Farm Progress

From a wholesale fruit production operation to a pick-your-own family destination, here’s a look at one St. Clair family’s business since 1910.

Jill Loehr, Associate Editor, Prairie Farmer

June 14, 2017

8 Min Read
IN STORES OR PICK YOUR OWN: Most of the Eckert’s Orchard peach crop is sold wholesale through grocery store chains like Hy-Vee, Schnucks and Jewel-Osco, says Chris Eckert, president of Eckert’s. People seeking a day on the farm can enjoy the pick-your-own experience.

It’s a storybook Midwest summer day, with blue skies, fluffy white clouds and typical mid-July humidity. It could be your imagination, but the air smells a little sweeter. You hear an antique tractor chugging along in the distance and see children wandering through trees with their parents and grandparents.

It’s peach pickin’ time.

But wait. Peaches? In Illinois?

At Eckert’s Orchard, located nearly 20 miles southeast of St. Louis in Belleville, you can pick your own peaches, apples, strawberries, vegetables, pumpkins and more.

To this day, Chris Eckert, president of Eckert’s, is a little shocked by their pick-your-own business success.

“We can’t find people to pay to pick fruit,” he explains. “Now, people come and pay us to pick fruit. It’s a funny thing.”

Eckert’s Orchard wasn’t always a pick-your-own destination, Chris explains. It began as a typical family farm.

A family tradition from fathers to sons
Johann Eckert moved into St. Clair County in 1837 and established a livestock and grain farm roughly 12 miles east from Eckert’s Orchard. Keeping up with traditions at the time, Chris explains, Johann bought his sons a farm. Johann’s son Michael planted the first orchard in 1862 so his family could save fruit for the winter.

Henry, Michael’s only son to live to adulthood, planted more fruit trees and was the first Eckert to produce fruit commercially. Henry’s journals document the family’s history and business ventures, Chris notes, including how he traded beer for bricklayer time to build the farmstead home in 1881. That same year, Chris’s great-grandfather Alvin was born.

The entrepreneurial spirit that burns in all the Eckerts was especially bright in Alvin. His gift for rope and horse tricks took Alvin and his neighbor west to start an entertainment company that performed during rodeo half-time shows. “The Turkey Hill Rough Riders didn’t last long,” Chris says, laughing; the pair quickly returned to Illinois.

Shortly after his homecoming, Alvin opened the first roadside retail stand in 1910 to have more control over the price of his family’s fruit.

Embracing change
Alvin threw his heart and soul into the family business, Chris explains. In 1927, he relocated his retail shop to where Eckert’s stands today. Alvin’s three sons graduated from the University of Illinois, purchased more land, and expanded commercial production and retail operations until the 1950s.

“That’s when wholesale apples became a staple,” Chris notes. “We became the largest apple grower in Illinois, growing wholesale apples for throughout the Midwest.”

Business was steady, but the innovative Eckert mindset led to a new adventure as the family launched their pick-your-own fruit business in 1963.

“It turned out to be pretty popular,” Chris notes.

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WORKING WITH FAMILY: “Farming has a way of making everyone respect each other’s failures,” says Chris Eckert, president of Eckert’s Orchard. “And there’s a lot of ways you can fail in this business.”

As the pick-your-own business boomed, the wholesale business declined. Interstates made apple transport from California and Washington more cost-effective, and customers bought a few apples instead of several pounds to make applesauce and apple butter for the winter. Foot traffic was up, but sales were down, Chris notes.

“In the ’80s we realized, we’re not in the apple business, we’re in the entertainment business” he explains. “Families make memories on our farm.”

Proximity to St. Louis was a blessing and a curse, with plenty of families to enjoy the food stands, funnel cakes, petting zoo and mini-golf, yet the city was getting uncomfortably close to the orchard, Chris notes.

Eckert’s received multiple offers from developers seeking land for strip malls and gas stations. A new Super Walmart drove sales down 10%. “It was a wake-up call,” Chris remembers.

Overcoming adversity
In 2008, the Eckerts realized they needed to up their game to remain a reoccurring family tradition. They invested $6 million in a new specialty market store, with fresh fruit, meat, vegetables and locally sourced popcorn, cheese and eggs, followed by a new “comfort foods” restaurant in 2010.

After a monumental reinvestment, Mother Nature dealt Eckert’s a major blow: the 2012 drought and the 2014 polar vortex. “Two crop failures out of four years following a major capital expansion — that was no fun,” Chris remembers.

