For Luke and Amanda Dilbeck, life in the Appalachian Mountains moves at a different pace – except during apple harvest season. Their love for these hills and its people runs deep. At The Folk Collaborative Orchard, Apothecary and Bakery, the Dilbecks pay homage to the area’s history and keep mountain traditions alive.
Crisp morning air, a hint of woodsmoke, and hills ablaze with fiery shades of yellow, orange and red – autumn in Appalachia is something to behold. An annual promise of the gorgeous fall foliage that graces the Southeast has lured me several hours north of Atlanta, near the Georgia-Tennessee border.
As I pull into the small gravel parking lot at The Folk Collaborative – an apple orchard, apothecary and bakery just outside of McCaysville, Georgia – I’m certain I’ve just stumbled upon the stuff apple cider donut dreams are made of. I slide open the red barn door and step inside to find owners Luke and Amanda Dilbeck saying farewell to several locals that have dropped off a hand-carved bowl. The orchard is closed today, but open doors and open hearts are the way of close-knit communities.
It’s Amanda’s first day off since apple season started and yet she insists it’s the perfect time for us to chat uninterrupted. But interrupted we are – several times, in fact – by neighbors and friends who show up unannounced but are always welcomed with smiles and a “How ya doin’?”
It’s a question that’s often disregarded these days, but when Luke and Amanda ask it their warmth tells you they mean it: “No, really, how ya doin’?”
In cozy farmhouse chairs with cups of tea our conversation begins. By the time I head home a few hours later – arms full of apples, Amanda’s peanut butter cookies and an all-natural sinus shower bomb from the apothecary – the first snow of the season is falling. It’s a light flurry of flakes, gone before they have a chance to hit the ground. But the stories shared by Luke and Amanda – those really stick.
The Dilbecks have owned the orchard since 2020, when their longtime family friend Mr. Joe decided it was time to retire, but their role in this community is about far more than apples and an apothecary.
“It’s about everybody helping everybody around here. It’s about family and a sense of connection with those around us for the good, the bad and the indifferent.”Amanda “Mae” Dilbeck
“It’s everybody helping everybody around here. It’s about family and a sense of connection with those around us for the good, the bad and the indifferent,” says Amanda, who also goes by Mae. She grew up with a completely different family dynamic in Marietta. The kind where her cousins could have walked past her on the street and she wouldn’t have known their names.
“I remember being pregnant with our daughter and seeing a commercial about neighbors bringing food to a family that had just moved in. They were caring for one another. I told Luke I didn’t think we’d ever know our neighbors in that way.”
They moved up north into the hills of Appalachia, where Luke grew up, and her life completely changed. They were surrounded by family next door, down the street … neighbors were calling to see if they needed anything. What felt overwhelming for a moment became the catalyst for a life that Amanda and Luke decided they didn’t want to give up – a life where things move at a slower, more compassionate pace, where family, community and the land are front and center.
The embrace that Amanda experienced is how Luke has lived most of his life.
“I spent my childhood in these trees and I always wanted the orchard. I love the orchard,” Luke says of the land that belonged to family friends since before he was born. “When I was young, mama would pack picnics and we would go up into the orchard and sprawl out a quilt. We would sit there and have a picnic. Daddy would bring a little radio with him and he’d listen to a ballgame and mama would read a book while I would just kind of roam. We’d go down into the holler and have a campfire and people would start showing up with food and instruments. It would turn into a little shindig. Those are the things that stick out in my mind as some of my favorite memories. They are the inspiration for some of the experiences we offer now.”
When the orchard isn’t busy for cider days and apple U-Pick in the fall, The Folk Collaborative offers curated experiences that include picnics in the orchard, tractor rides and farm tours for the family. Their signature offering, Fire on the Mountain, is a true Appalachian experience complete with a campfire, s’mores and hot dogs for roasting, stories of life in the Appalachians and old mountain music on the fiddle.
“It’s a totally different way to spend a few hours on a beautiful evening,” says Luke, who is also a certified master herbalist with a focus on Eastern and Appalachia flora. “There is a lack of connection between humans and where their food comes from … and a lack of connection to the simple things in life – what we need versus what we want. I believe people come here to pick apples and to experience the orchard because they want to instill in their children something basic, something simple, and to start new traditions.”
Tradition is at the heart of The Folk Collaborative, after all. From the recipes passed down by generations to the formulas used in Luke’s handcrafted mountain medicinals, the Dilbecks embrace the wisdom of the land and those who have lived on it, worked it, and shared it.
A perfect example of this is apple gleaning, when locals are invited to pick the apples that fall from the trees to the ground. “Put a tarp in the bed of your truck and fill that bad boy full,” they say.
