When Jarl Echols surveys the last four and a half decades, there are plenty of things he would have done differently given the chance. Choosing a different vocation isn’t among them.
Echols garnered enough credits to graduate high school March 18, 1978, at age 17. The following day launched the start of his full-time farming career, though he was no stranger to logging hours on the family farm.
Echols, now 62, recalls taking on the task of feeding chickens as a youngster of 5 or 6, graduating to picking peaches in the family orchard when he grew tall enough to reach the branches. His earnings were $1 hour, recompensed at summer’s end after Echols had logged around 500 hours on the farm.
Echols said his father, Jimmy, co-founder of Jaemor Farms, always paid his children fair and square.
“My dad’s always been the greatest father and employer that anybody could ever have,” Echols said of his father, who still lends a hand around the farm. “People say, ‘It ain’t good to work with your family.’ My daddy has always been good to us — so good to us — and I’ve tried to pass that on. I know a lot of people that worked for their dads growing up, and their daddy never did pay them like mine did. He was getting a lot of work out of young guys like us that were doing the job of an adult, and he knew that and he valued that. I’ve tried to instill that work ethic (in my own children), and it has really paid off.”
Today, Echols’ surname is synonymous with more than 300 acres of agritourism at Jaemor Farms, a family-run operation now spanning six generations. Echols has owned the legacy farm and market with his son, Drew, and brother, Judah, since 2015.
Echols remembers working on the roof of the 42-year-old market off Cornelia Highway circa 1980, and has driven a nail into every building added to the grounds since — a skill picked up in his teenage years. When the pace of the farm slowed down in the winter, Echols would spend a month or so working for his uncle, a home builder, further instilling Echols’ love of working with his hands.
More than that, though, it’s working with his children and grandchildren — which total five and six, respectively — that puts the wind in Echols’ sails.
“I’m proud of the farm, but my kids — that’s (my) treasure,” he said.
That treasure, as it turns out, is rich in good business acumen, and Echols has become adept at weeding out some of their big ideas and swallowing his pride or opinions on others.
“I found out a long time ago that I don’t know everything, and when some of these young folks have ideas, you don’t just write them off,” he said. “Drew told me we were going to open a corn maze; I said, ‘I just don’t think people are going to pay to walk around in corn.’ I’ve eaten those words a lot.”
According to Echols, the corn maze welcomed around 40,000 visitors last fall, and just shy of 30,000 the year before that.
“You’ve just got to listen to the next generation on some things,” he said. “They have a gift just like you think you’ve got.”
That philosophy is a family heirloom, it seems, a mindset passed down by his father before him.
In the late ‘70s, a teenaged Echols announced his plans to take a load of excess peaches to the Atlanta Farmers Market. Though he reasoned it was probably no small act for his father to surrender the keys to his truck, Jimmy did just that, but not before helping Echols and a friend fill two truck beds with bushel baskets of peaches.
“He took me down there when I was young and I knew what it was like, how you did things,” Echols said. “This woman (associated with the farmers market) pulled up beside me in a Mustang and said, ‘Where are you going with them peaches? Follow me.’ She bought that load of peaches, and she bought the other load of peaches.
“That got our foot in the door at the Atlanta Farmers Market to where, any time we had excess peaches, we had people to go to down there. We have run a 40-something-year relationship with different people in the farmers market — they depend on us and we depend on them. That really started from us risking something.”
‘This is real gambling’
Such is the nature of farming, Echols said. It’s risky business and hardly devoid of trial and error, especially where fruit crops are concerned.
“Sometimes you look down on gambling and think, ‘That’s a bad thing,’” Echols said. “Well, what in the world are we doing here? This is real gambling right here. There’s nothing in this life that’s sure, (except) death and taxes.”
A devout Christian and deacon at Lakewood Baptist Church in Gainesville, the correlations between farming and faith are not lost on Echols.
In 2000, Echols was in dire need of a bountiful peach harvest, but another divine plan unfolded.
“I said, ‘God, I need this crop. If you want me to go and kneel down at every peach tree and pray over that tree, I will,’” Echols recalled. “We lost it. I remember I was mad. (But) I made more money in 2000 than I had at that point in my life. That year, my income was higher than it had ever been, with peaches or without peaches. It was just like (God) said, ‘Let me just show you what I can do.’”
From that point onward, Echols said his supplications adopted a different tone.
“I said, ‘Lord, if you want some peaches, that’d be fine, and if you don’t want none, that’ll be fine. I’ll do the best I can with what you give me,’” Echols said. “My daddy always said, ‘God is more interested in growing men than he is peaches.’”
In 2020, Echols was pruned once again.
The year prior, Jaemor Farms was sending 350 flats of strawberries a day to Royal Food Service for lunches in 800 school systems, he said, but when the pandemic shuttered school campuses, Echols had a full crop of strawberries — not to mention peaches — on his hands with nowhere to redirect them. That is, until local customers took up the mantle, cleaning Jaemor out of both crops completely.
Despite the impact of the pandemic, Echols said 2020 was the farm’s best year to date.
“We take care of what we can up here, but the public has really taken care of us and opened their arms to us and what we’re doing up here,” he said.
Though he’s eyeing retirement in 2025, Echols said he’s not sure he’ll ever completely step away from farming. He’d like to divest himself of the major decision-making at Jaemor, he said, but intends to add a few clauses to his relinquishment letter: “I’m going to be able to come back and work whenever I want to for a certain amount of money per hour, and if I don’t want to work, I’m going to go to St. Simons.”
“I want to quit and still be walking upright,” he said, “because what’s retirement if you’re not able?”
When the fateful day arrives, Echols feels sure the farm will be in good hands.
“The next generation is smart and they have a good foundation under them,” Echols said. “I don’t know anybody that’s got the kids that I’ve got, all five of them that work and love it. They can’t stand not working. Of course, they inherited a lot of that from my daddy — my daddy does not know what the word ‘leisure’ means.”
When asked to summarize the last 45 years, Echols’ response is plain and simple: “It’s been fun. I wouldn’t trade it for nothing.”
“It has been an adventure, a continual learning experience,” he said. “To work with your family is the biggest blessing that you could ever have — to see them grow up in your business and enjoy it themselves. We’ve used what God’s given us to the best of our ability, from generation to generation to generation.”