As Rendleman Orchards prepares to celebrate its 150th year in business, the family behind the farm is continually dreaming up new ways to entice new guests to visit the farm.

The farm was started in 1873 when first generation farmers John and Isabelle Rendleman moved from North Carolina to establish a farm on 88 acres in southern Illinois. Subsequent generations expanded both farm acreage and crops.

Wayne and Michelle Sirles are the fifth generation to operate Rendleman Orchards, which encompasses 850 acres today. “When I joined the farm in 2014, we did a planned transition from Wayne’s parents to Wayne and me,” said Michelle. “When we came to the farm, it was all wholesale. Peaches, apples and nectarines were the main crops, and Wayne’s parents had started to add vegetables to diversify the wholesale aspect.”

Although the Sirleses didn’t originally plan for the farm to become a retail operation, area residents and occasional passersby often stopped by the packing shed to purchase overripe produce for canning and baking.

“By then most families had two working incomes,” said Michelle of that generation. “We noticed fewer people wanted bushels – more were coming for half-pecks and pecks. People were working more, there were fewer stay-at-home moms and the younger generation wanted ready-made jams.”

With more interest from those who wanted to purchase directly from the farm, the family purchased pumpkins from a local farmer and offered them to the customers who came for apples at the packing shed. When those customers asked about purchasing mums, the family added mums to the autumn line-up.

As more people stopped at the packing shed to purchase fruit, the farm crew became frustrated with having to work around them. Wayne’s parents created a plan to build a garage to move fruit sales away from the loading dock.

But Michelle and her mother-in-law Betty had different ideas, including how to make the new building more attractive to customers. “The next thing you know, we were building a farm market,” said Michelle. “Wayne’s mom started the retail business while she was the harvest crew boss.”

While the retail market was still in the planning stages, Michelle and Wayne attended a NAFDMA conference and gleaned ideas to make their retail store unique and inviting. The Sirleses realized that visitors loved the charm of Rendleman Orchards, enhanced by its historic buildings, and incorporated that aspect in the farm market.

“That’s our differentiation from any other farm,” said Michelle. “It’s our history. The market we built was progressive for our area. The interior of the store was finished with historic barn boards and tin from the mule barns from the Depression days.”

Betty found someone to make apple butter using the Rendleman family recipe, which quickly became popular, along with applesauce and other farm-based products. Betty developed the product and packaging for apple and peach crisp, and other baking mixes. Michelle put her background in graphic design to work and created product labels.

Michelle and Wayne Sirles are the fifth generation at Rendleman Orchards, which is
celebrating its 150th anniversary this year. They don’t offer U-pick fruit, but have found other ways to draw guests to their farm. Photo courtesy of Rendleman Orchards

As the retail business grew, Wayne’s parents planted a U-pick pumpkin patch. “There wasn’t anything U-pick on the farm before pumpkins,” said Michelle. “That was the only thing customers could experience on the farm, and it was for one month, during October. Otherwise, for customers it was mostly a ‘shopping on the farm’ experience because the fruit was still all wholesale.”

That changed in 2016 when Michelle asked Wayne to plant a sunflower field. She begged him for five years to plant an acre of the cheerful flowers just for her own enjoyment. Wayne planted the flowers close to the road so passersby could also enjoy the blooms.

“As soon as the first bloom happened, the farm’s Facebook page became busy – fast,” said Michelle. “People wanted to come to do family photos and pick sunflowers.” Michelle suggested they respond to the demand with a U-pick option, which they first tried on weekends.

“It was in September, and we saw the joy it brought people,” said Michelle. “They appreciated being allowed on the farm to walk around. In our area, no one else was offering U-pick flowers and people were fascinated.”

The sunflowers lasted three weekends and the family was astounded at the response. People were taking photos all over the farm, including in front of historic buildings the family considered less than photogenic.

With the success of the sunflowers, Michelle wanted to add zinnias. “They’re bright and colorful, and they bloom all summer,” she said, “and they’d be ready during peach season.”

Wayne was less optimistic about zinnias and wondered why people would be willing to pick flowers in hot weather, but agreed to try. “We planted the zinnia field in 2018 and had no idea how it was going to turn out,” said Michelle. “We planted them over an acre, and when they started to bloom on July Fourth, I posted that we had a zinnia field that was open.”

As the zinnia blooms multiplied, more people came to the farm for U-pick flowers and photographs. “People had been coming here for peaches for decades, and had started coming for the retail store,” said Michelle. “When we planted the U-pick zinnia field, the farm was now its own destination.”

Last year, a pink and white cosmos field and a strawflower patch became another popular draw throughout summer. Yellow sunflowers are next to bloom, followed by a succession of autumn-colored sunflowers.

Since most of the fruit is still grown for the wholesale market and with H-2A crews in the orchards, Rendleman Orchards can’t offer U-pick fruit. But Michelle knew adding interesting and unique attractions would draw more visitors.

This year’s feature is a U-pick mum field. The area was prepared with landscape cloth and timed irrigation, then stocked with plugs in nine-inch pots. The 900 mums are different varieties, colors and bloom times.

“The mums will start blooming the last week of August,” said Michelle. “Then every week, different mums will start showing color. We’ll have mums from the end of August through early October.”

Mums will peak during apple season, creating a draw to the market for apples, apple cider slushies, apple cider donuts and other seasonal favorites. “We have wagons to take people to the mum field,” said Michelle, “and yellow sunflowers will be in bloom behind the mum field.”

Families and professional photographers are fascinated with the diversity of pollinators and birds among the different flowers. After planting several acres of a milkweed mix, Rendleman Orchards was designated as a Monarch Waystation.

“The insects, birds and other pollinators have been equally exciting for a large population of people who are into the conservation side of farming,” said Michelle. “It has brought a lot of awareness to others. We are allowing our customers to be part of the learning experience.”

Visit Rendleman Orchards online at

by Sally Colby