Made in Georgia: Fresh off the tree or baked in a pie, apples rule at Mercier Orchards

An important part of orchard manager David Lillard’s job is knowing when the apples are ripe and ready to be picked. Courtesy of Mercier Orchards

Credit: Handout

Credit: Handout

The Appalachian mountain range begins its ascent from the counties of North Georgia. Communities like Blue Ridge were established along the railroad lines that traveled the Toccoa River Valley, where residents and visitors enjoyed the advantages of crisp mountain air and abundant waterways.

Of all the crops grown in this area, apples are the stars. And the largest of the orchards that dot the area is Mercier Orchards, established by Bill and Adele Mercier in 1943, when they purchased 27 acres of land from Dr. C. G. Lloyd, owner of the Blue Ridge Pharmacy.

David Lillard is orchard manager of Mercier Orchards. Courtesy of Mercier Orchards

Credit: Handout

Credit: Handout

In the early years, fall would find Bill Mercier packing apples and putting them on the train to Atlanta or Alabama. In the 1960s, construction of a road to connect Blue Ridge with Copperhill, Tennessee, cut right through the middle of the orchard. Suddenly, the apple house had highway frontage, and the family opened a farm stand.

Now, the fourth generation tends the trees; produces apple juice, wine and hard cider; and oversees the farm store and bakery. David Lillard married into the Mercier family and, in 1997, he and his wife, Melissa, left their jobs in Atlanta to become part of her family’s business.

ExploreWhere to pick apples in North Georgia

In addition to growing familiar varieties of apples, such as Fuji and Granny Smith, Mercier Orchards grows some lesser-known varieties, like these Beni Shoguns. Courtesy of Mercier Orchards

Credit: Handout

Credit: Handout

Lillard is the orchard manager, overseeing what grows on the family’s three properties, covering 300 acres. Fifty acres are used to grow strawberries, blueberries, blackberries, peaches and nectarines. The rest is cloaked in row after row of dwarf and semi-dwarf trees laden with apples of every hue, from green to deep purple.

“Our harvest starts in April with strawberries, which overlap with the blueberries, which overlap with the blackberries, which overlap with the peaches,” Lillard said. “We finish harvesting apples about mid-November. Depending on the harvest and demand, we can have our apples available through March and into April, just about the time we start harvesting strawberries again.”

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The Mercier Orchards farm store offers whatever seasonal fruit is available from the fields, along with other local produce. The store's shelves are filled with apple products, from wine to hard cider to apple butter. Courtesy of Mercier Orchards

Credit: Handout

Credit: Handout

The earliest apples are Polar Reds. Not necessarily good for eating out of hand, Lillard said they make great hard cider. “They’re more acid than sweet, and that is great for fermentation.”

Mercier Orchards began making hard cider in 2011.

Those early Polar Reds give way to a succession of apples that ends with the varieties that ripen the latest — Fuji, Granny Smith and Pink Lady.

In harvest season, Lillard travels the roads through the orchard every day. “I’m always very nervous as it comes to start harvest,” he said. “Looking at each variety, I have to decide, is this the right time to harvest this apple? Are the sugars right? What is the weather coming our way? It’s the hardest part of the business. But, once harvest starts, we work five days a week and it all seems to smooth out.”

When Mercier Orchards is able to offer you-pick, visitors take a wagon ride into the field, where they find clearly marked rows of apples ready for picking, like these September Wonders. Courtesy of Mercier Orchards

Credit: Handout

Credit: Handout

Surrounded by apples, does Lillard enjoy eating them? Absolutely, he said, and he prefers them right off the tree. His favorite is the late-season Arkansas Black, which has a waxy, thick skin, providing an edge of bitterness to the sweetness of the flesh.

Lilliard said that, in an average year, the orchards produce between 75,000 and 100,000 bushels of fresh apples. He manages all of this with the help of a 10-person crew, many of whom have been with the farm for 30 years.

“But, our from-scratch bakery blows all that away,” Lillard said. He recounted the story of his grandmother-in-law, Adele Mercier, frying apple hand pies and selling them right out of the cast-iron skillet to those who came to the farm stand. “Now, we sell well over a million fried apple pies each year,” he said.

With thousands of bushels of apples picked each year, Mercier Orchards has a plentiful supply for its bakery, which produces apple treats like these fried apple pies and apple loaves. Courtesy of Mercier Orchards

Credit: Handout

Credit: Handout

Those fried apple pies are sold in a huge farm store, where you can find everything from fresh local produce (including the orchard’s seasonal fruit) to a candy kitchen and a bakery turning out hot apple cider doughnuts and the orchard’s famous apple bread. You’ll even find stacks of dried apple wood, harvested from trees that have passed their peak production years.

IF YOU GO

Mercier Orchards

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

Shop at the farm store, open 7 days a week, 9 a.m.–5 p.m. or online at shop.mercier-orchards.com.

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