At Hansel's Orchard in North Yarmouth customers must purchase a bag or bucket before picking to avoid waiting in line. (Portland Phoenix/Jenny Ibsen)
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While summer in Maine looked entirely different for many businesses that rely on the seasonal boom, the fall harvest may provide more familiarity for orchards with trees full of apples.

Apple picking, an activity that naturally lends itself to social distancing, has begun across the state and feels as comforting to many as a cup of hot cider.

“It’s a beautiful day, and I live close by,” Cumberland resident Nancy Gibson said as she picked apples at Hansel’s Orchard in North Yarmouth last weekend. “I figured if it’s too crowded I could turn around and come back another time, but I feel really safe.”

Hansel’s is family-owned, common for many Maine orchards, and has adapted its “pick-your-own” process to abide by health officials’ policies and regulations.

Turner, left, and Margie Hansel direct customers to rows of apple trees at their North Yarmouth orchard. (Portland Phoenix/Jenny Ibsen)

The orchard requires masks at check-in, encourages people to sanitize their hands, sanitizes their apple-picker poles between uses, and asks customers to pre-pay for a bag to fill with apples, rather than weighing the bag after the fruit is harvested.

“I did a lot of thinking about and planning for it, so the changes I made for COVID really streamlined my whole process,” said Margie Hansel, who has co-owned the three-acre orchard with her husband Turner for the past 16 years. “We will probably continue to use this process because it’s so much easier for me and the customers.”

In Buxton, Snell Family Farm adopted similar practices, including adding hand washing stations at the orchard. Nearby in Sanford, McDougal Orchards added a reservation-only system for weekend picking.

“We’re not set up to limit customers by any other way,” McDougal owner Ellen McAdam said about the reservation system, which allows 25 cars every 30 minutes, or a maximum of 100 people in the 13-acre orchard every half hour.

Since opening in early August, the orchard has often been at full capacity during peak hours on weekends, McAdam said.

Sanitized apple picker poles ready for use at Hansel’s Orchard. Used poles are sanitized, and customers must wear masks. (Portland Phoenix/Jenny Ibsen)

“It’s always difficult to rethink the systems of things we’ve been doing for years,” Carolyn Snell of Snell Family Farm said. “(COVID-19 created) the opportunity to reevaluate what we do and reassess what we do.” She said everyone is learning to accept that waiting in lines and fewer open hours will be typical during the pandemic.

But despite the precautions, owners expect business this season to be comparable to previous years.

At Hansel’s Orchard, the season began the weekend after Labor Day and felt busier than usual, according to Hansel. The business enjoyed a record number of customers last Saturday.

In Limington, Brackett’s Orchard has seen a normal influx of pickers. It has not been a challenge to maintain social distancing in the nearly 50-acre orchard, according to Guy Paulin, who has worked at Brackett’s for 45 years and is known on the farm as “the apple guy.”

“We have plenty of personal space,” he said. “We could do a lot more volume and people would still be totally safe.”

Across Maine, nearly 100 farms produce about 1 million bushels of apples each year on 2,000 acres, according to the Maine Pomological Society.

McIntosh is the most commonly grown variety in New England. But at the Maine Heritage Orchard in Unity, 300 varieties of apples and pears traditionally grown in Maine are cultivated. The collection includes varieties of apples from all 16 counties, with the oldest species dating back to nearly 400 years ago.

Diane Caron and her two grandchildren pick apples at Hansel’s in North Yarmouth in preparation for granddaughter JoJo’s first birthday. (Portland Phoenix/Jenny Ibsen)

“Apples are a big part of what we do – they’re so valuable,” Carolyn Snell said about her farm, which also grows vegetables, flowers and has a farm kitchen. “Financially, apples are the most important part of the farm, but of course it’s a risky crop and it doesn’t pay you back until the end of that season.”

Among the rows of trees at Hansel’s – where small groups of two or three could be seen walking, reaching the poles up to grab apples, and toting plastic bags with apple designs – the Honeycrisp variety had been nearly picked over, Hansel told one customer, but the orchards were full of Cortland and McIntosh.

One visitor, Diane Caron, decided to spend her Sunday afternoon picking with her two grandchildren in preparation for her granddaughter’s apple-themed first birthday.

“We’re picking today and got a certificate for the others to come pick later since we can’t all be in a big group,” Caron, who planned to make hand pies and caramel apples, said.

Snell said she thinks people are eager to do a thing that’s familiar and nostalgic. “And, the buy-in is fairly low in terms of entertainment,” she added. “A group of three could buy a small bag for $8 and spend the day outside. That’s a fairly affordable form of entertainment.”

With the season just beginning, and expected to continue through the end of October, the orchard owners said they will continue to greet apple pickers with newly ripening fruit as long as the good weather continues.

“It’s not the most abundant apple crop of the year, but it’s still very nice and worth going picking,” Snell said, explaining that last year’s crop was very strong and that sometimes trees are not able to fruit strongly for consecutive seasons. “It’s possible that the apples will be picked by mid-October.”

Freelance writer Jenny Ibsen lives in Portland.

Picked apples at Hansel’s Orchard in North Yarmouth. (Portland Phoenix/Jenny Ibsen)

Where to pick your own apples

• Hansel’s Orchard, 44 Sweetser Road, North Yarmouth: Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday 10 a.m.-5 p.m., and by appointment. Cortland, McIntosh, Macoun varieties; pick-your-own apples only.

• Sweetser’s Apple Barrel and Orchards, 19 Blanchard Road, Cumberland: Daily 9 a.m.-6 p.m., farm store only.

• Orchard Ridge Farm, 236 Sebago Lake Road, Gorham: Monday-Friday 8 a.m.-7 p.m., Saturday 9 a.m-7 p.m., Sunday 10 a.m.-7 p.m. Farm store and pick-your-own apples and pears.

• Snell Family Farm, 1000 River Road, Buxton: Tuesday-Saturday 9 a.m.-4 p.m. Farm store and pick-your-own apples.

• Randall Orchards, 1 Randall Road, Standish: Daily 9 a.m.- 5 p.m. Farmstand, pick-your-own apples, cider mill, and doughnut shack (closed Tuesday and Wednesday).

• Brackett’s Orchard, 224 Sokokis Ave., Limington: Daily 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Ginger Gold, McIntosh, Cortland, and Honeycrisp apples available for pick-your-own; farmstand with cider, doughnuts, and pumpkins nearby.

• Thompson’s Orchard, 276 Gloucester Hill Road, New Gloucester: Monday-Saturday 9 a.m.-6 p.m., Sunday 9 a.m.-4 p.m. McIntosh, Cortland, Redcort, Macoun, and Honeycrisp apples available for pick-your-own; farmstand with cider and doughnuts.

• McDougal Orchards, 201 Hanson Ridge Road, Springvale: Saturday-Wednesday 9 a.m.-5 p.m., Thursday-Friday 9 a.m.-6 p.m., reservations required. McIntosh, Cortland, Gala, Empire apples available for pick-your-own, plus purple plums and raspberries, and farm store.