Many people immediately think of corn and soybeans as Illinois’ most recognizable crops. And understandably so – the two crops, along with wheat, account for more than 90 percent of the state’s cultivated acres.
Yet Illinois farmers also dominate the nation’s pumpkin and horseradish industries, growing more of these crops than any other state. Illinois ranks among the top 10 states in the production of peaches, asparagus, cauliflower, green peas and lima beans, according to the Illinois Department of Agriculture (IDOA). Farmers devote more than 101,000 acres of Illinois farmland to specialty crops, which in 2010 produced nearly $392 million in annual sales for Illinois farmers.
“The way we look at making decisions on choosing crops we produce has a lot to do with marketing,” says Chris Eckert, president of Eckert’s, the nation’s largest pick-your-own farm, with locations in Belleville, Grafton and Millstadt, Ill. “Our goal is to be harvesting something at Eckert’s from the first of May to the end of December.”
The harvest season for this southwestern Illinois farm starts with strawberries and progresses with blueberries, blackberries, tomatoes, bell peppers and garlic. The season continues with peaches, apples and pumpkins. Then, it’s time for Christmas trees. Eckert’s attracts about 750,000 people annually to its retail farm locations within 20 to 50 minutes of St. Louis. It also sells peaches wholesale to urban markets.
The family’s farming legacy dates back to 1837. Today, the sixth and seventh generations run the business and the family represents some of Illinois’ most determined farmers.
Some specialty crops prove a good fit for the state’s weather and certain soil types, while others require greater care to prevent diseases and crop failures that are less problematic in big produce states like California. In fact, Eckert’s, the largest peach grower in Illinois, finds peaches a little risky for the state’s climate, as a winter freeze injury can ruin the crop.
U.S. Department of Agriculture Specialty Crop Grants help increase the success and competitiveness of Illinois fruits, vegetables and other crops. IDOA administers the federal program, and in 2013 the department will distribute about $630,000 to 12 projects focused on research, promotion and market development, says Delayne Reeves, who manages the grant program for IDOA.
Among past projects, the Midwest Apple Improvement Association developed a promising apple variety: EverCrisp. The apple, a cross between a Fuji and Honeycrisp, was bred for Midwestern climates to give its farmers a competitive edge. Eckert’s has a hand in the effort and says EverCrisp should be widely available in a few years.
Likewise, Keller Farms works with the Horseradish Growers of Illinois to develop new horseradish varieties, a project funded in part by a specialty crop grant. This year, the farm will work with Illinois universities for the project, says Lindsey Keller, the farm’s fifth generation.
Established in 1887, Keller Farms grows corn, soybeans, wheat and specialty crops, including horseradish and sweet corn near Collinsville, the Horseradish Capital of the World. More than two-thirds of the nation’s supply of horseradish originates on 1,844 acres in southwestern Illinois, according to the Census of Agriculture. The herb root grows well in this Mississippi River basin area, which is rich in potash, a nutrient that horseradish loves.
Helping contribute to the economy and creation of jobs, the farms hires about 90 seasonal employees, but labor and weather still present themselves as the farm’s biggest challenges.
The family plants horseradish in the spring and harvests from September through May. They sell to a supplier that distributes the product throughout the United States. Some is also exported to South Africa for medicinal use.