ELIZABETH, Ill. (AP) — Dittmars have been farming their family ground on South Grebner Road near Elizabeth since 1854.
They've done grain, dairy and are now raising about a dozen beef cattle, some field corn and alfalfa. Mike Dittmar, who maintains the property with his dad, Rick, and their families, says farming is in their blood, and the 21st century Dittmars are busy making changes that will bring their operation in line with the area's recent agritourism boom.
"We've been doing sweet corn at the local farmer's market for about five years and we've had a big pumpkin patch for the last several years," said Dittmar. "Now, we've planted 100 apple trees and, in about three years, we'll be producing about 250 bushels of apples."
At one point in time, Jo Daviess County was dotted with apple orchards, but today there are none.
"Folks love coming out in the fall," he said. "They want to see the colors and wander the hills. Agritourism is a new direction for this area and we want to be the apple orchard leaders in Jo Daviess County."
They went with four of the more popular apple varieties and will be bringing Zest Star, an early red in late August, then Cortland, Honey Crisp and Gala to round out their season.
In addition to their apples, the family put in two full acres of pumpkin and will be opening the farm for U-pick dates in the fall.
"We used to plant the pumpkins direct, but the moles ate a lot of the seed, so now we start them in trays and transplant when they first break the soil," said Rick Dittmar. "It's a little more work, but our yield is much better."
An army of Dittmars, young and not-so-young, put in some 500 pumpkin hills this spring and, with the cool wet weather, things are looking good for a visit from the Great Pumpkin this fall.
"The pumpkin thing got started about five years ago when we decided to have an annual pumpkin party," Dittmar said. "Now, we can do U-pick pumpkins for five or six weekends in September and October."
They've mapped a corn maze and put in blueberries, cherries and grapes to complement their U-pick experience. And don't forget sweet corn.
"All my life my grandfather and grandma and dad planted sweet corn down in the bottoms on the farm," Mike Dittmar said. "They would put in maybe eight varieties, and we were so spoiled that as soon as the next variety was ready we would just abandon the one we were eating and move on to the next."
He said he was out picking with his dad about five years ago and had an epiphany.
"I said, 'Dad, instead of leaving this last variety, let's pick it and take it to the farmers market and see what happens,'" Dittmar said. "Well, it was $20 for a membership with the market and we made like $500 that first year just on our leftovers."
That experience set them thinking and they went a full acre the next year but lost their crop to the first of two back-to-back 100-year rains.
"We moved out of the bottoms and brought our corn up on the hill by the house," he said. "Now, we're planting about an acre and doing five batches of our favorite varieties timed to come in every ten days to two weeks during the season."
They go big with the Montauk hybrid and try a new variety every year just to keep up with the times.
"The Montauk has huge ears and it melts in your mouth," Rick Dittmar said. "We don't do any Supersweets because we think the kernels are too tough. We stay with the SE varieties or the Synergist varieties, which are a cross with the SE and the Supersweet."
He explained that the SE varieties are not made for transportation or storage, so a couple family members head out to the patch just before dinner, pick a couple dozen and shuck them on the way back to the house where they go right into the pot. They pretty much do the same with the corn that ends up on their stand at the market. They pick in the morning and it's all gone by noon.