ATHOL — It all began with one little seed.
"The first thing I ever grew was a watermelon vine, and it was in the worst condition soil at our house," said Nikki Conley as she walked around young fruit trees on her property. "That year I got this one little watermelon, and I was so proud, like, ‘I did it, I grew food.'"
For Conley, who owns and operates Athol Orchards Antique Apple Farm and Bakery with husband Erreck, the watermelon experience would have a lasting impact.
"Ever since then, I’ve loved the art of being a steward of the ground and nurturing your ground, and putting good natural things back into the earth," she said. "When you take care of the earth, you’re going to be able to plant food and it’s going to reward you. You’re going to get a reward, a return."
Conley's interest in growing her own food only blossomed as she enjoyed the annual apple festivals in Springville, Calif., the little town where she grew up.
"We lived pretty near where those apple farms were," she said. "You could drive up the road to their barns in the fall and walk into these old, earthy barns and you could smell the damp earth and the old barn wood and the smell of apples in these paper bags. That smell, it’s like childhood to me."
Now that she's grown and has two daughters of her own, Conley, a first-generation farmer with graphic design and teaching degrees, is working to provide a truly local taste of the agriculture and farm life at Athol Orchards. Athol Orchards is not yet open to the public, but makes appearances at local farmers markets. Conley hopes to have it ready for visitors next year.
The 10-acre farm and orchard property is in the Athol countryside, irrigated by a spring-fed mountain creek and on the grounds of an old homestead where a fruit orchard once grew.
"There was an old orchard here, just in this front corner," she said, pointing out where some of the stumps still poke out of the grass. "Trees were completely falling, they were old, not taken care of, in bad shape. We tried to restore what we could."
About 90 percent of the apples grown in the orchard are antique, meaning they are of an old variety or one thought to have gone extinct: the Dabinette dates to the early 1900s, the Kingston black was used for cider in England before the 19th century and the Spitzenburg apple used to be a favorite of Thomas Jefferson.
"This is a tree that he actually grew at Monticello," she said. "To be able to make that link to history for kids, those people were so far in the past, but to be able to eat something that was exactly the same as it was, that’s bringing the past back.”
Conley, who loves American history, has big dreams for the old homestead, including turning it into a "living history" farm. Once the orchards are a bit more established, Conley wants to invite families to pick apples and see where their food is coming from, to leave their phones in the car and enjoy some quality time.
"I am really big with community and sharing that sense of home and family with the community," she said. "It’s important for me for people to see, 'There’s the apples growing there, you’re going to pick them yourself, you’re going to walk over there and you’re going to press those apples into cider with your family.'"
Conley has taken her love of apples and blended it with delicious ingredients to make her homemade apple cider syrup, which is growing more famous by the day.
"The syrup just kind of put us on the map,” she said. "It was something that I used to make for my kids on the weekends just for fun. It’s like liquid apple pie."
Conley currently produces the syrup in a commercial kitchen in Athol and bakes her pies and treats in her own kitchen. She plans to build a licensed farm kitchen to produce all of her goods — pies, dumplings, fritters, doughnuts and the syrup — all at Athol Orchards, while also expanding the orchards and adding a few more things to provide the full farm experience.
“I want everything that we do and produce to remain on my farm,” Conley said. "Food elicits emotions — sometimes of memories, a special time or place. That’s why baking and cooking and growing my own are so important to me. Seeing people light up when they try anything I’ve created whether it’s my apple cider syrup or a fresh apple or cherry pie — it fills my cup. And that’s just the farm-crafted foods and bakery side of Athol Orchards."