Monday, December 6, 2010

Freeburg, Illinois: Tom and Pat Range, Braeutigam Orchards

Just as we were about to cross the state line from Illinois into Missouri we hit upon a gem for our project and our taste buds: Braeutigam Orchards run by Tom and Pat Range.  We really had intended to simply pick up some fruit, but as soon as we began chatting, Pat took us over to a wall covered in old family photos.  The stories started coming, so we sat at a picnic table and collected them.

They are the 6th generation on this land and obviously a holdout; the highway runs adjacent to their property and from atop their hill you can look down at the encroaching subdivisions. As we pulled up to the market at the orchard, we looked across the parking lot at a nanny goat with her babies, one of which was standing on top of her. These are the Range's fainting goats, on loan from a neighbor. The goats are a part of the agritourism that draw crowds to the orchard to pick their own peaches, blueberries and thornless blackberries. When fainting goats are startled their muscles involuntarily contract and they topple over like statues.

This orchard was started when Pat's ancestors were struggling with taking their ripe peaches to the markets and getting paid next to nothing for them. Someone had the idea of selling the peaches right from the farm, and that's what happened. The farm has a big open air structure with baskets of peaches, berries, tomatoes, peppers, pumpkins and freezers with local milk and cheese and home processed jams and jellies. There are picnic tables outside and after you pick your peaches you can buy cider slushies made from the farms apples and cool off in the shade before heading home. The Ranges have worked hard to make this orchard a destination as there are other, bigger orchards in the area that attract crowds as well. Far from resenting the urban sprawl all around them they have marketed in those neighborhoods. Tom will drive down through the streets with his tractor picking up folks who want to come pick pumpkins in the fall. After all, as Tom points out, who better to bring into the farm than those who have yards planted with grass and may not have ever climbed in an apple tree.

While we are talking at one of the picnic tables a couple drives up who would like to pick some peaches. Tom leads us out to the orchard where the trees are all heavy laden with huge golden and red globes. While we look for a good place to take their portrait he picks two New Haven peaches and cuts them up with his pocket knife for us to try.  There is a certain deftness with which an orchardist wields a pocketknife, born of many years leading pickers down the aisles of trees.

The peaches have a buttery sweetness and they melt in our mouths. As we head back to the table Tom picks us two more of a different variety and gives us strict instructions as to how to eat these peaches. They are Madisons, and to really get everything out of them you have to pull off the skin, put a slice on the roof of your mouth and crush it with your tongue so you can drink the peach; I can see why Tom speaks so reverently of the experience after trying a Madison this way.

Tom and Pat have kids and grandkids who already help on the farm, and will continue to run it after the elder Ranges retire. The counter is worked by high school students from the FFA agriculture classes that Tom teaches at the public school. When asked about the future of agriculture in America, the Ranges are confident that it will continue to be important as we can't survive without it. They have also seen a jump in people who care about farming even if they have no farming in their background.

As with many interviews, the topic of organics and pesticides comes up, not instigated by us.  Many farmers, especially orchardists feel the need to be defensive about their practices due to heavy media scrutiny.  The Ranges avoid overusing chemicals, but sometimes they simply must spray; but they are intelligent and selective about their usage.  Pat pointed at Tom and said, "Here you have a man who sprays...but we eat the fruit."  I recalled Reggie Rowell in Tennessee, who articulated the issue of customers wanting organic apples, but also apples without spots, damage, or scars.

Before we take off for Missouri Tom tells us that in order for each person in this country to eat 5 servings of fruit and vegetables every day farmers would have to plant 13 million more acres of produce. As the health of many Americans deteriorates and diet is more and more linked to disease prevention it seems natural that people will put down processed food and pick up an apple. Or a delicious, buttery peach.


Denise Rich said...

This is a great blog, love the stories, will share this on my own blog and facebook page. Especially enjoyed reading the one about the barefoot farmer.

Trav Williams and Kacy Spooner said...

Thanks Denise! We have dozens more to post. Coming up we have Monsanto employees, urban farmers in St Louis and Denver, Farm Bureau agents, and Midwest soybean/corn farmers, as well as some 4-H students.

Denise Rich said...

Here is the blog I've decided to dedicate to
some of the great information I find when I visit blogs about agriculture. Can't wait to read the upcoming posts.

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