It’s harvest time in York Durham Headwaters, and what better way is there to kick off the season than to corral the kiddies and head out to the orchard for some pick-your-own apple fun? Apples direct from the tree have been a family favourite for generations, something that everyone looks forward to. These crunchy, juicy orbs are unlike apples you’ll taste anywhere else. “Most of the varieties that we currently grow can be found in the grocery store,” says farmer Connor Miller of Applewood Farm in Stouffville. “That being said, I don’t think you’re ever going to have something from the grocery store that will taste the same as what you have off the tree. There is a massive difference.”
Apple picking is an experience we think everyone should have. If you have never been to the orchard before, or if it’s been a few years since your last visit, here are a few etiquette tips direct from three apple farmers in our region on what you should know before visiting. As Melissa Downey of Downey’s Strawberry Apple Farm in Caledon points out, “We’re serving two to five thousand people a day. That’s a lot of people! So, let’s all do our part to make the experience wonderful for everyone!
To eat or not to eat?
One of the biggest questions people often have when they go apple picking is: can I eat an apple off the tree? This is actually a practice which varies from orchard to orchard. Where one farm might allow tasting, another might not—and it’s important to remember that each farm has its own valid reasons for its policies. At Downey’s Strawberry Apple Farm, for example, there is a strict No Eating policy in place. “People think that because it’s a farm, they can come in and bite into apples and just toss them on the ground,” Melissa explains. “That is something we ask people to leave the orchard for, if they’re caught tasting and eating.”
At Archibald Orchards and Winery in Bowmanville, on the other hand, tasting is considered a part of the experience. “We expect people to taste,” says Fred Archibald. “It’s a little different than something like blueberries or strawberries—I’ve heard stories of people sitting down with a bowl of cream and spending the afternoon eating. But for apples, how many can you really eat?”
That being said, the best thing to do is to check the orchard’s website and find out what their tasting policy is ahead of time. If they have a No Eating policy in place, respect the farmers’ wishes. If you are allowed to taste, and if you choose to do so, be mindful of how many apples you’re tasting, and aim to finish the apples you bit into so that others can enjoy the experience, too.
Treat the trees with care
Climbing trees is a time-honoured activity for kids everywhere… even if it makes us parents a little (or a lot) nervous. But trees in the apple orchard are different than the maple in the backyard. Climbing onto the branches knocks apples to the ground, damages the tree limbs, and can be a safety hazard. Because these trees are an investment for the farm, they must be kept as healthy and damage-free as possible so that they can continue to produce apples year after year.
“We ask that people don’t climb on the limbs to get the apples on the upper reaches of the tree,” says Conner Miller of Applewood Farm. “Our trees are dwarf trees, so they are reachable for the average person. And there is obviously lower fruit for the younger kids.”
For those apples that you can reach with your feet on the ground, yanking them from their limbs can be damaging, too. To pick an apple properly, twist it gently so that the stem comes away from the branch naturally. A small stem and a leaf or two are acceptable. A bigger twig and five other apples being shaken to the ground by a single yank on the branch… not so much. Melissa Downey reminds us, “It’s a big investment [for the farmers]. The liability is huge, operating a pick-your-own operation. People don’t necessarily understand that these rules and guidelines are in place to keep you safe, and to keep our trees healthy so that we can be here into the future to provide this service.”
Mind your Ps and Qs
Okay, so we know this etiquette tip is not necessary to point out. We know that our visitors here in YDH are the best visitors ever. But just in case, and because we have your attention, it goes without saying that we all need to be on our best behaviour when visiting a pick-your-own apple orchard. Let’s all follow the rules, speak respectfully to other guests and to orchard staff, and remember that we are guests on someone else’s property.
Unfortunately, there are occasional circumstances where people forget their Ps and Qs. We understand—it’s difficult when it’s a warm day, our apple bags are heavy, there are large crowds, and rules restricting what we can and cannot do. But that is no reason to leave our manners behind. Melissa Downey says, “A big one that we have to give reminders about is treating all staff with kindness and respect. If you don’t agree with our rules, there are lots of other farms to choose from, or maybe this just isn’t the experience for you. But abusive or foul language, throwing apples, breaking trees and hitting our staff is absolutely not okay behaviour in our orchard. That is one of the things that unfortunately when there are large crowds and people have to wait, people seem to think that that’s okay.”
Let’s be honest
Most apple orchards offer a standard-sized bag for you to fill, and that bag size determines how much your fresh-picked apples will cost. But it’s not like the grocery store in most cases—bring-your-own bags are usually prohibited. As are apples stuffed into pockets, purses, hoods, etc. Melissa Downey recalls, “It’s a regular occurrence to see that someone has taken their purse in and then to see the shape changes and it’s quite heavy. We do tell people that all bags are inspected on the way out. Sometimes it’s pockets, it’s hoods. When that’s the case it’s at our exit that we eyeball it into the next size of bag.”
She remembers once finding a patron with so many illicitly-concealed apples that when they were all counted out, the additional charge came to a whopping ninety dollars! “That’s stealing,” she says. “That’s our livelihood.”
So, let’s all be respectful and responsible and be honest with our apples.
Be ready to adapt to COVID-19 changes
Of course, the rules, regulations and guidelines that we are used to at our favourite pick-your-own apple orchard in typical years are different with COVID-19. “Covid has changed a lot of what we’re asking people to do,” says Connor Miller of Applewood. “We’re not asking for much, just put your mask on when you’re in the proximity of others, like in the lineups or in the market or on the wagon. And just be respectful of people and our staff. Other than that, you’re all out there to have fun and enjoy the outdoors.”
Fred Archibald adds, “It’s too bad that we have had this resurgence and everyone is nervous again—including us, especially about how to keep the whole environment safe. So, it’s not exactly “Pick your apples and get out of here,” but we are not encouraging people to hang around and picnic like they did before.”
There are so many fantastic pick-your-own experiences all around York Durham Headwaters. If you are heading out for some apple-themed adventure this season, be sure to check the website of the orchard you plan on visiting to familiarize yourself with their particular requirements, picking and purchasing format, and any other FAQs they may have answers to so that you can be prepared for the best possible experience.
Story by Katherine Ryalen