These days, however, Sean and Alejandra Finn are doing much more than raising their two sons Nicholas (10) and Matthew (8). Three years ago, the Finn family packed up their belongings and moved from the South side of Chicago to a farmhouse in Buchanan. They traded a suburban neighborhood for 14 acres of land and replaced the convenience of city life with a dirt road and a pasture full of cows. They took a chance on a new way of life and, by all accounts, it was a pretty good bet. During my recent visit to Finn’s Steak and Eggs Ranch, I learned that sometimes the best things in life aren’t exactly planned.
As Sean tells it, the big move started out innocently enough. He continued to work in the floral business and Alejandra, employed in the same industry, was able to work from home a few days a week and commute to Chicago the rest. With plenty of land surrounding their farmhouse, Sean decided to put in a small pasture and purchased three cows for the sole purpose of raising them to feed his own family. Soon friends and other family members back in Chicago began placing orders, and, as demand grew, he realized there was quite a market for locally raised beef. To fill the increasing orders, Sean purchased a few more cows and added a couple chickens to the mix – delivering farm fresh eggs hand washed by Alejandra at their kitchen sink. Because many of their customers were from the Chicago area and didn’t have enough freezer space to store half or a quarter of a cow, Sean searched for a butcher who would package the meat into smaller orders. In addition, the butcher had to be USDA certified because legally the product couldn’t cross the state line without being processed in a USDA facility.
The Finns have also started the process to become a certified organic farm; a procedure that involves a lengthy application and site visits by state officials. To have a certified organic pasture, the land must be chemical free for three years. Of the 14 acres of land they own, six of the acres are currently used as pasture and they are continually taking down more timber to create more pasture. They also lease additional land from Buchanan residents to raise the beef to meet growing demand. There are 17 heads of cattle currently in their home pasture, another three in neighboring pastures, and 12 in Indiana, for a grand total of 32 cows. Sean’s goal is to eventually have his own breeding stock of 30 cows producing 30 calves. With help from his boys and his neighbor, Ron, they move the cattle from one side of the pasture to the other whenever the grass supply gets low.
Sean will tell you that he never intended to quit his day job and become a farmer, that it was a natural progression that just sort of “happened.” In fact, he knew very little about farming when he decided to buy that first cow. The ranch is a prime example of “learning by doing” and he credits many fellow farmers and friends he’s met along the way, either at the co-op or local farm supply stores, for helping him figure it all out.
He grew up in the city, but made frequent trips to visit his grandparents in northern Wisconsin where he spent a lot of time playing outside and fell in love with the great outdoors. As a teenager, he picked up hunting as a hobby and joined his brother on hunting trips to central Illinois to visit college friends who lived and farmed in the area. The love for the outdoors is what drew him to Coveney road in Buchanan; in this land he spotted the opportunity to spend his days in the wide-open spaces of the countryside. He laughed as he remembered that when they bought the house, he thought he would, “maybe buy a couple of chickens and a cow or two.” That simple plan has grown into a fully functioning farm with plans for expansion, and the city boy from the South Side of Chicago now spends his days moving cattle and repairing fences—and he wouldn’t trade it for the world.
The family has folded right into the fabric of their newly adopted hometown and many friendships with other Buchanan families were formed through summer nights spent at the ballpark and winter days watching floor hockey at the high school gym. Such is life in a small town, where community sports are the central attraction and connections are formed when cheering for the hometown team.
The Finn Family’s passion for this new lifestyle is evident in every aspect of the ranch. The free-range chickens happily roam over the rolling hills, their vibrant feathers adding a touch of color to the otherwise green landscape. Their clucks combine with the crow of the rooster and the quacks of the ducks to provide a continuous barnyard symphony. The fence lines that run the length of the property are well maintained and the cows they house are bright-eyed and muscular. It is clearly a labor of love and a sight to behold. When asked what he enjoys the most about trading in his business suits for flannel shirts, Sean responded that he loves the daily work involved in maintaining the farm and getting to spend his workdays in the fresh air. I can’t say I blame him. Judging by the view from their back deck, it’s hard to imagine how the concrete jungle could ever compare with the tree lined paradise of Coveney Road.