Fall is apple-picking time

Eat a pie, sip a cider and celebrate North Georgia’s favorite fruit.

Riding on a wagon tour of the dwarf apple trees in Mercier Orchards, we were struck by two things:

One: you’re really in the mountains up here. Everything is either straight up or straight down.

Two: You’ve never seen so much tasty growing directly out of the ground.

Photo: Keith Walker of Center, Alabama, adds some bags of ginger gold apples to his cart at Mercier Orchards.

This feeling of a cornucopia upturned is amplified inside the Mercier market, one of the busiest attractions in Blue Ridge. A warehouse of appetizing options, the 14,500-square-foot facility offers fresh fruit, fried pies, ice cream, ciders, kitchen supplies and an array of adult beverages that can be sampled in the tasting room.

While Mercier (pronounced “mer-SEE-er”) doesn’t command as much acreage as some other Georgia apple growers, the orchard can fit more of its dwarf apple and peach trees into less room, or about 100,000 peach and apple trees on 300 acres.

The fruit giant does other things on a massive scale. Mercier sold 1.3 million fried pies last year, to customers and to businesses such as the Dwarf House and the Varsity. Their baked pies have also gained some far-flung fans, including one in California who ordered a $12.99 strawberry/rhubarb pie that cost $100 to ship.

The check out counter in the store is a busy place at Mercier Orchards.

Mercier’s enormous cider-making operation was transformed five years ago when the state rescinded its ban on Sunday alcohol sales, and Mercier began making hard cider. It’s truly a farm-to-table operation. The fruit is grown, pressed, fermented and bottled on site.

Cidermaster Ian Flom showed us through the massive refrigerated room where apples are stacked before squeezing, then past the fermenting silos and the pasteurizing equipment, and he offered us a taste of a hops-inflected hard cider, with a decidedly grown-up appeal.

The original apple house built in 1925 sits at the top of the U-Pick orchard at Mercier Orchards.

Mercier is also a venue for special events including weddings, many of them staged at the humble 90-year-old apple house, which is one of the oldest structures on the property.

This time of year, of course, apple picking is the big attraction. Fuji, Cameo and Sun Crisp apples are ripe now for $7 a half-peck, $14 a peck and $19 for a half-bushel. But if you want to pick your own, you better hurry.

Mercier welcomes 600,000 visitors a year, and 100,000 of those folks show up in October, so the U-Pick operation is halted for the month.

Fall is a time for festivals devoted to the noble apple, and the king of such festivals in North Georgia is the two-weekend Georgia Apple Festival (photo contributed by the Georgia Apple Festival). held Oct. 14-15 and Oct. 21-22 in Ellijay.

Some 50,000 apple fans visited the Georgia Apple Festival last year, and a similar crowd is expected this October.

Sponsored by the Ellijay Lions Club, the Gilmer County Chamber of Commerce, the cities of Ellijay and East Ellijay, and Gilmer County, the festival features arts and crafts, antique cars, a parade, a 5K run and the Ellijay Apple Queen Pageant.

The event is geared to bump up tourism in this tourist town, but it also is intended to expand the reputation of Georgia’s mountain crop, which, the festival literature explains, is a juicier experience than a supermarket apple. Their motto: “Take a bite of a ripe North Georgia apple with napkin in hand.”

Info: 9 a.m.-6 p.m. Saturdays; 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Sundays. Oct. 14-15, Oct. 21-22; $5, Ellijay Lions Club Fairgrounds, 1729 S. Main St., Ellijay. Limited handicapped parking available at main fairgrounds entrance. Free shuttle to fairgrounds from parking lots at Gilmer High School and Middle School, Ellijay Elementary and Primary Schools, and Mountainview Elementary School. 706-636-4500, www.georgiaapplefestival.org

At the Georgia Appple Festival. Photo contributed by Gilmer Chamber

Where to buy apples

There are plenty of places to get apples in North Georgia, many of which turn the fall season into a carnival, with corn mazes, petting zoos, hay rides and musical events.

B.J. Reece Orchards

9 a.m.-6 p.m. daily. U-Pick runs through the end of October. $2 Monday-Friday, $5 Saturday-Sunday. $7 half-peck bag; $12 peck bag; $20 half-bushel. 5505 Ga. 52 East, Ellijay. 706-273-3821, reeceorchards.com

R&A Orchards

Co-owner Andy Futch said Hurricane Irma caused some minor damage to the orchard. “We lost some apples and got some trees blowed down, but it could have been worse.” 9 a.m.-6 p.m. U-Pick runs through end of September, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturdays-Sundays. $8 and $16 bags. 5505 Ga. 52 East, Ellijay. 706-273-3821, randaorchards.com

Jaemor Farms

There will be no U-pick for the general public this year, said co-owner Judah Echols. Two locations: 5340 Cornelia Highway (Highway 365 at the 35 mile marker), near Alto. 7 a.m.-6 p.m. Monday-Saturday, 1-6 p.m. Sunday. 770-869-3999, www.jaemorfarms.com. And 40081 U.S. Hwy 441, Commerce, 8 a.m.-6 p.m. Monday-Saturday, 1-6 p.m. Sunday. 706-335-0999, www.jaemorfarms.com/commerce-market

Red Apple Barn at Little Bend Orchard.

9 a.m.-6p.m. Monday-Saturday, 12:30-5:30 p.m. Sundays. U-pick apples through end of October, Saturdays-Sundays. $4 a quarter peck, $6 a half peck, $12 a peck. Plus wagon rides, cornhole and horseshoes. 3379 Tailscreek Road, Ellijay. 706-635-5898 or 706-635-7674, www.redapplebarn.com

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