By Joanie Stiers
Chris Eckert’s grandfather from four greats ago likely didn’t foresee that urban development would be his farming family’s biggest challenge, yet its most exciting opportunity at the same time.
The Eckert family’s German ancestors began farming in southwestern Illinois in 1837, with commercial fruit production a primary focus since near 1900. Today, the sixth and seventh generations operate Eckert’s Country Store and Farms, which has grown to become the largest you-pick apple and peach orchard in the nation. The business serves a half million customers per year at its locations in Belleville, Millstadt and Grafton, all within 20 to 50 minutes of St. Louis.
“Our biggest challenge going forward is urban sprawl,” says Eckert, company president and a seventh generation operator of the family business. “We’re on the edge of the city limits, and part of the ground we have historically farmed is being developed. We have to sharpen our retail saw and be able to compete in a very tough market place.”
The Millstadt and Grafton retail farms, open seasonally, focus on apples and pumpkins. Belleville is the heart of the family business, where its year-round operations include a gourmet specialty food store, 200-seat restaurant, ice cream shop, and lawn-and-garden center. Customers select from seasonal homegrown peaches, apples, pumpkins, strawberries, blackberries, tomatoes and Christmas trees.
“Today our focus has really turned toward the retail business,” Eckert says. “We found that there is a lot of opportunity going forward for us to build upon our history as a producer and partner up with producers in our area and provide a full range of locally produced products.”
In addition to their own farm-grown crops, the Eckerts sell goods from local producers of wine, beef, pork, cheese, apple butter, honey, jelly, chocolate and more.
It was Chris’ great grandfather and fourth-generation Eckert farmer, Alvin O. Eckert, who launched the family into commercial fruit production by opening a roadside farm stand in 1910. Alvin’s sons joined him in a partnership, and the business expanded significantly from 1925 to 1950 into diversified industries with the retail portion still existent today.
The sixth generation deserves credit for starting pick-your-own operations at a time when wholesaling had proved the primary way to sell fruit. The Eckerts determined that you-pick apples generated more profit on fewer acres. The farm downsized from 700 to 150 acres of apples and began attracting 300,000 to 400,000 pick-your-own customers.
“It was a big shift in the way we do business, and a good one,” Eckert says. “It is a more profitable business and you have more control over the market. But you also have the new risks. Our business is very heavily skewed to the fall and particularly weekends in the fall. If we get rain in one of those weekends it can have a negative impact on our income for the year.”
Pressure from weather, insects and plant diseases remain among their biggest production threats. The farm focuses on scouting, management and limited pesticide use to minimize costs and reduce resistance issues.
“We don’t do anything dramatically different from most growers,” Eckert says.
And that includes needing a large labor force. The Eckert family adds 300 seasonal employees to its year-round staff of 100 during peak seasons. The employees harvest 400 acres of tree fruits and 100 acres of miscellaneous crops all with the ultimate goal of increasing the taste experience for area consumers – who come in by the hundreds for a taste of local food.