They say money doesn’t grow on trees. Well, when there’s a bumper crop, orchard owners would beg to differ.
The 19 counties of ILLINOISouth are dotted with successful orchards where apples ripen throughout the summer and are ready for market, juicing… or for visitors to pick themselves… come mid summer or early fall.
Alas, the time for peaches and pears has passed. The last strawberry was picked months ago. And first frost will have put the kibosh on the main produce to be had throughout the summer at John Brown Melons, in Carmi.
But meanwhile, great pumpkins are everywhere to be had—it’s fall, after all. So, let’s visit three orchards and that melon patch: Eckert’s, whose main location is in Belleville; Schwartz Orchards, in Centralia; and Grissom’s “Lost Creek” Orchard, in Greenup.
It’s now the sixth and seventh generation of Eckerts working the rolling prairie just southeast of Belleville, where the family orchard has been since the 1800s. There’s also the “fun farm” in nearby Millstadt, and an open-air style market up north along the Big Muddy at Grafton, where empty-nesters can savor a day, or two.
Apples are the main attraction, of course, and Eckert’s has long been a destination for visitors from far and wide for its ever-popular “you pick” operation. (The ferocious winter meant peaches were not to be for public picking this season, but apples are a hardy crop.) Meanwhile, folks minding their vegetables can pick tomatoes and cukes, in season… or even a peck of peppers for pickling.
There’s much for the family to enjoy in Millstadt, what with live music, carnival rides and even such grand foolishness as pig races and “punkin’ chunkin’”… experts in this enterprise load the orange spheroids into a special cannon for blasting a country mile.
Back in Belleville is the big red barn, where since 2010 the country store has resided. And a fine one it is, indeed, what with artisan cheeses, pies baked on site, 200 labels of wine… open all year. Plus, the restaurant is a destination in itself.
Included in the first planting here, in 1963, were both apple and peach trees. The fuzzy fellows are typically available third week of July, with the harvest coming to a close by early September… just in time for the main crop of apples to be picked.
By and large, customers here drive up to get their fruit, pumpkins and other goods, including gourds and mums for fall decorating. Kids, once their enthusiasm for produce has worn thin, will have plenty else to keep them occupied. There’s a maze to negotiate and a petting zoo. And the whole gang can enjoy a crisp fall hike along one of several trails throughout the expansive property (70 acres are under cultivation).
Grissom’s stays open from mid-July, when the first apples ripen, until January.
Chances are that fine sip of cider was pressed at Schwartz, not far southeast of the airport in Centralia. Tom Schwartz calls it “schweet” juice, and how schweet it is… whether the luscious golden-bronze variety or mixed with strawberry (strapple cider; mmm, yum) or blackberry (blapple cider; ooh, tart). Sixty percent of the fruit harvested here is prized for its juice. In fact, Tom recently accepted two “First Place” awards this past January in Springfield, IL at the Fresh Cider Contest sponsored by the Illinois State Horticulture Society and the Illinois Specialty Crops Conference: National Cider 2014 and ILLINOIS Cider 2014.
Sample some the weekend of Oct. 11 at Applefest, where you can also dig into cobbler, enjoy down-home music and watch the kids light up as their faces get painted.
Tom obviously loves his work: “My bucket list is coming right along.”
Not far from the Little Wabash River is a fruit stand unlike many others these days. It may not be occupied, as Richard Brown has work to do in the field. Painted on an inside support: “We Trust You—Put Money In Box.”
As it happens, in a year Brown does more pumpkin than melon business. And the little ones are a hit. Many buyers stack them in small towers, a spectrum of colors and countless shapes—some nearly flat, others shaped like Cinderella’s coach.
Of course, all summer long it was melon time. Watermelons grow for a little longer than cantaloupes, which seem to all ripen over just a few days.
“Watermelon are like draft horses,” says Brown. “Cantaloupe are like racehorses. Anything planted after summer solstice ripens really fast.”
It’s a race to the finish, he points out: “The plant’s sole purpose on this earth is to produce seed.”
Of course, not all the good stuff at many orchards grows on trees, ripening mostly in the fourth quarter. As is the case at Schwartz, much of it gets only knee-high to a grasshopper: Strawberries.
And, although Grissom’s is only open July to January, and Eckert’s is open year-round, from farm to farm daily open and close times vary, as do dates of operation.
Before the goodies ripen in Carmi, John Brown Melons may truck in produce from Florida to tide themselves over.
Another word to the wise: It wouldn’t hurt to call a produce purveyor before visiting. Some may have more than expected, such as blackberries or other sweet surprises. Some may have less; one or another variety may have had a bad season for any number of reasons… remember, it’s all up to Mother Nature.