There comes a time each year—generally somewhere between the fading of the last fireworks of Riverbend and back-to-school shopping—when summer begins to seem like a bad idea. Memories of the beach vacation are growing distant and Chattanooga’s heat and humidity send all but the heartiest of outdoor lovers inside to the relative safety of air conditioning, icy drinks and shade. Autumn is still a few calendar pages away and thoughts, though premature, turn to football, turning leaves and ripe fall apples in the orchard. While most people naturally put apple picking somewhere on one of those Autumn calendar pages, Blue Ridge Georgia’s Mercier Orchards has managed to fill the entire year with reasons to visit.
Bill and Adele Mercier bought 27 acres of land in 1943 and soon set about cultivating apple trees along their rolling Blue Ridge hills to establish Mercier Orchards. As the orchard’s seventy-fifth year approaches it is still run by the Mercier family and has grown to around three hundred acres. Long known across the southeast as a top destination for fall apple picking, they grow over a dozen different varieties of apples. Mercier Orchards has become a destination worthy of a visit any season of the year.
That a family-operated orchard has survived, let alone continued to thrive after 75 years is no small feat. Today’s industrial farming methods favor a smaller number of farmers cultivating increasingly larger swaths of land. Mercier finds its formula for sustained success in a blend of traditional agricultural production and an embrace of modern agritourism. With more and more Americans becoming increasingly concerned with what is in their food and how it is produced, the concept of agritourism brings consumers directly to the source to see first-hand where the food on their plates originates.
Beginning in early spring, Mercier hosts Blossom Tours. Visitors can hitch a tractor ride through the orchards to witness the apple trees in full bloom, their blossoms of white and pink hinting at the harvest to come later in the year. The month of May marks the start of the “U-Pick” Season with strawberries ripe for picking around Mother’s Day followed by blueberries in June and blackberries in July. Lucky summertime pickers often get to double up with both blueberries and blackberries available for picking at the same time. August brings the first of the early season apples followed by mid-season varieties in September and the late season apples are ready to harvest in October and sometimes into November. Some varieties, the Pink Lady for example, only develop their flavor after frost comes.
While farming is usually synonymous with hard physical labor, a typical U-Pick excursion is more leisurely than back breaking. Tractors depart from the parking lot every 15 minutes or so for a bouncy trailer ride along farm roads. Tour guides share a bit of Mercier’s history along the way before depositing pickers and their buckets right in the middle of ripe berry patches or apple groves. No experience is necessary. The helpful orchard staff is on hand to describe the different varieties and explain how to select the ripest, tastiest fruits. Emily Adams, an enthusiastic five-year Mercier employee gives a quick primer on selecting the best strawberries, pausing to compare spring picking to the throngs of autumn apple pickers. “October is crazy. We once had 7,000 people in one day doing U-Pick. Those days go by really fast!” Spring berry picking is much more laid back. And tasty too according to Adams. “I love the strawberries. They taste like sunshine and they are just the best.”
While the fruit picking may be the main draw, it is certainly not the only draw at Mercier. Adele’s Kitchen serves a hearty breakfast each morning and lunch into the afternoon. Saturday mornings find young families fueling up on biscuits and gravy, apple butter and pancakes in preparation for a day of apple picking. Weekenders from Atlanta stretch lazy Sunday breakfasts into lunch, savoring a last bit of relative quiet before making their way back to the bustle of the city.
An expansive farm store features a bakery and candy kitchen and offers a wide range of products featuring the apples and other fruits grown at the orchard. A moveable feast of apple butter, breads, salsas, cakes and doughnuts lets visitors take a taste of Mercier home with them. While everyone seems to have a personal favorite, the fried pies rise to another level entirely. The problem with buying fried pies to take home is factoring in the number that will disappear on the ride home. Veteran Mercier visitors factor this phenomenon into their shopping plans and buy extra.
Visitors with a taste for more potent treats will enjoy the tasting room which features wines and hard ciders made from Mercier’s apples and fruits. Mercier is the only Georgia winery and cidery that can boast that they grow, press, ferment and bottle their wines and ciders on-site at the orchard. Wines and ciders can be enjoyed in small tasting pours or by the glass in the tasting room and adjacent patio and are available to take home by the bottle. Mercier’s wines and ciders can also be found at retail outlets across North Georgia and into the Atlanta area. Saturdays at the orchard feature Hard Cider Tours which allow for a closer look at the art of cider making. The tours include a visit to the orchards and cider house and an in-depth look at the process that turns apples into cider, from picking, pressing for juice, to fermentation and bottling. The tours have proven to be a big draw for cider drinkers who, like craft beer fans, have a thirst for products that are hand crafted and local.
While it’s not too early to begin thinking about a crisp autumn visit to Mercier—and it will be well worth the trip—there’s really no need to wait. The drive from Chattanooga to Blue Ridge seems much shorter that it actually is, winding through the Cherokee National Forest and curving along the rushing whitewater of the Ocoee River and the placid Lake Ocoee. Upon arrival, Mercier Orchards never disappoints— regardless of the season—with plenty to do, see, and taste.
For more information please visit mercier-orchards.com.
Photography by Scott Phillips and Courtesy of Mercier Orchards.