The Big Apple
The Merciers began with 27 acres. Now, their orchard and related businesses are one of Georgia’s best-known agricultural enterprises.
By Richard Banks | Photos By Jamie Cole
“Ahhh,” Adele Mercier says in somewhat mock disdain. “I don’t like U-pick. Never have. People just leave too much on the ground, and I don’t like to see any of these good apples go to waste.”
Her son, Tim, quietly chuckles, maybe a little nervously. After all, Ms. Adele, as many folks call the 94-year-old matriarch of the Mercier family, is speaking to a writer doing a story on the family business … part of which happens to be a U-pick operation.
“Yeah,” Tim says with a slight smile on his face, “we might lose as much as a third of the crop in our U-pick. But to give the public that experience is very important to us. No, I wouldn’t call it a waste—more of a cost of doing business.”
Ms. Adele looks at her son and makes a sort of brushing motion with her hand, as if to say, “Go away.” She, however, is smiling, too. If she’s not fond of U-pick, there are plenty more operations within the family business to like.
Mercier Orchards, the business Ms. Adele and her husband, Bill, started in 1943, is now one of Georgia’s largest apple operations. Largely overseen by Tim, several members of the family work on the orchard, including his daughter Melissa Lillard, her husband Dave, and Joe Foster, another son-in-law.
The operation they run is now the last apple wholesaler in the state and has a bakery that serves more than 1 million fried fruit pies each year to customers at its booming farm market, as well as restaurants throughout the South. The Merciers pasteurize some 3,000 gallons of apple cider each day during peak season, both for neighboring orchards and under their own label, much of which is sold at Whole Foods and Walmart stores. Then, there’s that U-pick operation, which, in addition to apples, now offers strawberries, peaches, blueberries, pumpkins and other crops, and has grown to be one of the largest in the southeastern U.S.
Mercier Orchards, just outside of Blue Ridge, Ga., is easy to find, especially in September or October. Just follow all the cars and tour buses. When word gets out the apples are ready to pick, folks from across the country, even foreign lands, flock to the 200-acre orchard. It’s not unusual for 10,000 people or more to visit on a single weekend day this time of year.
“That’s great for business,” says Tim, but not just for the obvious reason that his customers are buying his crop. U-pick also introduces them to the farm. “It gives [us] a lot of credibility,” he says, “when you actually put the people out there and they see what goes on. That credibility then translates to our other products.”
It’s a matter of taste, says Tim. “If we get people to buy with their taste buds and not just their eyes, they’ll really discover how good our products are right off the farm. And when they visit us, they’re coming hungry.”
But they’re hungry as much for the experience, says Joe. “People want to get back on the farm, and it’s not just kids who haven’t been, but adults, too. They didn’t experience what it’s like to be on a farm, but they’re going to make sure their kids do.”
It appears the Mercier approach is working, despite the fruit on the ground. In 2010 the operation set records for visitors and revenue, and says Joe, “this year we’re even running 20% more than we did last year.”
Success has created its own quandaries, however. Perhaps the biggest is a problem shared among lots of seasonal businesses—how do they replicate their success year-round and keep their employees on the payroll? “We ramp up to about 160 people during our fall harvest,” Joes says, “and then at the end of the year we go down to about 80. We have to let about half our staff go.
“So, we asked ourselves, what could we do the other 10 months out of the year? We started doing other crops. We’ve got fresh fruit year-round now that brings people back [at different times of the year]. But one of the challenges is we’re still getting tens of thousands of people to the farm in October, but only thousands in the off-season.”
The solution? “Instead of trying to get 10,000 people to come to us,” explains Joe, “we go to where there are tens of thousands of people.”
That was the thinking behind the family’s newest venture—serving their cider, fried pies and other products out of trailers at various festivals and other events, including the Kentucky Derby and NASCAR races at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Yes, it brings in revenue and keeps staff employed, but like the U-pick operation, the trailers themselves help to promote the rest of the family business.
“On our trailers,” says Joe, “we have a little [TV monitor] that shows video footage of everything we do at the farm. We get a chance to talk to all these people and invite them to come see our farm. It’s a great way to promote what we do.”
It’s the same spirit of innovation that has fueled the Mercier family’s drive for the past 68 years. Beginning with just 27 acres, Mercier Orchards continues to grow into new directions. Now, as a fourth generation of the family begins working in the business, there are even plans for a larger restaurant and complex on the property that will host weddings, small concerts and other events.
“For us, diversification is the key to a successful farm operation,” says Tim. When one operation has a tough year, the others can typically help soften the blow. Even after a devastating late freeze in 2007 that nearly wiped out the Merciers’ crops, the business managed to get by with the help of the market, bakery and other units.
But what fuels the family drive, says Tim, is passion. “Look at the long-term successful farms—I don’t care what they’re growing—they have enthusiasm for what they’re doing. If you’ve got that passion, you’ve got a shot at success.”
It was that zeal and energy, adds Tim, that got his mother and father into farming to begin with, and what motivates Ms. Adele to protect her apples.
“I love every one of them,” she says, still smiling. “And this farm is wonderful.”