KELL, Ill. — Sitting atop Illinois’ own version of the “continental divide” is a farm that’s been providing fresh fruits to customers for decades.
Sager Farms and its family-owned orchards sells homegrown strawberries, cherries, peaches, blackberries, apples and other food items at an onsite farm store and at numerous farmers markets in and around southern Illinois.
George Sager and his son, Robert, took a break from their duties to talk about their farming operation in Marion County.
“There was no orchard here at first. We just gradually started with strawberries over 55 years ago and started planting the orchards in the mid-1980s,” George said.
“We just kept adding. We got pretty big for a while and we were doing a lot of wholesales. Now we don’t do hardly any wholesales and we’re just down to retail,” said Robert, who started his orchard in 1989.
There are about 7 to 9 acres of peaches on George’s farm and Robert has 7 acres. The father-son partners also have 12 to 15 acres of apples between their two locations.
Along with the farm store, farmers markets are also an important part of Sager Farms.
“We go near and far to farmers markets. We go as close as Centralia, Benton and to Monticello. Decatur has a downtown farmers market and one at the community college. Those are two different nights in Decatur and we hit them both. My sister goes to the Champaign-Urbana farmers market,” Robert said.
Managing the orchards is vital to the success of fruit production. The apple trees are pruned in the fall and the strawberries are covered.
Peach tree pruning commences in March and by the first part of May it’s time to make preparations for the strawberry season, followed by peaches and then apples.
“The management is overwhelming,” George said.
“Peaches are definitely the most labor-intensive thing we have. Strawberries might not be far behind, but it doesn’t demand the amount of hours overall as peaches,” Robert added.
When the peaches are ready, picking cannot be delayed.
“Peaches have one day because of the way we pick it. There’s a reason you want it tree-ripened. If you pick it way too green and try to ship it, it never matures out good enough,” Robert noted.
“Since we pick them just in time we do get a few overripe, but that also allows us to sell different things. We can offer the number ones and the number twos or you can get the extra ripe because we pick them so late.
“If we miss it on Saturday and we go back Sunday evening to pick again, it’s overripe, especially if we have a heat wave. If the temperature is going to be in the upper 90s, you have to pick them a little tighter or you get a lot of loss the next picking. It’s just these little subtleties you’ve got to learn.”
From an agronomic standpoint, the peaches seem to enjoy these southern Illinois soils.
“It seems to be just the right type of soil for the peaches. We’ve heard several stories of people saying the only place where the taste compares to southern Illinois is possibly somewhere in Colorado. People who have traveled to Georgia, the Carolinas and Michigan, say southern Illinois peaches are the best,” George said.
The Sagers were asked about water management in fruit production.
“Peaches are tougher than you think. They’re rooted pretty good,” George said.
“You need a little, but not a lot. We’ve tried irrigation and we found it dilutes the flavor, because if you irrigate it and then you get a rain, now it’s like two rains,” Robert added.
“I was irrigating some during that bad drought of 2012. I was just gushing it on out of a 3-inch pipe and letting it run down the rows. I thought there would be big problems because had the extreme heat, too. It got up to around 110 degrees for a couple of days, and the peach skin was actually tough. The extra bruising did not happen. It was solid, sweet and easier to handle,” George noted.
“We found your best-tasting fruit is drought fruit. It’s like mixing Kool-Aid. If you put a little less water in it, it’s a little better. The others are not bad, but it’s just a little sharper in dry weather,” Robert said.
As for the “continental divide,” water to the east of the Sager Farms driveway drains toward the Ohio River and water to the west heads toward the Mississippi River.