The arrival of beautiful foliage, crisp evenings and sipping hot cocoa by the fire are just a few of the simple pleasures the autumn season offers. Each fall, my husband and children eagerly wait for me to announce it’s time to take a daytrip to the orchard. All four of us pile into the family car and head out on a 45-minute scenic drive through the countryside. After we arrive, we anxiously stand in line to taste the sweet fresh pressed apple cider. Our fondest memories include picking apples until the baskets overflow and rumbling through the field in a tractor-pulled hayrack ride to be dropped off in a sea of pumpkins. We never leave without some cinnamon-coated apple cider donuts and, if things are really going my husband’s way, we get some nut-covered caramel apples too.
For many families, a trip to harvest locally-grown fruits and vegetables at nearby orchards has become a regular rite of passage. During the fall season, Illinois orchards draw in three groups: pickers, foodies and families. They come not only to pluck a fresh-from-the-tree apple, but also for the seasonal outdoor activities and the farm-fresh home-style cooking.
Eckert’s Orchards has shared its passion for creating memories with rural Illinois families for more than 100 years. It all started in 1910, and little did Alvin Eckert know that his simple roadside stand would turn into the largest pick-your-own orchard operation in the United States. The Eckert family has preserved the orchard industry for seven generations. Today, seventh generation apple growers, Chris Eckert, his wife Angie, and Chris’ sister Jill Eckert-Tantillo continue to share the agritourist farming experience at the orchards located in Belleville, Millstadt and Grafton. Chris oversees the farm’s retail operations, growing, and wholesale of home produce. Angie supervises both the Country Store and Garden Center, and Jill’s duties include managing the orchard’s marketing and food services.
Annually, Eckert’s Orchards employs 500 people during its peak season to keep the business running smoothly. The Eckert family lives by their ancestor’s long-established tradition to create unique family experiences and lasting memories, and they consistently aim to provide guests with quality products and friendly service within a country-like atmosphere. The Eckert’s mission has evolved over the years and for the last two generations, they have been completely committed to creating family memories. “Our family and team is passionate about providing memorable agrarian experiences at Eckert’s,” says Angie Eckert. It’s easy to see the descendants of Michael Eckert fulfill their ancestor’s mission, with over 600,000 annual visitors traveling to their three locations.
Families near Jersey County can take a jaunt to Eckert’s charming, rustic Grafton Farm located just outside of the Mississippi River bluff. This seasonal farm opens in July, closes at the end of October, and features some of the most scenic apple-picking in southern Illinois. Eckert’s Grafton Farm is home to 150 acres for apple picking, including Honeycrisp and Granny Smith. The Grafton Farm offers other seasonal items such as apple butter, Amish salsas, jams, preserves and apple cider. During the farm’s fall season, music lovers can sit back, relax and enjoy the smooth sounds of live, acoustic music playing each weekend. Festivals and kid’s activities take place in September and October.
There’s still more to see at Eckert’s 250-acre seasonal admission farm located in Millstadt. From the second week in September through the end of October, families will be entertained for hours with memory-making activities, from traipsing through the farm’s big and little corn maze to sliding down the 70-foot Mineshaft underground slide. For more thrill seeking adventures, families can take a cruise on the haunted hayrack ride or leap onto the jumping pillow. For moderate activities, kids of all ages will enjoy a true petting farm experience allowing up-close hands-on animal activities. Children can feed a variety of goats, large exotic animals and parakeets. If live entertainment is your preference, sit near the Millstadt stage to observe the Jack-O-Lobber Show, Billy Bob’s Pig Races and the Farmtastic Magic performances, or gather around the outdoor fire pits and pull out marshmallow sticks to make the ever-classic fall treat – s’mores.
Eckert’s Belleville Year-Round Farm has been transformed into a tradition for young and old alike. As the hub of the Eckert family business, this farm is known for their pick-your-own crops, 300-seat country-style restaurant and the general store’s unique specialty items. Whether you’re a beginner or experienced family of gardeners, Eckert’s gardening center is the perfect destination to select plants for landscaping, purchase fall mums or cold-tolerant pansies. Families can share in the memory of watching the plants take root and enjoy their foliage for many weeks to come. Besides the fall colors that surround the farm, children will flashback to galloping on a pony or riding the gentle humpback camel, and the photos will last forever.
