Blogger Beth McKibben shares her family’s apple picking experience at a North Georgia orchard.
If your family is like mine, fall is a time for being outdoors and enjoying crisp, sunny days, maybe with a hike in the woods, pumpkin patch perusing or hitting up a local foodie festival. For me, fall conjures up warm memories of my childhood in New England. Yes, I said New England. I’m what you call a “half breed,” half Northern, half Southern. My most cherished memories are those of afternoons spent at apple orchards dotting the Connecticut Upper River Valley. For a good many years, my family would travel up to the orchards and pick apples. We’d head out with our barrels, pick as many apples as we could, come back home and eat caramel apples and drink hot apple cider. For my sister and I, it was great to climb trees, eat the fruits of our labor and run around in the fresh air.
As we got older, we didn’t go anymore. Weekends were spent closer to home due to cross country meets, softball games and singing competitions. I realized this year that my own children are rapidly approaching that phase in their lives. The weekends are becoming busier and the children less interested in spending inordinate amounts of time with us. But my husband and I decided this year we’d head back to the orchard, this time in Blue Ridge, Georgia.
I’ve always heard wonderful things about the orchards in North Georgia, especially the u-pick ones geared toward families. Your children get to see where apples REALLY come from and get to help pick the apples off the trees and then see them turned into tasty pies, breads, cakes or simply eaten as nature intended. Not to mention a memory they will cherish. Our family is all about shopping and eating locally, and you can’t get much more “farm-to-table” than picking your own apples.
While there are many orchards to choose from in North Georgia, I wanted to relive my childhood at one that wasn’t all dolled up with petting zoos and hayrides, but is just your basic orchard where you get right down to pickin’. I quickly shot off an e-mail to my sister who lives just up the road in Roswell and invited her family to join mine for our orchard adventure. With all on board, we settled on one orchard that seemed to fit the childhood memory perfectly—Mercier Orchards—located 1.5 hours north of Atlanta in Blue Ridge. The orchard hosts u-pick weekends from August to October, when you can enjoy a day at the orchard, picking wide varieties of apples and taste testing right off the trees (which is not only allowed but encouraged). For $10/bag, you take a tractor ride out into the orchard, fill your bag(s) with fresh-picked apples and snack on the merchandise, all while enjoying a beautiful mountain view.
We decided to head up early on a cloudy Sunday morning. As we caravanned up 575, which eventually turns into Hwy 515, the trees began transforming into hues of gold and red with each mile northward. The conversation turned to old family recipes, including my husband’s grandmother who loved to bake anything with apples in it. Once we arrived, Mercier’s u-pick operation went very smoothly, a bit of a shock considering we were not the only family who decided to make memories that day. Apples are big business in North Georgia during the fall, and Mercier is the largest apple orchard in the state. They grow over 50 varieties of apples and not only sell locally, but are also a commercial grower for stores like Kroger and Publix.
Once parked, we walked into the bustling orchard store and purchased our bags, which we were told could hold up to 15 medium-sized apples. Based on the recipes we had been discussing in the car, we decided to get at least two bags. (Each child also got their own bag.) Then, we headed for the tractors, which come in like taxis. As our tractor slowly edged up the dirt road, our guide told us about the history of Mercier and its founders. The orchard remains family-owned and is run with the fourth generation of Merciers already being groomed in the ways of apples. Our guide also pointed out the only building original to the farm, a red barn on top of a hill off in the distance.
When the tractor stopped, another guide rounded us all up for a quick tutorial on how to properly pick the apples off the trees. Then, with a “can we go now, Mom?” from both the children, we were off to pick our apples. My sister and I decided to hang back and let our children do all the “work” while the husbands happily taste tested. We strolled through row after row of trees heavy with their fruitful bounty, each row clearly marked with the variety. The children were so careful about picking, including my 4-year-old nephew who gingerly plucked apples from their branches.
In season that week were Beni Shoguns (a Japanese variety), Granny Smiths (perfect for baking) and Pink Ladies (sweet, yet crunchy). We picked all three varieties until our two bags were overflowing with 3 dozen apples. Where else can you get that many hand-picked, fresh apples for $20?
After an hour of picking, we decided it was time to hail the next tractor, drop off our spoils at the cars and head inside to check out the orchard store. The store was full of people buying freshly pressed apple cider from the cider bar, pastries and pies from the bakery and jams, jellies and salsas from the back. Even with all of the apples we had consumed, it was time for lunch. The store deli, while convenient, was crowded, so we decided to head to Harvest on Main in downtown Blue Ridge. The restaurant had good reviews on Yelp and touted the fact that it showcases locally grown food. A quick, 5-minute trip and we were in the tiny downtown area of Blue Ridge with its rail depot, arts center and row of cute shops, all topped off with a little motorized train that makes trips up and down the street carrying young passengers through the town.
At Harvest on Main, we were quickly seated outside on the porch and ordered drinks. Wine was out since alcohol isn’t sold on Sundays, so it was water and sweet tea all around. The kids’ menu was perfect with proven fare like pasta, hot dogs and hamburgers. For the adults, creamy tomato macaroni and cheese, a grilled chicken sandwich, big salads and the “kettle pot special” were on the menu. I had the special, Hungarian Chicken Stew that day. Patrons were coming and going throughout our meal, sometimes with dogs who sat quietly on the front porch while their masters ate. The staff was friendly and at times quite funny, bantering back and forth with each other and obvious “regulars.” We all remarked that we’d like to come back for a Saturday evening meal, sans children, when wine would be flowing, a fire going and the beautiful mountain sunset clearly visible.
After a two-hour lunch, it was time to head back to Atlanta though. On the drive home with the kids glued to their video games, my husband and I relished in our successful apple picking trip, totally spontaneous lunch and how much fun we had with our children and family.
Talk again turned to recipes both old and new. With Mercier Orchards so close, we plan to make this a yearly tradition even into our children’s dreaded teen years. Plans are already in the works to go back for more u-pick weekends in April and May when blueberries and strawberries will be in season. For now, there’s apple bread to enjoy, pies to make and old family recipes for blueberry crisps and strawberry tarts to find.
Mercier Orchards is located at 8660 Blue Ridge Dr. on Hwy. 5 in Blue Ridge, Georgia. Apple picking will be available this weekend on Saturday and Sunday from 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Pumpkins, a Halloween Carnival and Haunted Tractor Rides will also be available. The orchard store is open daily from 7 a.m.-8 p.m. with 10 varieties of apples on sale. Harvest On Main is located at 576 E. Main St. in Blue Ridge and open Monday-Saturday from 11 a.m.-9 p.m. and Sunday from noon-8 p.m.
Beth McKibben is a freelance writer based in Atlanta, Georgia. She enjoys telling a good story and day tripping with her husband and two kids. To find out more about Beth, see her full bio in our “Contributors” section.