CARBONDALE — It’s been a trying decade since Joas Troyer and his extended family bought a farm and moved to Southern Illinois. It may have been difficult to endure without his family.
Troyer, his brother-in-law Leroy Yoder and Leroy’s father, Warren Yoder, couldn’t have picked a worse year to take over ownership of Grammer Orchards in Jackson County. For commercial fruit producers around here, 2007 evokes nothing but bad memories.
That year, record highs in March were followed by record lows in April, a freakish weather combination that devastated the apple and peach industry in the region. The hard freeze that fell on fully budded trees wiped out virtually the entire commercial peach and apple crop. Old-timers called it a 50-year event. For the Yoder family, it was a harsh introduction to fruit production in Illinois.
“The old orchard guys around here said it would take them five years to recover from that. So I think it will take me at least 10,” Troyer said.
The extended Amish family left western Pennsylvania when the 500-acre Grammer farm was put up for sale after the death of owner Ray Grammer. Their background had been in dairy, but they were ready for a new start. They named their new venture Echo Valley Orchards.
Unfortunately, that start almost quickly became the end.
“We looked at it as an opportunity to be in business with my boys,” Troyer said. “That didn’t all work out because of the first year. A lot of people don’t realize the high cost of producing fruit. Just because the crop froze out, the trees didn’t take care of themselves that year. So you put two years of expenses in, and that becomes an issue. And it has to be paid.”
The group got by the best they could. They expanded to include strawberries and some vegetables. They expanded the more profitable peach production at the expense of apples. They worked with their banker.
Hard times necessitated a farm contraction; the Troyers sold off 300 acres.
“We just could not absorb that first year,” Troyer said. “That was the reality of life. That’s what we had to do to stay viable.”
His brother-in-law has retired, and one of Troyer’s two sons no longer works on the farm, focusing on a canvas and tarp business right down the road from the main packing shed.
“All the boys love farming,” Troyer said of his sons, Daniel and Lavern. “(Lavern) knew the tarp business. We gave him the opportunity of having another business. If the farm grows, I’m sure he’d have an interest in getting back in it.”
Daniel is in charge of the 20,000-square-foot greenhouse, where the family produces tomatoes in the winter.
Growth is secondary to survival, and the Yoders are nothing if not survivors. They don’t complain; they just keep plugging away, relying on faith, family and hard work, in that order.
“A farm is a beautiful place to raise a family,” Troyer said. “There are good values to be learned there. But it is no better than any other business where a family can work together. God is in control and we’re dedicated to being responsible people.”
Further impacting the operation is the fact the Troyers don’t utilize many modern conveniences, including computers and automobiles. Wholesalers pick up and transport the goods produced on the farm. Troyer doesn’t consider that a problem.
“I don’t feel that’s been a hindrance to us,” he said. “It helps us to not be assimilated into mainstream society.”
Last year produced another punch in the gut to the operation. Troyer said it was the worst season since 2007. Apples, especially, suffered from frequent rains and hot weather late in the growing season.
“It was not a good crop year for us,” he said. “Our peaches did well, but all our other crops did not. It was the worst apple crop we raised. They looked nice until close to harvest. But apples don’t like rain every other day and they don’t like to stay hot.”
Dealing with the pinch of regulations has further complicated the operation. Troyer has a difficult time understanding the need for some rules.
“It amazes me from the standpoint of a farmer to conceive that people have the thought that we would produce a food that would make somebody sick,” he said.
In addition to the fruits, the family raises some beef cattle and sheep in the valleys of the hilly land. To Troyer, being a good steward of the land comes naturally.
“We don’t think that’s good farming practices to farm down there where you get erosion,” he said.
Despite the tough sledding over the past decade, Troyer sees a bright future ahead.
“I think there is still an opportunity to grow,” he said. “We’re still working. One thing we’ve been impressed with since we came here is the goodness of our neighbors. I’m still optimistic.”