Giving southern Illinois peaches a good name

Photos courtesy of Rendleman Orchards.
(Above and Below) Rendleman Orchards’ on-farm store sells a small percentage of the peaches it grows, but still does a booming business.

Rendleman Farms is in its fifth generation. Wayne Rendleman Sirles, known as Ren, knows how difficult it is to send fresh fruit to the market with just the right sizing and ripeness. The fourth-generation owner of the farm, along with co-owners Betty, his wife, and Wayne, his son, he knows exactly what kind of peach is needed for the market—and how to grow and harvest that peach.

“I guess we’re one of the last ones crazy enough to grow peaches,” says Sirles, referring to this hilly area around Alto Pass. Along with the limestone in the soil and good drainage, this area is about the northernmost point in the state where peaches can be grown consistently. Even so, he loses about one year in four to a winter freeze-out, which makes farm economics tough. The farm also grows apples and summer vegetables.

Of the 800 farm acres, peaches and nectarines are the main crops at 140 acres. The program starts with variety selection. At one time the Elberta was the only variety grown; there are now about a dozen varieties, along with three types of nectarines. The main criteria for varieties are climate adaptability and quality. Sirles keeps a constant series of trials going, primarily of new varieties released that look promising for his region. He plants about 20 trees of a new variety and watches them over a period of three years.

(Above and Below) Pruning for a “squatty” 8-foot tree is important, because it reduces fruit and picking can be done from the ground or a 6-foot ladder.

The idea is to market a succession of varieties throughout the summer that yield quality fruit sized 2.75 to 3 inches. As a new variety shows good results, he substitutes it for one of his older varieties. As of now, his crop begins with the early Redhaven peach and Summer Beaut nectarine in the third week of July, the Blushingstar white peach and Redgold nectarine in the third week of August, and the Fayette peach in the first week of September. That’s about when the Gala apples come in.

Varieties are selected for harvest timing, as well as flavor, size, color and winter hardiness. Hardiness here means trees that can best take December/January temperatures of minus 5 degrees, because that’s when a freeze-out occurs if warm weather is followed by a blizzard. Flavor and color speak for themselves in a market where peaches are picked to be retailed ripe, but sizing is also important.

Pruning starts in mid-February, aimed at a vase-shaped tree that opens the interior fruit up to sunlight, making it as desirable as the outer fruit. With his 14-by-20-foot tree spacings, Sirles aims for a “squatty” tree. Every year, the trees are cut down to 8 feet in height with a topping edger to reduce the amount of fruit and the need for thinning. Even so, a lot of thinning is needed, either by hand or by a rope dragged through the trees to knock off blooms. If a tree produces more than 5 bushels of peaches, the fruit may not be properly sized.

That 8-foot tree has another purpose. Although a lot of hand labor is required on the farm, Sirles wants to reduce the effort at harvest. Many of the farm’s peaches can be picked by standing on the ground, and for the sake of safety and efficiency, he doesn’t use ladders taller than 6 feet. Considerations such as worker’s comp figure into this decision.

Fertility is the next concern. Sirles has learned precisely the amount of fertilizer to use— usually about .4 pound of nitrogen and .25 pound of potash per tree per year. It’s all dry granular fertilizer applied by hand around the drip lines of the trees.

“It’s highly labor-intensive, but it saves us quite a bit of money in the fertilizers,” Sirles says. Workers are given measuring cups that hold exactly the right amount for each tree and they apply it precisely where it is needed.

The goal of the orchard is to get a 2.75 to 3-inch peach.

There is adequate summer rainfall here, and the peach trees need no irrigation, but, in order to conserve soil moisture, Sirles has a ground cover program. In the fall, after harvest, the mixed fescue and other orchard grasses are allowed to grow out and are then cut and left on the orchard floor as a mulch. During the summer, grasses are cut short and the ground is not tilled, which reduces moisture loss and the possibility of erosion.

“We do renovate the ground after an orchard is taken out,” Sirles notes. If a new variety is being planted, the old trees are removed and the ground subsoiled to a depth of 2 feet. Then, a green manure crop of rye, soybeans or buckwheat is planted and tilled in for two or three years. Some vegetables may be raised on that ground for a year or two if it is flat, and the new peaches are planted.

Disease and insect pests are a problem, and Rendleman Farms doesn’t try to grow an organic crop. It’s not practical, Sirles says. Diseases such as brown rot, bacteria spot and peach scab can ruin a peach crop. For brown rot, he uses a fungicide rotation such as Bravo during the spring bloom and Captan and Topsin-M later in the season. Bacteria spot gets copper compounds in the spring, and scab gets wettable sulfur in the summer and Elite in “pinpoint” applications late. Insects such as oriental fruit moth, stink bugs and tarnished plant bug get a mix of Imidan with various pyrethroids.

The harvest is when things really start hopping on the farm. The orchard gets picked an average of three times, and Sirles maintains close communications with his traditional buyers to keep them apprised of his yields and harvest timing.

“We can pick a riper peach than they can in California,” he points out, because markets will take small and partial loads for in-store promotions. “We deliver a lot of 12-pallet loads,” he says, and it isn’t unusual to ship a six-pallet or even a four-pallet load.

The father/son team of Ren and Wayne Sirles owns and operates Rendleman Orchards, growing regionally famous southern Illinois peaches.

He sells about 75 percent of his crop as tree-ripened peaches to large outlets, such as Super Value and Wal-Mart, with the rest going to the on-farm store or other retail fruit stands in the region. Sales deals with other roadside retail outlets work out well, too. The Rendleman Farms store sells its own peaches, apples and vegetables, but also buys produce from other farms and outlets. He learned from his grandfather that a farmer should only persist in growing the crops he can grow well, and buy the rest.

Vegetables are becoming a bigger crop every year on the farm. Sirles says he is now growing about 60 acres of cucumbers and summer squash annually. The summer vegetable crop keeps his 20 full-time workers busy and enables him to keep reliable and experienced farm workers employed.

What’s the future of southern Illinois peaches? As far as Sirles is concerned, he and Wayne aim to keep the peach acreage pretty constant. “There’s still a place for a good peach.”

Don Dale is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor. He resides in Altadena, Calif.