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Ben Bretthauer retired from the local electrical union in Topeka in 2009. But it doesn’t look much like retirement at his place south of Eudora, and he seems to be a pretty busy man. He tends a big flock of chickens, sells eggs and has a huge vegetable garden. After following him around as he showed me his chicken setup, I got the distinct impression that he isn’t a guy who sits around and twiddles his thumbs.
Just a year after Bretthauer retired, he had major heart surgery. When he recovered he decided it was time for a small business and he started raising chickens. He began by incubating 40 eggs, ending up with 28 chicks. That didn’t seem like enough to bring in much income so he went to a local farm supply store and discovered that he could buy already hatched chicks pretty inexpensively. He bought all the store had left. Right now he has about 70 hens of many varieties, 6 roosters and 60 brown chicks peeping in their warm cage.
Raising chickens is not an easy job. Bretthauer is out early each morning and again in the evening feeding, watering, gathering eggs and then cleaning eggs. Protecting the chickens adds to the work load, which is why he has had to build what the calls “a fortress” to keep raccoons and coyotes from getting his birds. Tall fences keep his chickens in large pens where they can scratch for bugs and wander about, though while we were visiting a big white chicken flew right over the fence just to show that she could. The chickens have to be shut up in their houses each night, and let out in the morning.
“It makes it impossible to go anywhere,” said Ben’s wife Diana. “You always have to be here to close them up at night and let them out again in the morning.”
Being in the egg business is not easy money, either. “I lost money last year because I lost so many hens,” said Bretthauer. “It’s hard out here in the country to keep them alive.”
Besides predators actually stealing the chickens, Bretthauer has to watch for possums that eat the eggs and even guard against chickens that become cannibals and attack the others. The hens and roosters all looked pretty peaceable when I was there, but apparently cannibalism is not an uncommon problem among the flock. Who would have thought?
Though a lot of work is involved, the Bretthauers enjoy the benefits of raising chickens: they have lots of fresh, farm eggs for themselves and they have plenty of customers to buy the extras. Plus, their granddaughters Ryan and Avery, who stay with Ben and Diana while their parents work, get the pleasure of helping their grandpa with the egg gathering, something three-year-old Avery was enjoying while I was there.
When he’s not tending the chickens, Bretthauer can often be found working in his massive garden. He already has 35 pounds of potatoes and a lot of onions in the ground. He’ll raise enough beets to sell to a grocery store in Lawrence, and that will cover most of his gardening expenses. He’s out of the cattle business now but raised them until recently.
Ben Bretthauer isn’t living a life of leisure in retirement, but he is doing things he enjoys. And if staying active keeps you young, I’d say he’ll be around for a long time.