When planning a trip to an apple orchard, you might expect to pick the bright red fruit straight from the tree, enjoy a leisurely walk through the trees, and maybe even sip on some freshly pressed apple cider.
At Hillcrest Orchards in Ellijay, not only will these expectations be met, but you’ll also find a petting farm, mini golf, the jumping pillow, Buttercup the cow – who will let you milk her – and lots more, all tucked in the North Georgia mountains.
After prevailing through hardship of a dwindling market and the loss of her husband, Janice Hale revived her family orchard in 1991 after making the decision to sell her product directly to consumers.
“Our farm is about an hour and a half from Atlanta,” Hale says. “I had the challenge of convincing those Atlanta folks that it was worth the drive to come to our place for fresh apples. In 1993, we opened the petting farm and started offering school field trips to tour the orchard. And thus, we were in agritourism.”
Agritourism, or teaching consumers more about agriculture through fun and educational activities, is a major part of Hillcrest.
“I didn’t plan to include agritourism activities initially in the business but did so out of necessity to lure folks to buy apples,” Hale says. “I can say that agritourism literally saved our farm.”
Hillcrest still offers those same school tours, but they’ve added much more to the menu. In 1996, the farm held the first ever Apple Pickin’ Jubilee, a U-pick festival that started out as one weekend and now spans eight, beginning the weekend after Labor Day and running through October. And new for this year, Hale and her husband, Lynn, have added the Georgia Apple Tree Maze, where visitors can play fun, unique games as they make their way through the orchard’s alleys that will help them learn more about how apples grow.
Hale says that education is a main mission of the agritourism activities. Though they should be fun, it’s important that people know that behind every food product in grocery stores is a hardworking farmer who produces it.
“These kids will grow up some day and some of them will run for public office, making policies that affect farmers,” Hale says. “If we can instill in them an appreciation for what we do and an understanding of the process, they will be better equipped to make educated decisions about their food.”
Just like Hillcrest, lots of farms and orchards across Georgia offer agritourism adventures, teaching consumers more about agriculture in the process. Whether attending a wine tasting, visiting a farmers market, taking a farm tour, running through a corn maze, picking your own pumpkins, or attending a fall festival, agritourism activities help connect consumers directly to the people growing their food.
Hale says there are other new things in the works at Hillcrest, such as as duck races. Their mission statement sums up the goal of Georgia’s agritourism nicely: “To share with you and your family our farming heritage and create lasting memories of farm life. To instill an appreciation for the farmers and the hard work they do to produce food for the world.”