BELLEVILLE, Ill. — This is the time of year that Eckert’s in Belleville is seeing the first apples in its Galas and Honey Crisps come in and last peaches go out.

It’s also that time of year when members of the current Illinois Agriculture Leadership Program class and the biennial Congressional Tour hosted by the St. Louis Agribusiness Club come through the St. Clair County orchard.

These two groups converged at Eckert’s not only for tours, but also to hear Illinois Farm Bureau President Richard Guebert from nearby Randolph County talk about the current farm year.

Guebert said there are many components that make U.S. agriculture work, including exports from “good” trade agreements, “reasonable” renewable fuels standards and livestock.

While he said “all of these work together to allow farmers to make a living,” Guebert expressed sharp concerns over the lengthening trade war with China and the immediate and longer-term impacts of losing one the nation’s largest ag customers.

Guebert also talked about climate change and the role that farmers have in effecting positive outcome.

“Agriculture has not made for a very good participant that conversation. We’re going to have to be engaged and involved, because a lot of what is coming down the pipe is going to impact what we do and how we do things,” he said.

Many components of current climate policy are matching up with Farm Bureau’s own goals, he added.

“There are about five or four major areas that are really good and works well with our policy book,” he said.

He added that the state government’s movement to better rural quality of life with infrastructure improvements is another area of welcome support, especially expansion of broadband.

“I compliment the governor for this effort,” Guebert said. “It’s really important with all the technology that we have in our equipment today. We need to be connected whether you’re in rural Randolph County or in Springfield.”

Compliments also were shared to state farmers working on reducing nitrogen, phosphorus and other nutrient losses from runoff into the Mississippi River.

With help from a surcharge on every fertilizer purchase, Guebert said, “farmers are contributing to our research and development of practices that are used to improve water quality. It’s a big deal. We need to do be a part of conservation efforts and sustainable plan programs. It’s really important. As a farmer, you want to leave the land to your sons or daughters or grandchildren in better shape.”

Going Global

Guebert’s message was familiar for many of the 30 participants in IALP. Program director Lee Strom said this is the 20th class since the program started in 1982.

“It is all about leadership. Rich is an example of the kind of people who dedicate time away from the farm or away from their business for the purpose of furthering the agricultural sector further in America,” Strom said.

The current class will be traveling to Israel and Kenya to gain better insights on global agricultural policy, trade and business dynamics and geopolitics.

Likewise, the 30 or so congressional staff members hosted by the agribusiness club received an intense three-day immersion into Illinois and Missouri agriculture on their tour.

Tour stops included the Mel Price Locks and Dam, Purina and the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center, as well as Eckert’s.

Larry Eckert, also an agribusiness club member, told his visitors that this year has posed its own challenges on his farm, including the rainy spring weather and particularly with the H2A program which allows Mexican migrant workers to work on his orchard from three to eight months of the year.

“Our orchard here is designed primarily for pick your own. Obviously, we can’t sell everything pick your own, but we sell 80% of it as pick your own on this farm and rest is sold wholesale,” he explained.

The family business also has Illinois locations in Grafton and Millstadt and an “agritainment” farm in Kentucky. Besides the apples and peaches, Eckert’s grows all kinds of vegetables and fruit.

“Many people don’t realize how much goes into running an operation like this one. I hope this helps you,” Eckert said.

Karen Binder can be reached at or 618-534-0614. Follow her on Twitter: @AgNews_Binder.


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