Nikki Conley grew up in the eastern foothills of Tulare County in California where multigenerational families kept orchards.
“They were all high mountain orchards,” said Nikki. “It was amazing to me that these families would go to the top of the mountains to farm these orchards. Apples were part of my childhood, and at six years old I remember my dad driving past those orchards and telling him I wanted to be an apple farmer. It seemed like an authentic life to have.”
Nikki completed a degree in graphic design and later obtained teaching credentials, and married her high school sweetheart Erreck. Although she wasn’t growing apples as she had hoped, Nikki hadn’t lost the desire.
“We always wanted to farm,” said Nikki. “We sold everything we had in California and moved to north Idaho in January of 2016. I wanted my girls to have the childhood I had. I wanted them in the woods, not with phones, devices and social media.”
The property the Conleys purchased in Athol, Idaho, was held by the previous owner for 30 years, and the owners before them had put in an apple orchard. “I recognized it right away,” said Nikki. “We could see the stumps in the ground where the orchard had been. They were in a pattern. There were five remaining apple trees, a pear tree and one Italian plum tree.”
When the Conleys settled in Idaho, they started from the ground up with nothing more than water rights, a recipe for apple cider syrup and a desire to grow antique apples. But everything fell into place for Nikki to make her dream come true. She was always interested in history and found a niche – teaching others about the role of apples in American history. “I went from six years old and being told to pursue a conventional career to ending up where I always should have been,” she said.
In 2019, Nikki attended Maine Apple Camp where she learned how to graft and how to find new apple varieties. She started collecting as many heritage varieties as she could find. Today, the family is growing about 70 unique varieties including Knobbed Russet, Ben Davis, Smokehouse, Cox’s Orange Pippin, McIntosh, Esopus Spitzenburg, Dabinett, Kingston Black, Hudson’s Golden Gem, Arkansas Black, Virginia Gold, Black Oxford and several Spanish cider varieties.
“We started building a collection of apple varieties based on their significance in history and the stories that come with them,” said Nikki. “Why were they preserved or why did people stop growing them? Some are more modern, from the 1900s, but a lot of varieties we’ve collected are from the 1500s. Some, like the Glockenapfel, were discovered in Switzerland, and the Westfield Seek-No-Further was discovered in Westfield, Massachusetts, in the 1700s.”
When Nikki first collected scions, she grafted them on semi-dwarf rootstock. “My newer interest is with standard stock,” she said. “I love the idea of 30- to 40-foot apple trees that are loaded with beautiful apples. Our ancestors didn’t have the luxury of choosing rootstock based on size or cold hardiness. They grew what was available.” She’s growing standard trees to include as part of the landscape around the farm to provide guests with a more authentic antique apple experience.
One of Athol Orchards’ signature products is apple cider syrup, which Nikki developed as an alternative to commercial pancake syrup. “I started with unfiltered apple cider, gathered my favorite pie spices and started making syrup,” she said. “It tastes like the wonderful, juicy liquid at the bottom of an apple pie. I designed the label and took the recipe from my kitchen to a large scale and we started selling it at the farmers market.”
The Conleys took their apple cider syrup to trade shows and farmers markets to get their name out. “We were already in grocery stores and they told us we had to have a commercial kitchen, so we rented kitchen space to produce our products,” said Nikki, adding that their eventual goal was an on-farm kitchen.
“Having a farm-based, licensed kitchen where people can actually see us pressing cider, baking pies and making sauces from the apples we’re growing helps to connect the reason these apples were grown and what we can make with them,” said Nikki. With strong community support for their effort, a Kickstarter campaign helped fund the construction of a commercial kitchen on the farm.
The kitchen was completed in 2020 when many businesses were shut down. The Conleys knew they had a solid, supportive customer base, so instead of relying on farm markets, they created something at the orchard where they offered a farm experience as well as orchard products. “People were so supportive,” said Nikki, recalling the time when many businesses closed. “Everyone wanted to be out in the fresh air in the orchard and support our orchard-based business.” Today, the Conleys’ large, licensed commercial kitchen provides ample space for making syrup, cider donuts, pies and other apple-related products. They also continue to sell products through local grocery stores.
Athol Orchards’ popular autumn tours draw families, homeschoolers and private schools to learn about apple history and more. “This path has led me to a place where I have an important task of teaching people about the importance of apples and how they’re grown,” said Nikki. “About 98% of people don’t understand we can’t replicate an apple from a seed and that apples have to be grafted.”
Nikki stresses to guests the importance of maintaining native pollinator habitat, and in her spring pollinator workshop, she discusses blue orchard bees and their role in pollination. She also has honeybees but stresses the importance of natives. She said people appreciate the spring grafting workshop, and some students continue by seeking old varieties to grow.
As the new orchard begins to bear fruit, Nikki plans to continue collecting old varieties, focusing on apples that were developed for pies, apple butter, fresh cider or hard cider. “Every season we have the grafting and order what we want,” she said. “I’m looking for varieties that are old or have an interesting history. I want to be able to connect a modern-day apple lover with an apple that was grown in the 1600s and has gone virtually unchanged for over 500 years. That apple will taste exactly the same as it did long ago. It’s like taking a bite out of the past.”
The Conleys are achieving their goals as they look to the future. “Our mission is ‘growing history one apple at a time,’” said Nikki. “I view the orchard as a living history museum that’s growing historic relics that happen to be apples.”
Visit Athol Orchards online at atholorchards.com.
by Sally Colby