North Georgia orchards, markets offer apple picking

Tour guide Rachel Navarro picks a ripening apple during a tour at Mercier Orchards in Blue Ridge. Apple houses expect many visitors this season, though some, including Mercier, are limiting activities. Photo: Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com
Tour guide Rachel Navarro picks a ripening apple during a tour at Mercier Orchards in Blue Ridge. Apple houses expect many visitors this season, though some, including Mercier, are limiting activities. Photo: Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com

Credit: Curtis Compton

Credit: Curtis Compton

August kicks off an outdoor activity that can offer a safe break from isolation.

Apple houses draw hundreds of thousands of visitors to the Georgia mountains every late summer and early autumn when families stream north to pick their own apples, peaches and berries.

This year the pent-up demand may be higher than ever after Georgians found themselves cooped up for much of the summer.

“The people I know in the industry think it’s going to be an extremely busy fall, with us having an outdoor activity for people to do, since they can’t do nothing indoors,” said Barry Pritchett, of the Red Apple Barn near Ellijay.

“The concern is figuring out how to do this as safe as we can."

North Georgia farmers are taking steps to limit the spread of COVID-19, installing plexiglass shields, requiring masks and reducing some activities.

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Mercier Orchards in Blue Ridge, the largest apple house in Georgia, is discontinuing its pick-your-own operation this fall, though its market remains open, along with its wholesale operations, bakery, wine and hard cider salesroom.

“We made the difficult decision this season not to offer you-pick,” said market manager Mandy McCary, citing the difficulty of creating effective, reasonable safety measures.

The decision was a result of the scale of the operation. Every year Mercier welcomes crowds of several hundred thousand, and controlling a group that size was judged to be too challenging, said McCary.

Instead, they will bump up the number of fresh-picked apples offered in the market, and in the meantime limit the number of people in the market at any one time. They will also require masks, use plexiglass shields for the cashiers and sanitize carts.

Other smaller operations, including the Red Apple Barn, will offer you-pick opportunities, but with certain precautions.

Rachel Reece (right), owner, helps customer Cameron Tufts, of Decatur, with his 2-year-old daughter Susie shop for apples at B.J. Reece Orchards in Ellijay. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
Rachel Reece (right), owner, helps customer Cameron Tufts, of Decatur, with his 2-year-old daughter Susie shop for apples at B.J. Reece Orchards in Ellijay. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Cameron Tufts, 31, and his 2-year-old daughter Susie visited B.J. Reece Orchards in Ellijay Tuesday on a getaway from their Decatur home and his CPA duties.

Hanging at home, he said, with each day offering the same scene, was getting to be a little like “Groundhog Day.”

Not only was the trip to Ellijay a cool break from 90-degree temperatures in the city, but it was a throwback to his boyhood trips to the orchards of Massachusetts.

“‘A family affair’ pretty much sums it up,” he said.

Here are a few of the North Georgia apple houses offering the sweet rewards of fall.

Mercier Orchards

Mercier Orchards in Blue Ridge is the biggest apple house in Georgia, and perhaps the biggest in the Southeast. The market will be open 9 a.m.-5 p.m. seven days a week, though McCary says to check the website, mercier-orchards.com, for updates.

8660 Blue Ridge Drive, Blue Ridge. 706-632-3411, mercier-orchards.com.

The original apple house built in 1925 sits at the top of the you-pick orchard at Mercier Orchards. Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com
The original apple house built in 1925 sits at the top of the you-pick orchard at Mercier Orchards. Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com

Credit: Curtis Compton

Credit: Curtis Compton

Red Apple Barn

“We’ve doubled our retail space,” said Pritchett, which should give visitors more room to move around and maintain safe distances.

The market is open-air, and ventilated by four exhaust fans; visitors will be asked to wear a mask while shopping. Pritchett said they haven’t determined how to safely tractor you-pick customers to the fields, but they’re working on it. In the meantime, customers can walk to the trees on their own power. You-pick begins Aug. 29.

9 a.m.-6 p.m., Monday-Saturday; 12:30-5:30 p.m. Sundays. 3379 Tails Creek Road, Ellijay. 706-635-5898, redapplebarn.com.

Jaemor Farms

Jaemor Farms is one of the few apple houses outside Ellijay (Mercier is another) and does not have a big you-pick crowd.

“We may have a couple of weekends this fall of pick-your-own,” said owner Judah Echols. “We are kind of on a wait and see as far as the impact that COVID is going to make.”

The market on the other hand is busier than usual. “They want to come to an open-air market,” said Echols, adding that his farm is not requiring masks for those visiting the market.

7 a.m.-6 p.m., Monday-Saturday; 1-6 p.m. Sundays. 5340 Cornelia Highway, Alto. 770-869-3999, jaemorfarms.com.

Hillcrest Orchards

Hillcrest will have “you-pick” beginning Sept. 5, along with pig races, a petting zoo, cow milking,mini-golf and other activities.

Masks are required for indoor shopping and cow milking, said Janice Hale. “We have plexiglass barriers at all cashiers, ticket booths and food stations.” Customers will have a temperature check before entry.

She added, “We are doing everything we know to be safe and still provide a fun day trip for Atlanta folks.”

9 a.m. to 6 p.m. seven days a week from Sept. 1-Oct. 31; 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. from Nov. 1-30. 9696 Highway 52 East, Ellijay. 706-273-3838, hillcrestorchards.net.

Honeycrisp apples are displayed at B.J. Reece Orchards in Ellijay. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
Honeycrisp apples are displayed at B.J. Reece Orchards in Ellijay. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

B.J. Reece Orchards

“We‘re asking people to wear masks inside the market,” said co-owner Rachel Reece.

You-pick operations begin August 29, and will continue until October 31, “or until we are picked out.” There is also a petting zoo and other “family fun activities.”

9 a.m. to 6 p.m, Monday-Saturday, 1-6 p.m. Sundays in August; 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sundays in September and October. 9131 Highway 52 East, Ellijay.; 706-276-3048, reeceorchards.com