Eckert’s Country Store and Farms, with locations in Belleville, Millstadt and Grafton, Illinois, 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 three locations, all within 20 to 50 minutes of St. Louis. Sixth and seventh generations of the Eckert family run the operation, which traces its roots to 1837.
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. 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. The Millstadt and Grafton retail farms, open seasonally, focus on apples and pumpkins.
The Eckert family’s German ancestors began farming in southwestern Illinois with commercial fruit production a primary focus since about 1900. 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.
“Today our focus has really turned toward the retail business,” says Chris Eckert, company president and a seventh generation operator of the family business. “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.”
The sixth generation started the 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. 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.