May 29, 2007
Tanners Orchard Serves Up Fun for Illinois Visitors

John Tanner grew up on his family’s fruit farm, but, given its location 5 miles down a bumpy dirt road, its position wasn’t much of an asset for what he had in mind.

So, in 1947 he and his wife Margaret bought another farm – 80 acres with 20 acres of apples just coming into production – and started selling apples retail. Sixty years later, Tanners Orchard has become a destination for Illinois families, and the Tanner family is celebrating the diamond anniversary.

Tanners Orchard in Speer, Ill., is now in the hands of John’s son and daughter-in-law, Richard and Marilyn Tanner, their children Craig and Jennifer and Jennifer’s husband, Ben. John, who became a prominent figure in the Illinois orchard industry, died earlier this year at age 93.

The “new” location on State Route 40 turned out to be a good one. It’s 30 miles north of Peoria and 175 miles southwest of Chicago, but Marilyn said people are willing to make the drive to spend a nice day in the country and live the Tanners Orchard experience.

The farm and market combine pick-your-own apples and pumpkins, a 6.5-acre corn maze, a bakery and restaurant, a large country farm market offering food, gifts and holiday decorations and a children’s playground.

“The playground is a Shangri-la for children, including pony and wagon rides, climbs and slides, bale mazes and plenty of playground equipment,” Marilyn said. “There are alpacas, llamas, chickens and pygmy goats to feed by hand and a Billy Goat
Bridge.”

It all makes Tanners a prime field trip destination, she said.

Marilyn, Jennifer and Ben are in charge of the market, which features apples, an assortment of other fruits and vegetables, jams, salsa, candles, candies, dressings, baskets, freshly canned applesauce, wreaths, giftware and seasonal décor. This year, the market is selling Webkinz, the popular interactive children’s toy that is “sweeping the country,” Marilyn said.

The Tanners bakery is managed by Joy Grose, a bakery consultant with a degree in food and nutrition. On a busy day, 18 people will work in the bakery. Last year’s record for pie sales in a day was 650. They also sold 35,000 caramel apples in their 20-week season.

The caramel sauce is an old recipe with plenty of fresh cream and butter. It takes 45 minutes to make a single batch, which dips 350 apples. It’s a key ingredient in their caramel apple-pecan pie. They also bake apple-caramel muffins, apple bread and apple-bread pudding, apple strudel, fritters and turtle brownies with pecans.

They also make and sell fudge. They bake with other fruits like peaches and blueberries. Pies are sold whole or by the slice, and demand is often too hot for the ovens to keep up with. Eight varieties of bread are baked on-site, with different breads featured daily. The bakery also is a restaurant, serving lunches from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. and featuring a robust menu and reasonable prices.

Apple cider samples are offered inside the market. Cider is UV-treated and made on-site. Approximately 35,000 gallons were sold last year. And, of course, they have freshly baked apple cider donuts.

Tanners Orchard was built around apples, and there are 45 acres of them now. Richard and Craig oversee field operations. The original trees on seedling rootstocks are long gone, replaced by about 20 modern varieties, some still on the older M.26 rootstock but most now on Bud 9 with a single wire trellis and one conduit stake per tree. Some of the apples are offered u-pick, but most are picked and sold at the market.

The season opens with Early Gold in August and goes on through Fuji
and Braeburn in October. Modern varieties such as Honeycrisp and Zestar also are grown, along with 20 acres rented for pumpkin production.

U-pick apples and pumpkins are a fun family experience, the Tanners have found. A large covered wagon pulled by a tractor escorts customers out to the fields to pick, then brings them back. Some prefer to walk and enjoy the picturesque setting that comes with life on a farm, Richard said.

The big Easter week freeze put many Midwestern apple growers out of business, but the year looks good for the Tanners. Much of their crop grows on north-facing slopes, which delayed bloom for a few days and saved their crop, Richard said. They rarely lose apples to spring freezes.

This Diamond Anniversary season will feature a festival during the second week of September. They’ll have balloons, music, face-painting and games for the children, an antique car and tractor show featuring 1947 models and a hunt for a diamond in the
orchard.

“It’s not a real diamond,” Marilyn said, “but there’ll be prizes.”

Customers who purchase $60 or more will receive prizes also, including mugs, hats and other Tanners items.

Tanners is not exactly a well-kept secret. During its season, the orchard averages about 135,000 visitors. Two days in 2006 saw 7,500 visitors each day, record attendance for that year, Richard said. The orchard staffs 120 full- and part-time employees to keep up with demand.

At the market, under Jennifer’s supervision, customers check out through a modern point-of-sale bar code scanner system that speeds up the process, especially in the way it handles credit card sales.

Marilyn likes it because she uses it to manage inventory. Richard likes because it records transactions, allowing them to keep track of attendance, and uses it for end-of-the-year sales tax payments. Illinois has a 1 percent tax on food and a 6.25-percent sales tax on food for immediate consumption and all other merchandise. The state allows him to pay once a year – December or January – and keep 1.7 percent for collecting the tax.

The P.O.S. system gives him the records to do it – and the choice of payment date helps in management of income taxes as well.

Area residents are kept informed about the latest attractions with an annual newsletter. This year, 580,000 were printed and distributed as a four-page
insert in newspapers throughout Peoria, Springfield, Bloomington, the Quad Cities and
communities near Chicago.

They also have a redesigned Web site, www.tannersorchard.com. It’s a tool that helps potential customers find them and also lets new and returning customers know what is available and when. Orders for products can be placed as well.





75 Applewood Drive, Suite A
P.O. Box 128
Sparta, MI 49345
616.887.9008
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