Overflowing carts, bushel baskets and antique peach boxes are perched on the front porch of the Rendleman Farm Market. Behind the welcome mat, decades of family farm photographs corral the shop that’s stuffed with fresh produce, local foods and retro kitchen items.
Sure, there are bushels and boxes of apples for the picking, but there also are bushels of family history driving this family business. Rendleman Orchards, just outside the tiny town of Alto Pass in Union County, has been in business since 1873, and operates today as one of the few commercial, family-operated orchards in Illinois. Its owners, the Sirles family, will tell anyone that keeping a multi-generational farm business open and growing takes constant nurturing.
Wayne “Ren” Sirles said the family treasure lies not in its 800 acres of fruit and vegetables, but in his family and its investment into the sixth-generation business.
A growing family agribusiness
“If I see a successful farmer, I know it’s because he’s a very good business manager. Most farmers are looking forward to new challenges and new markets. They need to look at the future of their farm businesses. This is how you take care of your family,” he said. He’s worked on the family farm since age 14.
Propagating the business has meant selecting best business practices and recasting technology to keep up with the ever changing marketplace. But it also means raising his family into the business, too.
Rendleman Orchards’ history goes back to 1873 when John and Isabelle Rendleman settled the 88-acre homestead, starting the farm with chickens, cows and corn. Six generations later, the farm produces a bounty of apples, peaches, nectarines, cucumbers, yellow squash, green beans and zucchini. There’s now a retail outlet, called the Farm Market, which contributes roughly 15 percent annually in revenues and has become the business’ public face. Salvaged barn wood from Ren’s great-grandfather’s 100-year-old barn even trims the farm market walls.
Ren has been business president since 1980 and a co-owner since 1972. He was inducted into the Illinois State Horticultural Society Hall of Fame in 2014. His wife, Betty, is business secretary and treasurer. Ren’s mother, Helen, 105, is a Rendleman and continues to live in the homestead’s original house, located behind the Farm Market.
At the couple’s side is the fifth generation of business officers in Wayne D. Sirles, vice president, and his wife, Michelle J. Sirles, assistant vice president. While Wayne manages all of the fruit and vegetable production and Michelle handles marketing, sales, business development and human resources, the couple overall is preparing to succeed Ren and Betty.
Then there’s the potential sixth generation in Audrey and Hilary, Wayne and Michelle’s daughters. Hilary has a Master’s degree from the University of Illinois and works for Monsanto, and Audrey is currently attending Illinois with a possible career in health care.
Wayne and Michelle call this family business progression “passing the torch.”
Betty explained that after the deaths of two major stockholders and coping with the inevitable inheritance taxes, the advantages of incorporating the family business became more obvious. That’s why Ren started succession planning in 1980.
“It’s expensive to do — hiring an accountant and a lawyer. You cannot do this without professionals,” Michelle explained. “And it’s very time consuming. It’s challenging, but it’s worth it.”
They also turned to farmjournallegacyproject.com to help coach them with the decision making.
“We want to continue what we have with our family, but have some flexibility for the future,” Wayne added.
And now the family is poised, professionally and personally, for another business milestone with Ren’s and Betty’s pending retirement. Besides the family, Rendleman’s employs 15 workers year-round and about 65 workers for seasonal work that includes harvesting, packing and maintaining the orchards.
“We are firm believers that we are standing on the shoulders of our ancestors,” Betty continued. “We’re not worried about the sixth generation for now. We are focusing on the fourth and fifth generations. There has to be some flexibility. Yes, we’re proud, but it’s a responsibility.”
Other family-operated Illinois orchards include Flamm Orchards in nearby Cobden, Mileur Orchards in Murphysboro and Eckert’s in Belleville.
Some of the fifth and sixth generation changes for the orchard business have included embracing 21st century technologies and advances. Gift baskets are now shipped nationwide. Farm Market events are promoted on www.rendlemanorchards.com and on Facebook, and by working with a food distributor to help deliver their wholesale produce.
Another “recent” development is their active role in the regional tourism landscape. The orchard also is a “friend” of the Shawnee Hills Wine Trail, a popular visitor attraction.
The Rendleman Farm Market is open from July to Christmas week. Hours are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday to Saturday and noon to 5 p.m. on Sunday. They can be reached at 618-893-2771 for more information. Their location is a scenic drive between Carbondale and Cape Girardeau, Mo., on Illinois 127, 11 miles south of Murphysboro and one mile north of Alto Pass.
There are bushels of opportunity to celebrate the fall harvest throughout Southern Illinois with visits to these orchards and area events:
Bremer’s Orchard – 5446 Orchard Road, Metropolis; (618) 524-5783
Darn Hot Peppers Farm Store – 825 Vines Road, Cobden; (618) 893-1443
Eastman Orchard & Farm Market – Big Red Shed on US 37, Goreville; (618) 995-2118
Eckert Orchards – 9901 S. Greenmount Road, Belleville; (618) 239-6277
Flamm Orchards – 8760 Old US 51 North, Cobden; (618) 893-4241
Fragrant Fields Nursery – 2460 Swan Pond Road, Dongola; (618) 203-9106
Mileur Orchard – 172 Mileur Orchard Road, Murphysboro; (618) 687-3663
Union County Colorfest – Oct. 9-11; walking tours, biathlon race, wiener dog races, Kid Fest, winery tastings and more; (800) 248-4343
Golconda Shrimp Festival – Sept. 19; noon- 10 p.m., Golconda; (800) 248-4373
Shawnee Hills Wine Trail Gala – evening of Nov. 14; Carbondale Civic Center, Carbondale; (800) 248-4373
Visit southernmostillinois.com or carbondaletourism.org for more travel information.
Karen Binder is a writer from Carbondale, Ill. Karenbinder4@gmail.com