple blaster that shoots apples 200 meters; a race track with home-made pedal carts; and the Grand Ole Acre singing corn show featuring Bob the Cob and his friends in an animated show – just to name a few.
Besides encouraging kids to use their imagination, Adam, who majored in agriculture and horticulture in college, also wanted to bring in some educational components to the farm; as a result, he started planting trees last year from around Illinois across the visitors’ area.
“I have 50 trees native to Illinois,” he said. “We have maps that lead them around in a self-guided tour.”
Each tree has a plaque that explains the type of tree and its characteristics.
Another educational component at the farm is a crop circle that allows visitors to “see crops close up.” There are eight crops that are widely grown in the state: sweet corn, oats, field corn, wheat, pumpkins, soybeans, alfalfa and sorghum.
Visitors also can get to know a little about farm animals, including donkeys, piglets, goats, a dairy calf, chickens and a turkey at the petting zoo.
For many, one of the highlights of the farm is the corn mazes – a one-acre kiddie corn maze and a 10+-acre elaborate labyrinth with two options, a half-hour phase or an hour phase. There also are night mazes.
Adam said a computer program is used to plant the mazes. This year’s large maze highlights the farm’s 10th anniversary. It includes a scarecrow, sunflowers, and a path shaped like the family dog.
Participants get a map outlining multiple checkpoints. There also are four bridges that allow you to enjoy the view from a higher vantage point.
In the early years of the operation as the family started adding more and more activities and families stayed longer and longer, Adam said they realized they needed to also offer food options.
That has now blossomed to several options: the Barnyard Grill, Sidekick Grill, Pumpkin Blossom Café, Harvest Brew Coffee Shop and the Popcorn Shack.
Among their specialties are homemade doughnuts (you can watch them being made), kettle corn, apple cider slushes and homemade cheese curds from nearby Ropp Cheese.
“When we started, we didn’t know what we were getting into,” said Adam. “We started with pumpkins then realized families come back again and again and we could create an experience for them.”
Adam and his siblings are the fourth generation of Raders on the farmstead. Margaret and Glenn Rader operated a dairy farm at the site for many years before Glenn’s death. Their son, Lynn Rader, changed it to a crop farm and always had sweet corn he sold at a corner stand and at the farm. (The family still farms 2,700 acres of corn and soybeans. Arin Rader manages that operation.)
Adam said one year his dad “grew pumpkins for fun.” There were a few years of bumper crops, so Lynn Rader would sell them through the “honor system” at a stand in front of the farm.
The family then expanded to offer pumpkins, crafts, and a few activities for kids in an animal barn. In 2009, they started the corn maze and built a big barn for a coffee shop and the Pumpkin Blossom Café as well as some retail.
They’ve expanded their offerings each year since and developed a motto: “Harvesting memories just on the edge of Normal.”
And they aren’t done yet. Adam said the family is working on a five-year plan to build another big barn that would allow the operation to expand from just a September-October destination to include events for other seasons, including Christmas.
Adam, Arin, and Amy also have a combined eight children to hopefully carry on the effort for years to come.
Rader Family Farms is open seven days a week, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. weekdays and 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. weekends, from Sept. 8 through Oct. 30. For more information, a list of special events and ticket information go to raderfamilyfarms.com.