As your horse-drawn wagon bumps and rumbles through the fields of southern Vermont, you notice a dusting of frost on the grass-covered hillsides. It's still morning at Dwight Miller Orchards, where the apple trees overlooking the pastoral Connecticut River Valley are heavy with low-hanging fruit-crimson Empires, Honeycrisps, and Macouns.
Reaching into the fragrant, scraggly branches, tugging the apples free as the sun starts to burn off the chill...could there be a more perfect autumnal ritual? Even for those of us who grew up far from the countryside, the first nip of crisp fall air and hint of color in the trees seem to awaken some primal urge to harvest. And so we head to the fields and orchards to do what comes naturally: pick apples.
Happily, the perennial lure of apple picking does more than feed our own romantic seasonal cravings-it helps sustain an important part of the apple-growing industry. According to Todd Hultquist, spokesperson for the trade organization U.S. Apple, only about five percent of the country's 7,500 orchards offer the option of picking your own (often called PYO or U-pick). But these are mainly small family-run operations that-along with selling their produce via farmers' markets-make the bulk of their income from agritourism. In other words, from pickers like us.
Americans' newfound interest in all things local-food-related has been good news for growers and has, in turn, created even more varied opportunities for would-be pickers. Some PYO orchards-such as Dwight Miller and Bear Swamp Orchard in Massachusetts-have gone organic in recent years, allowing eco-conscious pickers and foodies alike to indulge in pesticide- and hormone-free apples. Other orchards, like Jones Creek Farms in Washington, Weston's Antique Apples in Wisconsin, and Minnesota's Deardorff Orchards, grow heirloom and specialty apple varieties not easily found in stores. (When's the last time you spotted a Sweet Tango or Strawberry Chenango apple in your regular supermarket?)
Every PYO orchard on our list, though, has something special to recommend it-whether it's centuries of family history in the business (like Stribling Orchard in Virginia), or breathtaking locations, like Sky Top Orchard, which straddles a panoramic peak in North Carolina, or Oregon's Kiyokawa Family Orchards, which distracts pickers with its views of the snowcapped Mount Hood.
No matter where you end up, you'll likely find it well worth the trip just to be able to eat an apple straight off the tree.