N othing signals the arrival of fall more clearly than the crunch of an orchard-picked apple, a sea of nodding yellow sunflowers and photo opps in a landscape just starting to show hints of color.

The official start of autumn is Sept. 22, but the harvest season is well underway in the Granite State. To get a firsthand taste and see what autumn might look like in 2020, I hopped in the car and drove to two Seacoast area farms last weekend — DeMerritt Farm in Lee and Applecrest Farm Orchards in Hampton Falls.

Applecrest FarmI know I’m getting close when the flow of traffic slows and I catch the glint of sunlight off windshields in a field adjacent to the distinctive red-roofed buildings at Applecrest Farm, 133 Exeter Road (Route 88).

It’s the kick-off to autumn weekend festivals here, and scores of people have come for the food and beverages, live music, tractor rides, visits with barnyard animals and walks through the blooming sunflower field.

In a summer devoid of the usual town fairs and parades, it seems so unexpected to feel such a sense of revelry. I walk past the makeshift tower decorated with pumpkins and scarecrows and make my way beyond picnic tables filled with guests munching on doughnuts, barbecue and ice cream. I stop to listen to the bluegrass band playing on a little stage, but when the crowd starts to thicken, I head across the property to the sunflower field, where bees buzz under a sunny, blue sky. I pass some games of corn hole and watch a caravan of tractors ferrying the next batch of guests into the orchards. Then it’s off to visit the farm animals.

“This weekend was a much stronger turnout than we were anticipating. It was a very positive response,” Todd L. Wagner, a third-generation member of the family that runs the farm, later tells me.

Applecrest bills itself as New Hampshire’s oldest and largest apple orchard, with 220 acres and more than 40 varieties of apples, along with a slate of berries, pumpkins and other fruit. The place is a big draw in the fall, but the COVID-19 pandemic has meant retooling operations.

“I’m on 19 different Listservs (group email updates) including the CDC (Center for Disease Control and Prevention) and the governor’s office. It’s the biggest challenge — how to pivot. Any given day it changes,” Wagner says.

“We have a very strict policy on the property. If you want to participate — go in any building or get in any queue, it’s mandatory face masks,” he adds.

Wagner’s grandfather, William Wagner, took over the farm in 1954, and it’s been in the family ever since.

“What’s really cool is that both of my children — Hattie, who is 16, and her younger brother, William, but we call him Dieder, who is 15, have been working here like I did from a very, very early age. Dieder on the farm side and Hattie on the creamery side. You can say we are a fourth-generation farm. I live on the farm in my grandmother’s old place.”

He says visitors have wide-ranging comfort levels with getting out during a health pandemic.

“Clearly what we’re seeing is that people are feeling cooped up. There’s a strong response. There’s plenty of bright sunshine and fresh air and acreage. People are largely able to social distance and feel comfortable in this environment.”

Fall festivals here will continue from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekends through the end of October.

Visitors looking for a quieter experience might consider coming during the week, when the grounds are less crowded and there are no special events.

For more information, call 926-3721 or go to applecrest.com.

DeMeritt Hill FarmDeMerrit Farm at 20 Orchard Drive in Lee is another regional favorite among pick-your-own fans. This fall season is typically busy, but farm manager Ezikiel Bardales said he hadn’t known what to expect in a COVID-19 year.

“The past two weekends have been better than expected,” he said. “We were surprised. People are happy to come out and do activities. We had about 2,500 at least on Saturday and Sunday.”

When I stop by the farm, there is a spread-out queue of people at an outdoor counter waiting to purchase empty bags. Instead of rolling a cart down grocery store aisles, I’ve decided to browse rows of sweet Gala and crisp MacIntosh apples in the outdoors.

There’s a steady flow of visitors, and in the short time it takes for me to cross over to the bottom of the hill, at least a dozen groups are coming down from the orchards, laden down with brimming sacks — some carried them by the handles, others hefted the bags to their chests or bellies and wrapped their arms around the goods for easier transport.

When I was a kid, my dad was forever telling me and my four siblings, “Everything tastes better when you pick it yourself.” I flash back to collecting blueberries — and lots of sunburns — in the July heat on Pitcher Mountain in Stoddard. But this doesn’t feel like a chore at all.

Beyond a hive with a cloud of busy bees, I start to see the caution tape marking off areas with fruit already picked or varieties scheduled to be picked in coming weeks. There are lots of families, couples and friends among the trees, with parents often hoisting kids into the air to reach branches. People walk briskly in hopes all the good ones haven’t been picked, and they slow as they haul heavy yields down to the parking lot.

By the time I pick my own peck, I think I’m sporting that same content “I-just-picked-it-myself” expression my dad used to get when we’d all dump our bowls of blueberries into a big cooking pot for transport home in the station wagon.

I taste-test a Gala — it’s a sweet cross between a golden delicious and an orange red — in the parking lot, and it did, indeed, taste, well … tastier.

And then I make another stop beneath the tent that serves as outdoor farm store on the weekends. I can confirm that the apple cider donuts I brought home were moist, flaky and delicious.

DeMerritt Hill Farm also has a family-friendly network of trails, with three half-mile routes and a fourth, the Dinosaur trail, for young children. It’s also been home to cross-country running events over the years.

The farm carries pumpkins, gourds, local produce, pasteurized apple cider, local soda, New Hampshire crafts and jellies, jams, maple syrup, honey, candy and fudge. The inside store is open during the week.

Bardales said there are no tractor rides this year. For information on weekday and weekend hours, activities and COVID-19 precautions and protocol, go to demeritthillfarm.com or call 868-2111.