Steve Matter: Transcript

Egg hatchery
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What I like best about the chick business is that it's so tied together with spring and the renewal of life. And we've always been able to come in here and produce hundreds of thousands of baby chicks in the spring. And it just gives everybody sort of a rejuvenation of life in general. We have so many kids …

My name is Steven Matter. I live in Decorah, Iowa. I run the Decorah Chick Hatchery. This has been a family-owned business since 1923. And I'm the third generation in the family to take over the hatchery and run it as an ongoing business.

Why do I do the chick business? Well, partly because it is a family tradition. I went to college. I went to a year of graduate school also, in Nebraska, at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, and I turned out to be very homesick. And I wasn't driven to actually pursue my academic studies in the field I was in. And I thought to myself that my dad would appreciate me coming back to town to take over the chicken hatchery. My two other brothers, it didn't work out for them. They went on to different professions also. And I was the youngest and the last of the family to have the opportunity, so I did. And I'm not exactly sure what was the overriding reason I did this, but I did come back and take over the business that my grandfather had established. And I have no regrets.

My grandfather was kind of an entrepreneur, you would say. He came to this area in the late 1800s, and he settled north of town. And he was a hard-working German immigrant who—actually his father was the immigrant, but he started a uh, Matter's Ballroom which was a somewhat famous dancehall. There was a cave on the grounds that they happened to discover by accident—that's another story—where I understand that they were missing a pig. And the pig was found in a sinkhole, sort of, and it turned out that the sinkhole then was the entrance to a cave. It was called Wonder Cave.

And the chick hatchery he began, too, out there at that homestead north of town. That was started in 1923, and it burned to the ground in 1928. And they came into Decorah at that time on Water Street, which is actually the main thoroughfare of Decorah, and bought a building that was—had been built by another business person. And in 1928 they started the hatchery here in Decorah.

In those days, and even up into the ’60s and ’70s, Decorah, for instance, had four hatcheries. Every small Midwestern city—I don't know the exact figures—but I would say almost every town had a hatchery or two, because raising poultry was a very viable, economically beneficial business for farmers to be in. And there were so many more farmers in those days, of course. Every farmer had chickens. And there was a farm every 160 acres, sometimes more than, more farms than that even. And the women would raise the—would tend to raise the chick flock.

Slowly, as agriculture changed over the years and less farmers were there—and there were some price cycles that drove out some people who did raise chickens, because it was just too much to keep up. And it's the same way today with certain types of livestock and prices. The up and down cycles are sort of hard to manage financially. So the upshot is that in Iowa, there's probably just a half dozen hatcheries left, I would say, that are viable.