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Local Vendor Spotlight: Athol Orchards

Athol Orchards Antique Apple Farm was founded in 2016 based on a dream that Nikki Conley had ever since she was a little girl growing up in the foothills below the Sequoia National Forest. A favorite childhood memory is going to buy mountain-grown apples during the peak harvest at one of the roadside stands that served her small mountain community in Springville, California. Multi-generational apple orchards dotted the high mountain landscape where Nikki grew up. She describes the apples appearing like ornaments adorning the trees and it was a beautiful sight to behold acres of apple trees growing in the mountains above her childhood home.

“When I grow up, I want to be an apple farmer,” Nikki declared to her father during many of their drives up into the mountains passing the orchards on their way. Nikki and her husband Erreck with their two young daughters, Mackenzie and Madelyn, moved to Athol in 2016 and felt like they were stepping back in time. And then it dawned on Nikki: apples are in her blood. She started tinkering on the stove with her own apple cider syrup recipe meant for her daughters to have a more wholesome, cleaner option for pancakes. Her family loved it! Her family helped establish their preservation apple orchard in the Fall of 2016 and they now graft and cultivate rare heirloom varieties that are not ‘designer apples’ (commercially grown apples) but are rare, delicious and hearty. The family of 4 works together from start to finish in making their homespun goodness.

Apple trees are rooted in American history. The famous historical figure, Johnny Appleseed was based on a real man named John Chapman. He was a pioneer nurseryman and horticulturist. His business mission was to trade and sell apple seedlings to settling pioneer families all across America. He sometimes would give free seedlings to struggling pioneers and that’s where he got his nickname, Johnny Appleseed. Nikki explained to me that in the 1800s, nurserymen filtered through Fort Walla Walla, Washington to supply the pioneers and homesteaders coming West with fruit trees. “The north is a hotbed of old varieties,” says Nikki, “apples were one of the pioneers and colonists' first and most important foods.” Unfortunately there are many lost varieties but through the efforts of organizations like The Lost Apple Project and apple growers like Athol Orchards Antique Apple Farm, the past is preserved and planted to be gifts for future generations. Nikki explains that you cannot replicate an apple variety by growing a seed from a core and expect the same apple; the DNA to replicate an apple remains in the actual wood of the tree known as scion, or scionwood.

Therefore, the art of grafting comes into play to grow the same variety of apple. Nikki was taught the art of grafting by one of her greatest mentors and friends, David Benscoter of The Lost Apple Project. At Maine Apple Camp in 2019, Nikki learned from some of the foremost apple experts and identifiers in North America. She met the famous apple historian, apple explorer, and investigator John Bunker who founded Fedco Trees, an apple tree co-op in Maine, and he became a mentor of sorts. John explained to his apple camp attendees that heirloom apple trees are a gift to us from the past: They are the ‘Giving-Tree’. You can taste the love, passion and historical richness in Athol Orchards products. Find Athol Orchards syrups at Pilgrim’s on Aisle 2 and 3. These are the local vendors that we at Pilgrim’s appreciate and love. Apples are gifts that keep on giving and for future generations to come.

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