Different Crops, Same Basic Challenges

Prairie Gleanings

Examining different ag business models can be helpful when analyzing your own operation.

Published on: August 4, 2010
Last week, I joined the Cultivating Master Farmers group for a two-day tour of various ag sites in and around St. Louis.

Just a quick reminder, CMF is a unique mentoring program where Prairie Farmer Master Farmer couples share ideas back and forth with progressive young farmer couples.

Anyhow, we started with a tour of Monsanto’s biotech lab in Chesterfield, Mo. From there, we squeezed in Anheuser Busch’s largest and oldest brewery, located just south of downtown St. Louis. We also got to see Cargill’s East St. Louis grain terminal and the Melvin Price Locks and Dam, in Alton.

In my opinion, the best visit was the very last. We listened as Chris Eckert, co-owner of Belleville’s Eckert Orchards, described business challenges over the past several decades. Chris represents the seventh generation of family ownership of a business that started when the first fruit tree was planted in 1862. Initially, the farm provided local folks with fresh fruit.

As canning and other packaging methods came online, most of Eckert’s business was geared toward production apple agriculture. With the advent of the interstate highway system, Washington apple producers soon made it tough on the Eckerts to continue with a production apple business model.

They stayed in business by adapting yet again. The Eckerts began pushing the fresh and local campaign several decades before it became the hottest trend. However, Chris says within the past 10 years, they’ve had to change again.

With farmer’s markets coming on hot, the Eckerts were faced with tough competition from a lot of local farmers who brought fresh fruit to the consumers’ community. Not to mention, more and more grocery stores are stocking in-season produce from local farmers. That’s when the Eckerts started making a big push toward pick your own products. Chris says they’re not in the business of selling fruit. They’re selling the farm experience.

And sell it they do. Throughout the year, they offer strawberries, peaches, apples, blackberries, pumpkins and Christmas trees. In conjunction with the crops, they have a custard stand, a country restaurant, a gardening center and a new country grocery store.

Though the crops are different from what you’re planting, I’ll bet a lot of you have faced similar challenges adapting to changing markets.

As the group discussed labor, transferring responsibilities to the next generation and customer relations, you could see the wheels turning as they examined their own operations under the lens of Eckert’s advice and experiences. Wherever you are in your operation, don’t forget how helpful it can be to seek advice from other business owners like yourself.

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