Apple and pumpkin picking memories
Perhaps nothing says fall more than Eckert’s apple and pumpkin picking season. The family grows 15 apple varieties. The orchard’s apple picking season begins in late August and continues through mid-October, with each variety following its own ripening schedule. Jonagold Apples ripen in early to mid-September, while Granny Smith apples keep apple lovers waiting until mid to late October. Eckert’s loves apple-picking season because it yields so many family memories. “Our favorite memory is to witness a child’s first experience picking. It doesn’t matter what they pick, it is exciting to see their face light up for the first time on the farm” says Angie Eckert.
But before your family starts picking, follow Eckert’s advice on how to select the perfect apple. Pickers should choose apples that are free of bruising, fragrant and firm to the touch. If want to preserve your harvest, store apples by themselves in a refrigerated crisper, if not eaten within one to two days. If you’re planning on freezing them, Eckert’s recommends slicing each apple, placing them onto cookie sheets until frozen and then storing them a plastic storage bag. If you’re looking for the perfect kid apple, try the Pixie Crunch apple; it is excellent because of its size and fine, crisp texture. The most popular type of apple is the Golden Delicious which is great for baking, cooking and snacking.
Pumpkins go hand in hand with fall holidays, so sharing a beautiful fall day in Eckert’s pumpkin field is a time-honored tradition. Traveling to the pumpkin patch on a hayrack ride is a novel experience for most families, especially children. As families traipse through the pumpkin patch, they’ll discover pumpkins in all shapes and sizes. Eckert’s has over 15 varieties to handpick, from small spookies to giant monsters. “Lots of parents have a rule that their child must be able to carry their own pumpkin. It is fun to see what they pick out,” states Jill Tantillo. “Some kids pick the biggest pumpkin they can get their arms around and have to waddle to get it in from the field.”
The homegrown pumpkins are perfect for carving, decorating and eating. Typically, the pumpkin season begins in late September and ends near Halloween. Eckert’s pumpkin patch offers families a chance to make memories and teaches young children that produce does not just magically appear on supermarket shelves.
Apple-pumpkin picking is a main attraction at Eckert’s Orchards, but not the only reason to visit. Visit Eckert Orchards website, www.eckert.com to keep up-to-date on what’s happening around their farms. Check out their crop update page on crop availability for purchase.
Whether you’re a picker, foodie or looking for family friendly activities, take a daytrip to one of Eckert’s three locations to experience one of the most popular agritourist destinations in Southern Illinois.
To find a local pick-your-own orchard, visit:
Curtis Orchard and Pumpkin Patch
By Sarah Locke
Most may think of Champaign as home of the famous “Fighting Illini,” but did you know the town is famous for its award winning apple cider too? Curtis Orchard and Pumpkin Patch, located southwest of Champaign is a fun attraction for the whole family. The orchard allows you to hand pick an apple for a snack that is fat, cholesterol and sodium free. With over 29 different varieties of apples in all shades of reds, greens, and yellows, everyone can find their preferred taste. The top selling apple is the Honey Crisp.
In 1977, Paul and Joyce Curtis planted their first trees, never imagining the farm would grow so quickly into the 7,000 tree orchard it is today. When visiting Curtis Orchard, you will not only find apples and cider, but also pumpkins, gourds, squash and Indian corn too. The Country Store on location sells other produce of the season, such as local honey, apple butter/jams/jellies, homemade pasta, unique kid’s toys, and has been selling the much-loved apple donuts since 1988.
This Wizard of Oz-themed orchard offers excitement for the children too. Just follow the yellow brick road to find activities such as the “Wicked Witch Tennis Ball Shoot,” miniature golf, playground, corn maze, tractor ride, and even a giant rocking chair. This year a new attraction will be opening called the “Emerald City Rope Maze.”
Curtis Orchard and Pumpkin Patch is also home of the “Flying Monkey Café.”
“We do comfort food really well,” Aaron Graham, grandson of founder Paul Curtis says. Customer’s favorites are the Italian beef and pulled pork sandwiches.
Support a local business, stop by and bring the whole family, located at 3902 S. Duncan Rd., Champaign, IL 61822. Curtis Orchard opens July 20 and the Pumpkin Patch opens September 19. The Flying Monkey Café opens August 27. For more information, call 217-359-5565.