Eckert’s lost 45% of their peach crop in 2012. What’s worse? Crop insurance only covered a 50% loss.  “That was a lose-lose situation,” he adds.

The irrigated apples survived the drought, but customer numbers were still down by 15%. “The media coverage about the drought and devastation to crops in the area was so powerful, everyone assumed we lost our apple crop,” Chris notes. “The bad thing about that situation is you don’t have time to react and cut back on expenses. You already invested in growing the crop, and you don’t have revenue from selling it.”

How do you get more families to the orchard? “Adversity is the mother of invention,” Chris says with a smile.

The Eckerts added a pick-your-own vegetable patch and took to social media with gusto in 2013.

“It transformed our marketing,” Chris notes. “We wouldn’t have made such a big jump if we weren’t forced to, but you learn from the hard times and come out the other side better and stronger.”

Then, one short year later, the polar vortex cost Eckert’s Orchard nearly all of its 70,000 to 80,000 bushels of peaches. Crop insurance covered the loss, Chris notes, and the business was able to cut back on inputs and harvest costs early in the season.

“Financially, that wasn’t as big of a blow [as the drought], because you could prepare for it. But we couldn’t grow or reinvest in the business,” he notes. Five unpredictable years after their expansion, Eckert’s Orchard began showing a profit in 2015.

The secret to working with family
Today, Eckert’s Orchard belongs to the sixth and seventh generations. Jim Eckert is president and chief horticulturist. Chris took over as president after his father, Lary Eckert, retired. Chris’s sister, Jill Eckert Tantillo, is vice president of marketing and food services, and Chris’s wife, Angie, is vice president of retail operations.

How do they all manage to work together successfully? It comes down to understanding and respect, Chris explains. A board of directors, which includes family members and upper management, meets six times a year and formally votes on major decisions like capital investments.

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SPECIAL FINISH: Eckert’s works with cattle farmer Jack McCormick to obtain beef from cattle that spend an extra two to three weeks on grain prior to processing for extra marbling. McCormick changed his production process to provide Eckert’s year-round fresh beef.

The board seeks advice four times a year from a non-family and non-employee advisory board, which includes a local specialty restaurant owner, a former Fortune 100 company executive, a local hospital chief financial officer and another local entrepreneur. “The advisory board brings in a mix of backgrounds, ages and perspectives,” Chris notes.

The Eckert’s management team meets every Monday morning to discuss day-to-day operations, like schedules and pick-your-own prices. A marketing committee also meets weekly, Chris adds, to plan Eckert’s extensive social media plan.

“I’m very fortunate that I come from a family that has a lot of respect for one another,” he notes. “We work really hard to be open, honest and understanding.”

The future of Eckert’s Orchard
The next generation of Eckerts is still young, but succession planning is already in progress. The family wants to make sure coming back to the orchard is a possibility, Chris explains, for family members who meet the required education and outside employment criteria. The Eckerts’ children have some of the best hands-on experience possible growing up around the pick-your-own business, but the family recognizes the importance of working for non-family members in a different environment.

“People need fresh perspective and new ideas to reintroduce into the business,” Chris notes. “It’s important that everyone gets a look at what life is like outside of the business and make sure it’s for you.

“Ag is a challenging industry,” he adds. “It’s a lot of work, and not always the best hours. It’s weekends and long days, and a lots of things are outside of your control. You want to make sure people are committed once they come back to the farm.”

 

Quick facts: Peaches and apples

Apple orchards in Illinois
2007: 2,500 acres
2015: 1,700 acres
1 acre = 1,000 bushels

Peach orchards in Illinois
2007: 1,600 acres
2015: 1,200 acres
1 acre = 400 to 500 bushels

Grandma Eckert’s Peach Custard Pie

3 cups peeled, sliced peaches (about 7 peaches)
1 (9-inch) unbaked pie shell
2 eggs, beaten
2/3 cup sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoon flour
1/2 cup light cream or milk
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

Arrange fruit in bottom of pie shell. In a mixing bowl, combine eggs, sugar, salt and flour; add cream and vanilla, and stir until smooth. Pour mixture over fruit. Bake at 400 degrees F for 10 minutes; reduce oven temperature to 375 degrees F and bake for an additional 40 to 50 minutes, or until knife inserted in center comes out clean.

About the Author(s)

Jill Loehr

Associate Editor, Prairie Farmer, Loehr

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