Eckert’s Farms’ Angie Eckert on milestones, Mother Nature, and a new cookbook

For eight generations, the Eckert family has been a fixture in the St. Louis region’s agriculture space, first as subsistence farmers for their own family and eventually as a source of fresh retail produce and pick-your-own experiences that connect the area community to its local food system. It’s a legacy that Angie Eckert takes seriously. 

“There have been many generations of being passionate about farming and wanting to be good stewards of the land,” says Eckert. “That is the core belief that lights our family up, and we love being able to share our passion for how agriculture occurs in a local setting and exposing families to food, so they can see where it comes from and pick it off the plant or tree firsthand. That is where our passion lies: in the experience of food.”

With pick-your-own season in full swing, the farm’s first-annual Cider Daze celebration coming up in June, and a successful cookbook launch behind her, Eckert shared what it’s like to be a part of such a storied piece of the St. Louis region’s food community and why she believes her family’s work resonates so deeply with people.

This year is the 60th anniversary of pick-your-own apples at Eckert’s, which launched this beloved part of your business. How did that come about, and how has it grown over the years? My husband, his two sisters, and myself are considered part of the seventh generation in the business, and we actually have two members of the eighth generation, my niece and nephew, also now working full-time in it. The very early generations were growing more for sustenance; we credit Alvin Eckert with helping the family delve into the retail marketplace in 1910. Alvin is where the passion for retail really started, and we tried it with many different types of agriculture; we raised chickens, had a slaughterhouse, and tried growing just about everything you can grow over the years to see what people respond to. Last year, we celebrated 60 years of pick-your-own apples, which started at our Grafton, [Illinois] farm. I’m not sure how we decided to try it, but it became a very significant part of our business, and we expanded that at our other locations over the years. There have been some changes in the industry that have made it more accessible and really take off. That spark of an idea really allowed that type of experience to be available for a variety of produce.

What is a typical pick-your-own season like? Now, we’re winding down strawberry season, which started in late April this year; usually it’s the second week of May, but it was early this year because we had one of the warmest Aprils and the wettest Mays. Then, there is a small gap, and we move to black raspberries, which are very fleeting; we usually get only one week with that, and then it’s blackberry season, which usually lasts six to eight weeks. They are all thornless, so they are super easy to pick, and we have this cool trellising system for that, so it ensures that all of the ripe berries are on one side, so it’s an easy experience. Pick-your-own-peaches are early July to mid-August; apples begin in early August and go through the end of October. Pumpkins are the end of September to Halloween, and then there’s a three-week gap and we go to cut-your-own tree.

Clearly, you are quite beholden to Mother Nature. How hard is it to depend so much on something you ultimately cannot control? We joke around that nobody in the Eckert family likes to gamble because we do it every day with Mother Nature. It’s something you really have to get your head around. You can put your best effort out there, but at the end of the day, Mother Nature has the final say in what it produces and in the way it comes out. We’re at her mercy, and you do take it personally initially, but I’m getting better at it. You have to realize that this is the most natural thing; you can’t stop it from happening, so you have to work with it and embrace opportunities. The scariest part for me is in the winter; when that affects the peach crops there isn’t much compensating for that, so you have to roll with the punches and make the best of what has been given to you. Sometimes you have to remind yourself it wasn’t a tornado that wiped out the whole crop. When you watch things grow, you see that they are dynamic and are never going to perform exactly the same way. Technology has really helped simplify some functions on the farming side, because we are able to track weather data and that can be correlated to information that tells us the risks of insects of disease. Right now, we’re dealing with cicada damage and are trying to mitigate that. These tools at least help inform you of pressures that might be occurring in nature.

One thing you can control is what comes out of your kitchen. Tell us about the latest edition of the Eckert’s: Our Favorites, Spring & Summer Recipes cookbook, which was recently published. This is the ninth edition of the cookbook; the first came out in 1960 or ’61 and was put together by my husband’s grandma and aunt. It’s funny to look back at it and see ingredients that people don’t really use anymore. It’s a fun and cool kind of evolution of our family meals, because these are the meals that our family makes for birthdays, holidays, and special occasions. You really can see how the Eckert family dinner table evolved through our cookbooks. The one that we just released was done with a lot of photography, and it’s more like a ‘zine because we wanted it to be something you can pick up inexpensively. The recipes were pulled from previous spring and summer cookbooks; my sisters-in-law, Jill and Sarah, and I went through and highlighted all of our personal favorites and tallied them up. It was fun to see that we all make most of the same ones.

What do you think makes this cookbook so special? The recipes aren’t complicated. These aren’t complex or for chefs making things from scratch. These are for the everyday, busy person who wants to have fresh food and taste the flavors of the fruit and produce without things hiding the fresh flavors. If it’s a recipe for something with peaches, you are going to taste peach as the flavor. They are fruit-forward and can be assembled easily if you are working, life is hectic, and you don’t have time to spend hours making every dinner. Another differentiating factor is that it includes cocktails, several of which are made with our hard cider. We started to produce it and opened the Cider Shed two years ago, and we also work with Brick River Cider, which makes some according to our recipes.The coolest thing about it—and something people might be interested in knowing—is that when families and school groups come out to pick apples, a lot fall on the ground. We can’t sell those through the store, but we are able to ferment them and turn them into hard cider. It’s given us a way to utilize our crops more efficiently and is a neat, sustainable thing for us.

Any favorites in the cookbook? Of course the blackberry peach crisp, because it’s delicious and encapsulates Eckert’s in the summer. (See recipe below.) Also, I really love the orzo salad with tomatoes. It has so many fresh flavors and a nice dressing that can be your go-to potluck recipe. Another one I’ve been making lately is this sweet strawberry bruschetta with goat cheese. I am a big fan of fruit not being just for desserts. We also have this strawberry salsa, which is another example of that. It’s our goal to challenge people to use produce in different ways that they haven’t tried in the past.


Recipe: Eckert’s Blackberry Peach Crisp

When Angie Eckert and her sisters-in-law were putting together the most recent version of their cookbook, Eckert’s: Our Favorites. Spring & Summer Recipes, they all came to the same realization: Peaches had to be on the cover. “We do think that recipe is delicious, but also it really encapsulates Eckert’s in the summer,” says Eckert. “Peaches and blackberries are the biggest parts of our summer; people just associate Eckert’s with peaches.” Eckert notes that she and her co-authors were intentional in making the recipes in the cookbook, including this one, approachable for everyday cooks with busy schedules. Her desire is that you will find this recipe easy to follow, delicious, and as much of a source of joy as it is for her family. 


Ingredients

  • 2 cups blackberries
  • 2 lbs. (6 cups) peeled and sliced ripe peaches
  • ½ cup granulated sugar
  • 2 tsp fresh lemon juice
  • 1 cup quick cooking oats
  • ¾ cup all purpose flour
  • ¾ cup light brown sugar
  • ½ tsp. salt
  • ½ tsp. ground cinnamon
  • 1/8 tsp. ground nutmeg
  • 1 stick + 1 Tbs. cold, unsalted butter, cubed

Instructions

  1. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit. 
  2. In a large bowl, gently toss the blackberries, peaches, granulated sugar and lemon juice. Pour into an 8-by-11-inch glass baking dish.
  3. In a medium bowl, toss the oats with the flour, brown sugar, salt, cinnamon, and nutmeg. 
  4. Using your fingers, mix the butter until the topping is crumbly.
  5. Sprinkle topping over the fruit, and bake for 50–60 minutes or until the topping is golden brown. 
  6. Rest 30 minutes before serving. 

Makes 8 servings

Leave a Reply