“There’s pride in these mountain people. They don’t like getting something for nothing. They’ll glean and then they’ll leave six jars of applesauce or apple butter or black walnut cake. Someone today brought us these beautiful hand-carved bowls,” says Luke. “It’s what the world needs, more give and take. A lot more give than take.”
Amanda chimes in: “Everyone is so afraid to open their hands because they fear they’re going to lose what they have. But instead they’re not getting to enjoy what else could be put into their hands. We need to invest in our local communities by helping each other. You can’t know the needs of your community if you don’t even know your community, who they are, what’s happening in their lives. It starts with something as simple as saying ‘hello’.”
“Hello” and “how ya doin’?” are simple ways to start a conversation, and it’s how anyone who walks through the doors of The Folk Collaborative is greeted by the Dilbecks and their small but mighty crew that absolutely love what they do. “They are as passionate about this place as we are and that’s hard to find,” Amanda says.
The work itself can be exhausting and sometimes Amanda feels like throwing an apple or two into oblivion. But it’s about how you show up everyday that makes the real difference. Life isn’t happy-go-lucky all of the time.
“I get to watch people walking the orchard, seeing the bees and the flowers and enjoying the sunshine, getting to know where their food comes from,” says Luke. “At the Folk Collaborative, we create experiences for families. I just wish people also realized that they could have meaningful experiences all of the time, if they were present in their own lives. Yes, sometimes life is chaotic. Sometimes you’re stuck in traffic and there’s nothing you can do to remove yourself from the situation. But we can find a way to see the good or we can complain about it. If we’re mindful of this, every moment can be a beautiful experience or an opportunity to observe something new.”
Rather than throwing those apples, more often than not Amanda grabs a glass of wine in the evening when the orchard closes and the sun begins to fade. She walks through the orchard and over to her chickens. They come running when they see her – she feeds them their favorites, lettuce and squash – but it’s Amanda who feels like the lucky one.
It’s been said that life eventually comes full circle, and for the Dilbecks that certainly seems so. Luke’s father had a hand in grafting and planting the apple trees long ago, when the orchard still belonged to Mr. Joe. What started as a few weekends working the orchard with his friends turned into something much bigger. They built the foundation for what the orchard is today. And because Luke’s daddy brought him to the orchard as a youngster, Luke brought their daughter, Isobella, who grew up on this land, too. Isobella is a multi-talented self-proclaimed plant mama and writer who beautifully captured what it was like to grow up in these trees on The Folk Collaborative’s blog:
“Dad worked picking and grading apples at Mr. Joe’s orchard during the season and I absolutely loved spending cool autumn evenings with him while he was there. The air within those trees felt like it possessed just the slightest hint of magic, and would turn a nose red if it blew too cold. He would sit on a rickety little stool at the bottom of the grader sorting through the Red Delicious and Arkansas Blacks as I sat in a makeshift lounge of apple boxes reading whatever book I had grabbed from the library that week … When the day was done he would pack the apple boxes that were earlier my throne and we would ride to the very top of the trees to watch the sun set behind Big Frog mountain. Memories like that stay with you forever…and they begin to shape who you are.”
As for the future, Luke and Amanda have many ideas of what could be. Perhaps Isobella will play a role, perhaps she won’t. Either way, Luke and Amanda say they won’t be mad about it. They’ll continue cultivating the land and creating experiences for the people who drive miles each year to take in the absolute beauty of Appalachia in autumn. Visitors will walk the orchard and buy apple cider donuts from Mae’s Bakery, perhaps pick up something special from the apothecary, then they’ll head back to the city or wherever it is they’re from.
“There are some people who came to this orchard as kids. Now they’re grown and now their kids have kids and they’re still coming here. That makes me happy. How could it not?” says Luke.
The Dilbecks hope visitors will come to The Folk Collaborative and see that life doesn’t have to be so complicated. There is beauty and simplicity everywhere you go if you’re intentional about seeking it out.
As our conversation comes to a close, I ask the Dilbecks one final question: where do they envision themselves 5, 10, 15 years from now? Luke looks lovingly at Amanda. His gentle smile says it all.
“I guess my long-term goal is to just hang out with you,” he tells her. “To really appreciate those dinners in the orchard and to get to the point where we have just a little more time together – maybe have two bottles of wine instead of just a glass – and to watch my kids bring their future kids here to create lasting memories of their own. It’s been a good life – and it’s just getting started.”
There’s so much to experience at The Folk Collaborative. Luke, who majored in literature in college, is a prolific writer with a knack for drawing readers into his beautiful stories of life in Appalachia. Follow Luke and Amanda’s journey and plan a visit to experience it for yourself.