Oct 19, 2012
Central Illinois farm market going strong despite drought, frost

Tanner’s Orchard is celebrating its 65th year as a family-run business. The 80-acre, Speer, Ill., farm and market was founded in 1947 by John Tanner. The original family farm was started in 1906 in Deer Creek, Ill., by Rudolf Tanner and his wife, who emigrated from Switzerland. The Deer Creek location, however, was too far from a major roadway to be successful.

The Speer location turned out to be the right one for the Tanner family, who have continued to thrive and expand ever since, said Craig Tanner, who now runs the farm with his sister, Jennifer, as well as their parents, Richard and Marilyn.

In the mid-1980s, the Tanners decided to focus on retail fruit. They had 20 acres of apples, and then pigs and cows. Now, the only animals on the farm are there for agritainment.

The orchard side

The family has 36 acres fruit trees, with Jonathan, Golden Delicious, Fuji and Gala making up the bulk of the varieties, Craig said. They also have 20 acres of pumpkins, 5 acres of squash and 4 acres of sweet corn. All of the produce is sold through the farm market, either as u-pick or pre-picked.

Most of the apple trees are low density and have been on the farm for some time. They have roughly 400 trees to the acre, with 16-foot rows and 7 feet between the trees. Most of the trees are dwarf rootstock, with a conduit support and a single wire.

“It works well for us because our apple sales are two-thirds u-pick,” Craig said. “It is probably the main driver for the orchard. They come for the apples and buy other stuff. We sell peck and a half and peck bags. They buy the bag and fill it. Pumpkins go really well. They’ll buy apples and then they’ll go pick a couple pumpkins.”

When asked when they will have u-pick apples ready this season, the Tanners have told customers they will have pumpkins. They, like much of the Midwest, fell victim to the early spring and late freezes that damaged or destroyed much of the apple crop.

“When we hit 23 degrees, that was pretty well it,” Craig said.

The Tanners normally buy a lot of fruit out of southwest Michigan, also hit by the frosts. This year, they are looking around the country to replace what has been lost.

“We’re looking at Washington and northern Wisconsin and New York,” Craig said. “We’ve been pounding on doors. We’re scrounging what we can. I don’t know where we’re getting the bulk of our fruit.”

They don’t just buy fruit for fresh sales. Tanner’s Orchard normally presses and sells 37,000 gallons of cider every year. All of that, except for a few hundred gallons that go to the Illinois Specialty Growers Association for sale at the state fair, is sold in the market.

“We found a good source of juice apples out of southern Illinois,” Craig said. “Normally we don’t get those until later in the season, but we’re getting some now.”

Market and bakery

The bakery and market are the real “hot spots” for activity at Tanner’s. The family employs more than 100 people, and only a dozen or so work in the orchard.

Things have really taken off in the last 10 years, Jennifer said. On weekends in September and October, 2,500 to 6,500 customers will come to the market. Last year, they counted 70,000 people for those two months, just on weekends, she said.

They are quite well known for their Apple Bin Bakery. The bakery makes and sells doughnuts, pies, bread, fudge and ice cream, among other items.

They make 120 batches of donuts, with 13 dozen in a batch each day on a weekend during their busy months, Jennifer said. Apple cider doughnuts are the most popular, and this year they are adding apple cider-pumpkin doughnuts to the mix.

“We have a lot of people that drive a ways out to the bakery,” Jennifer said. “They say, ‘I’ve got to get my cider donut fix.'”

The bakery also sells sandwiches and other prepared meal items.

“We average 300 lunches a day Monday through Friday, mostly grilled sandwiches and a daily special,” Jennifer said. “And this year, at night, we’re adding a dinner. Over the last two years, we’ve noticed we’re getting a lot more families trying to avoid the weekend rush.”

The other big sellers are the caramel apples.

“Our caramel is made from scratch,” Jennifer said. “We got a recipe from a gentleman who visited us years ago, and it has really grown into a major attraction for us. We put caramel on whatever products we can.”

The caramel, along with dozens of other products, is sold canned in the market, along with fresh produce and home décor.

The volume of traffic has led the Tanners to expand the market.

“We added on just this spring,” Jennifer said. “We were filled to capacity for lunch every day and needed more seating area. We didn’t have bathrooms inside and were looking to do that, too, so we ended up adding on to the side, enclosing the bathrooms and our decorative waterfall that were outside the building.”

Outside the market they have wagon rides, a petting zoo and an impressive play area called Tanner’s Back 40 Fun Acres. The area has a grain bin converted to a sand box, an authentic Northern Burlington Caboose, pony rides on the weekends, pedal cars, a barrel train and more.

“We started charging admission to the play area,” Jennifer said. “We don’t really call them weekends; we call them Festival Days. We try to make it special and we’ve invested a lot into that part of the business.”

Making it look easy

The market opens at the end of July and goes to the end of November. In September and October, they are open seven days a week. The key to their success is to be friendly and clean, Jennifer said.

“We offer a quality product that is family friendly,” Craig said. “It is like synchronized swimming. If you do it right, it makes it look easy.”

The biggest challenge, Jennifer said, is fitting everyone into the market on the weekends.

“We have them lined out the door on weekends,” she said. “In the fall, we open at 8 a.m. and close at 8 p.m. If there was just three more hours squeezed in there, we could get so much more done.”

by Derrek Sigler, Assistant Editor

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