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Apple picking time seems sweeter than ever

Danny Ramos gets a boost from his brother Jonathan while making his pick at C.N. Smith Farm in East Bridgewater.
Danny Ramos gets a boost from his brother Jonathan while making his pick at C.N. Smith Farm in East Bridgewater.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

It’s outdoors, it’s family-friendly, it’s contact-free, and at the end, you’re set up for weeks of home baking projects. Could any activity feel more appropriate in this mid-pandemic autumn than apple picking?

Local pick-your-own orchards and farm stands, some of which struggled through the early days of the pandemic when potential customers stayed home, are seeing a groundswell of enthusiasm as the annual apple-picking season coincides with a desperate wish on the part of people of all ages to be outside as much as possible before cold weather strikes.

For 15-year-old Elwyn Jacobs, who started 10th grade at Framingham High School earlier this month, apple picking is one of the few annual traditions that she is looking forward to being able to maintain this year. “It’s a nice constant,” she said. “I go every fall with my family or my friends.”

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Jacobs reels off favorite activities that have been banned this past summer due to the pandemic — “Water parks. Movies. Going to friends' houses without being in mortal terror” — and said that by contrast, she expects apple picking to be mostly unchanged. Her family members favor Tougas Family Farm in Northborough, and a berry-picking excursion there over the summer reassured them that masks were required and safety measures were in place.

Mask wearing is an expectation at just about every commercial orchard this fall, but the precautions don’t end there. Jennifer Durocher, general manager of Cider Hill Farm in Amesbury, just finished overseeing the installation of hand sanitizer locations throughout her farm as well as hand sinks for customers to use before they begin apple picking. “No hayrides this year, which is going to disappoint a lot of kids, but we just didn’t see any way to do it safely,” she said.

Madelyn Santos, 6, admires an apple while visiting Cider Hill Farm in Amesbury with her family.
Madelyn Santos, 6, admires an apple while visiting Cider Hill Farm in Amesbury with her family.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff/The Boston Globe

But Durocher anticipates that any disappointment over not finding a hayride will soon subside. “Kids don’t have many activities keeping them busy, so a family experience like this is even more popular than usual this year,” Durocher said. “Most years the greatest challenge is to draw in more customers. This year it’s to establish all our new measures and spread out the crowds. We’re doing online ticketing for apple picking and limiting the occupancy in our store. We just set up a separate farm stand across the parking lot from our main store. Every day we’re tweaking something.”

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Business has been strong so far at Cider Hill Farm, and unlike previous years when most guests come on weekends, the delayed school start in many communities has meant families have been showing up throughout the week.

“We have 145 acres; apple picking is naturally a socially distant activity,” Durocher said. “A farm is the kind of outdoor environment where people feel the most safe.”

Andrew Martin of Honey Pot Hill Orchards in Stow has been seeing a steady stream of customers throughout the summer; before apple-picking season began, they came to pick blueberries and pears.

Kids climb on an old tractor at Honey Pot Hill Orchards in Stow, which has installed handwashing stations at entrances to the apple-picking areas.
Kids climb on an old tractor at Honey Pot Hill Orchards in Stow, which has installed handwashing stations at entrances to the apple-picking areas.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

“We’ve done what everybody else has done: put up signs to remind people about social distancing, required masks in our farm stand and in the orchards, installed handwash basins at every entrance to the apple-picking areas,” Martin said. “We created satellite stands for people to buy cider doughnuts, which are a very big deal here, so that everyone doesn’t have to crowd into the farm stand. We’re running our hayrides at 50 percent occupancy and limiting the number of people who can be in the corn maze at once.”

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The efforts are paying off, Martin said. The lack of other entertainment and sports options over the summer drove traffic his way, and he sees little sign of it letting up.

In fact, said Kate Smith, whose family owns C.N. Smith Farm in East Bridgewater, previous visitors might enjoy apple picking even more this year.

“We hope to provide everyone with the same experience they have here every year, except that since we are requiring reservations, there won’t be crowds and everyone will have more space to themselves in the orchards," Smith said. "The farm stand and doughnut window will have shorter lines. We’re even letting people who don’t want to wait in line order from the farm stand online, and they can pick their groceries up as they leave after apple picking.”

“It’s a surefire way of getting everyone enthusiastic about going out and doing something together, from my toddler to my 8-year-old,” said Margot Morse of Carlisle, whose 4-year-old son Tristan is so excited at the thought of an upcoming apple-picking excursion that he constructed a pretend apple orchard in their basement. “And it doesn’t seem to matter what we’re picking. Apples, berries, there’s just something about harvesting that appeals to everyone.”

Signs point the way to hand washing stations at Honey Pot Hill Orchards,
Signs point the way to hand washing stations at Honey Pot Hill Orchards, Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

IF YOU GO:

Just about all pick-your-own orchards are requiring reservations this year, so call or check the website before you go.

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Cider Hill Farm

45 Fern Ave., Amesbury

978-388-5525

www.ciderhill.com

Honey Pot Hill Orchards

138 Sudbury Road, Stow

978-562-5666

www.honeypothill.com

C.N. Smith Farm

325 South St., East Bridgewater

508-378-2270

www.cnsmithfarminc.com

Nancy Shohet West can be reached at nancyswest@gmail.com.

Matthew Blake and Arriel Henry walk through the orchard with their son Dash, 2, at Cider Hill Farm in Amesbury.
Matthew Blake and Arriel Henry walk through the orchard with their son Dash, 2, at Cider Hill Farm in Amesbury.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff/The Boston Globe
Sydney Carpenter, 3, picks an apple while visiting Cider Hill Farm with her family.
Sydney Carpenter, 3, picks an apple while visiting Cider Hill Farm with her family.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff/The Boston Globe