When Jarl Echols walks through Jaemor Farms in Alto, he still sees pieces of the market that remind him of its beginnings in 1981.
“The front registers are exactly where they were 40 years ago,” Jarl said. “If you walk in the place, baskets are hanging above your head. People think it’s neat to pick one out and fill it with fruit. That kind of thing has not changed.”
On Tuesday, Jan. 5, Jaemor Farms celebrated its 40th anniversary.
Jarl, who has co-owned the operation with Drew, Jeremy and Judah Echols since 2015, said he remembers when his father, Jimmy Echols, called his family for a meeting about starting up the farm market, a concept none of them were familiar with.
“I was 19 years old,” Jarl said. “It was new to us. He ordered 6,000 (peach) trees. That doubled the size of our peach operation, so I knew something was up.”
The name, Jaemor, was inspired by Jimmy’s initials “JAE” and three letters of his late wife’s maiden name — Valvoreth Morrison Echols.
Before opening Jaemor Farms, located at 5340 Cornelia Highway
https://www.google.com/maps/place/Jaemor+Farmsfirstname.lastname@example.org,-83.6521931,17z/data=!3m1!4b1!4m5!3m4!1s0x885f54721c6d61cd:0xa54c19561c7252e7!8m2!3d34.4219309!4d-83.6500044in Alto, Jarl said his family already owned 160 acres of farmland. He said his dad felt compelled to expand their farming and start the market after speaking with a man from the North who offered him a proposal.
“He came up to Daddy and said, ‘I want to sell you my land,’” Jarl recounted. “Daddy said, ‘Why?’ He said, ‘because I like the way you farm.’”
Jarl said his dad purchased the 100-acre tract of land for $88 an acre. Before, the Echols family operated a peach stand off Cornelia Highway in Lula.
Jarl said Jimmy purchased the land for Jaemor Farms in Alto, before he knew about the four-lane highway that now runs by the property and through North Georgia.
“The road opened two to three days before we opened,” Jarl said. “It opened from Lula to Cornelia, and it wasn’t open from Gainesville to Lula yet. We were the only business on the road.”
Chickens and peaches
Although Jaemor Farms welcomes hundreds of thousands of people a year and encompasses 500 acres, including its farmland in Banks and Habersham counties, it wasn’t always booming with business.
For its first two years running, Jarl said the farm market lost $40,000 a year.
“There was a time when everybody said that Jimmy Echols was going under,” Jarl recounted. “Everybody said Jimmy is on his last leg.”
Judah Echols, Jarl’s brother, said if Jaemor Farms wasn’t raising chickens during its early years, he thinks the business would have collapsed.
“Partly because we lost some peach crop in the ‘80s,” Judah said. “Peaches and chickens were about all the income we had. When we lost the peach crop, we had to rely on the chicken business. I think it’s a story about perseverance.”
Judah said his parents, Jimmy and Valvoreth, poured their hearts into Jaemor Farms and were willing to work for nothing for several years to keep the market’s head above the water.
“I still got a paycheck some years when my mom and dad didn’t,” he said.
It wasn’t until the late ‘80s until the business began making a profit, Judah said.
When Jaemor Farms was just starting out, Jarl said he remembers using old hearses to transport peaches. He said his dad would buy them and cut their tops off. One of the altered hearses could carry up to 26 bushels of peaches, which equate to around 50 pounds each.
“I was crossing the railroad one time with a load of peaches on it, and here comes the blue lights,” Jarl recounted. “It was the state patrol, and the guy pulled up beside me and said, “What the hell is that?’ I said, ‘This is a peach wagon.’ He said, ‘What are you hauling?’ And I said, ‘We’re hauling dead-ripe peaches.’”
Luckily for Jarl, he said the officer left laughing and didn’t give him a ticket.
During the early years of Jaemor Farms, Jarl said the operation could run with two people on staff. Today, he said the business employs 40 people on the farm and around 55 people in the market, both part-time and full-time.
The bakery portion of the business has also experienced growth, having started with only selling pies from Mercier Orchards. Today, all the market’s baked goods are made in-house. Jarl said the building has an oven that can bake 160 loaves of bread at the same time.
In 2013, Jaemor Farms opened another market location in Commerce, which Jarl said is about one-third the size of the Alto location.
“It’s not near the numbers (of Jaemor Farms in Alto), but it does fantastic,” Jarl said.
Harvesting a recipe for success
Drew Echols, Jarl’s son and Judah’s nephew, likes to say that Jaemor Farms was “locally grown before it was cool.”
Unlike your typical farmer’s market or grocery store, he said the market offers a unique shopping experience where people can pick up seasonal fresh produce minutes after being picked on the farm.
“As far as success goes, we’ve been blessed as a family business,” Drew said. “It’s because of our hard work and being able to adapt and diversity, whether that’s with crops or products like ice-cream.”
If Drew’s childhood self could see Jaemor Farms today, he said he would be surprised by its effect on the community and the fact that Jaemor Farms no longer “grows chickens.”
Drew said Jaemor Farms is now not only known for its peaches, strawberries and pumpkins, but its seasonal experiences like the corn maze, U-Pick days and more recently, social media-worthy flower fields.
“With this flower deal, we believe we’re scratching the surface,” Drew said. “We think there’s a whole lot of opportunity for retail, not just pick your own. People just love flowers, they put you in a food mood.”
In the near future of Jaemor Farms, Drew and Jarl said they plan to start growing fields of lavender for the public to visit.
“We give people what they want,” Drew said. “There’s very little space that is there to take up space. If an item doesn’t sell, we move it and get something in there that will sell.”
Each day he begins his role as the co-owner of Jaemor Farms, Jarl said he can’t help but think of his mother, Valvoreth, who died on Sept. 1, 2020, at 82 years old.
While his dad Jimmy served as Jaemor Farms’ visionary, he said his mother was the backbone. Jarl attributes much of the operation’s success to Valvoreth.
“When I walk in, she’s one of the first people I think of because her hand was on everything,” Jarl said. “She was the strongest one. Who’s ever the strongest of your parents, I think that’s where you get your drive. Daddy is the visionary, but it takes somebody to accomplish that vision.”
Judah said he believes Jaemor Farms’ growth stems from a “combination of perseverance and sticking in the business even when it wasn’t making any money.”
“One of the greatest joys I’ve had at my job, besides working with my mom and dad, is getting to see them see Jaemor be successful,” Judah said. “They took great pride in having a family business.”