Apple season looks a little different this fall at Mercier Orchards in Blue Ridge because of the lasting impact of the pandemic on workforce numbers, as well as two late spring freezes.
Mercier, one of north Georgia's most popular fall tourist attractions, will not offer apple picking activities this fall. Mercier did not offer apple picking in 2020 due to a workforce shortage caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
David Lillard, co-owner of Mercier Orchards, said the company closed down for several weeks at the start of the pandemic in 2020. Only about half of the company's employees returned upon Mercier's re-opening, a problem which persisted through the rest of the year.
Lillard said those at Mercier were hopeful that things would turn around in 2021, but unusual spring weather had another plan in place for their apple crop.
"Things were looking good. We had a good bloom ... it looked like we were going to have a good set on the crop outside, and then mother nature decided she was going to change our course. We had two freezes," Lillard said.
The two freezes damaged about 60% of the apple crop at Mercier. The damaged crops largely consisted of apples intended for apple picking by patrons.
While the damaged crops are a new issue for Mercier in 2021, Lillard said they are also still struggling to hire enough workers.
"It is absolutely not getting any better. In order to further the cause we have closed down our shipping department ... we had a downtown location, we closed that one. We had a restaurant in the building that would serve an awesome breakfast and a great lunch, but we have closed that down," Lillard said. "I've talked to a bunch of other growers in Ellijay and they're in the same boat I am."
However, Lillard said the one silver lining is that while they are facing this workforce shortage, they also have a smaller crop this year.
"I would be in a major panic. If I had a full crop, I'm not sure what I would have done this year," Lillard said.
Even with several activities closed for the 2021 season, Lillard said there is still plenty to do at Mercier Orchards. The market will still sell apples and various other fruit and produce, the bakery is still open and Lillard said they are also making plenty of apple cider.
Families visiting Mercier are also encouraged to walk the orchard and pick one apple for free if they spot one undamaged by the frost.
Lillard said he knows the orchard will recover, as this is not the first time he has had to deal with a large-scale loss of crops.
"As a farmer, you get used to stuff like this. The COVID thing is a little weird obviously ... but as far as the farming aspect and losing some fruit to the cold, I still enjoy the heck out of my job," Lillard said. "I've got a 300-acre office and I'm not giving it up."