Joe Reaver of Hollyhock Hill Farms in rural Sterling, Ill., looks over his newest crop of broiler chicks. Reaver represents all facets of Whiteside County agriculture. He and his family raise conventional crops along with produce and poultry that they sell through the Twin City Farmers Market.
Joe Reaver of Hollyhock Hill Farms in rural Sterling, Ill., looks over his newest crop of broiler chicks. Reaver represents all facets of Whiteside County agriculture. He and his family raise conventional crops along with produce and poultry that they sell through the Twin City Farmers Market.
STERLING, Ill. — If there’s someone who represents all sides of Whiteside County agriculture, it could be Joe Reaver, owner, along with wife Margo, of Hollyhock Hill Farm.

The only thing is — the Reavers technically aren’t in Whiteside County.

By the barest of margins, their farm sits just over the county line, less than a mile from Whiteside County.

But the Reavers turn to Whiteside County when it comes to their big business — local food and local poultry.

“This whole chicken thing started out as a joke,” Reaver said.

He always has worked two jobs. He grew up on the farm he now lives on with Margo. He and Margo bought the farm from Joe’s dad in 1995.

Working as a heavy equipment operator for a local stone quarry company, Reaver played a joke on a coworker who was on a diet to lose weight. That diet involved eating a lot of chicken.

Reaver knew there would be payback for his prank, but he didn’t expect to find a box on the kitchen table one night.

“I came home from work one night and on the kitchen table, in a box, were all these baby chickens and a note, ‘Call me when they’re ready,’” he said.

Joe and Margo fixed up a corner of a shed on their farm and raised the chickens to adults.

“They started laying eggs, and people thought that was a big deal. They’d come here for fresh eggs,” he said.

Meanwhile, Reaver also was farming conventionally, raising corn, soybeans and wheat on the farm they owned, as well as several others.

Farmers Market

He and Margo were instrumental in helping start a new business for the area — an indoor, year-round farmers market at the former Twin City Produce building in downtown Sterling.

The demand for their fresh eggs surprised the Reavers.

“You take five dozen eggs a week and you think this is kind of a big deal and we got rid of them,” Joe Reaver said.

It wasn’t a question of the chicken or the egg, but what happened to the old chickens that brought the next phase of the Reaver’s poultry production. While the old laying hens didn’t make a market-quality product, Joe and Margo invested in baby broilers.

“We thought if we could raise 100 every quarter, we could really do well and we blew right past that,” he said.

They also were building up the market. Reaver sits on its board.

In addition, this year, Hollyhock Hill Farm will be on the Whiteside County Barn Tour, an annual event sponsored by the Sauk Valley Area Chamber of Commerce and the Whiteside County Farm Bureau.

The tour showcases historic and unusual barns and gives guests a glimpse into all the facets of agriculture past and present in the county.

Reaver said the traffic to the farmers market, which opened in 2005, has increased annually. Sterling Main Street has oversight of the market.

“It’s really, really grown. We have a lot of customers who keep coming back and a lot of new customers. We have a lot of young families who are worried that their children aren’t eating healthy,” Reaver said.

The market also has a waiting list for booth space. The Reavers and two other families bring local meat and poultry, and local bakers bring their goods, as do several artists and crafters.

“Right now, we’ve got a demand for people wanting to come in there and we just don’t have the room. We try to keep a balance because we don’t want too many of one thing,” he said.

Incubator Benefits

Reaver’s daughter, Heather Sotelo, heads up the Greater Sterling Development Corp., the entity that helped develop the Kitchen Incubator of Northwest Illinois.

It might be a proud father talking, but it’s also a savvy farmer-businessman when Reaver touts the benefits of the incubator.

“There are new businesses starting up out there. The incubator helps. There are people who started at the incubator who have sold their products at the market, and they go on to other places, too. In the summer, you could go to the incubator and can salsa or tomatoes and sell those. You don’t just throw that stuff out. You can make something out of it,” he said.

Reaver, who retired from his equipment operator job five years ago, jokes that he didn’t totally retire.

“I never did retire. We farm about 1,000 acres and we do this and it keeps us busy,” he said.

He and Margo, with son Patrick and his family and Heather and her family are the farm help in the summer and during the busy season.

The poultry operation has grown some from that box of baby chicks left on their kitchen table as a joke.

“Right now, we try to butcher 900 chickens a month,” Joe Reaver said.

The Reaver farm sits near the Rock River, which flows through Whiteside County. It’s one of the natural features that some Whiteside farmers deal with in their operations.

The county also has its share of infrastructure projects. The controversial Rock Island Clean Line merchant transmission line route is planned to travel eight miles through the county. U.S. 30, which bisects the county, is undergoing widening construction.

The county has an active agri-tourism program, with the summertime Whiteside County Barn Tour being a highlight of that program.