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Featured Farm Craft: Athol Orchards

How long have you been practicing the traditional art of growing “historically significant” apples?

We established our preservation orchard and farm in the Autumn of 2016. That October my family and I planted about fifteen apple trees on a chilly rainy day in North Idaho. We now have 120 historically significant and rare apple trees flourishing in our orchard with an additional 40-50 newly grafted trees of rare variety waiting to go in the ground.

What (or who) inspired you to learn this skill?

The same Autumn season of 2016 I had gone to a local presentation featuring David Benscoter of The Lost Apple Project. As a retired federal investigator, Dave’s presentation centered on the mission of trying to re-discover “lost” apple varieties that were once cultivated by our forefathers, pilgrims, colonists, and pioneers heading West. This two hour presentation 100% changed the way I viewed apples and I absolutely fell in love with the mission of rediscovering “old” varieties and trying to bring that rich American history to life for present day apple lovers. I grew up in a commercial apple region in the central Eastern foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains. Back then the multigenerational family farms cultivated their apple orchards at high mountain elevations. Yearly Apple Festivals and roadside apple stands celebrated the annual harvests of clean, crisp, mountain grown apples. Being around that apple culture as a child and through my early adulthood really influenced me greatly. I always wanted to be an apple farmer as a kid but the more recent generations of my ancestry were too far removed from their own family’s farming tradition and history. I’ve since become good friends with David Benscoter, serve on the committee of The Lost Apple Project and learned all my grafting skills through him.

What do you enjoy most about tending to an apple orchard?

Our apple orchard is situated in the mountains of North Idaho. Because of this, we get four true seasons. Every season in the orchard is simply magical and inspiring. The peace and quiet found in the orchard cannot be matched. During the Spring I will spend much of my time out there not only tending to the trees, but observing the thousands of bees, both domesticated and native. We have our own apiary with hives situated inside our orchard as well as back in the forest on the back end near our creek. We practice a “forest edge” method where we allow the native grasses and wildflowers to grow in between the rows of apple trees. This encourages the native pollinators to come in and do their important work. I love monitoring the growth, the health, and even mitigating the pests when they are present throughout the Summer. Watching the apples swell during summer into Autumn is such a celebration because we know the apple stand will be open with historical apples to share, and even more to bake with and press into cider – truly highlighting what these special apples were originally intended for. While we have not obtained USDA Organic certification for our orchard and farm, I still practice all organic best practices for our farm because clean food for my family matters and it is gratifying to offer that to families in our local area as well.

Heritage Apples are known to be the most nutritiously dense and tastiest of all apple varieties. What varieties do you grow and what encourages you to play a part in preserving their heritage?

We grow many varieties so that we can share the history and the stories behind the varieties. We grow the Esopus Spitzenburg ( one of Thomas Jefferson’s favorites), Calville Blanc d’ Hiver, Roxbury Russet, Snow (Famuse), Grimes Golden, Golden Russet, Maiden Blush, Blenheim Orange, Arkansas Black, Black Oxford, McIntosh, Ben Davis, Smokehouse, Westfield Seek No Further, Winter Banana, Charlamoff, Duchess Of Oldenburg, Gravenstein, Orleans Antique, Wolf River, Yellow Transparent, Cox’s Orange Pippin, Redfield, Tolman Sweet, Kingston Black, Dabinette, Sangre de’ Toro, Knobbed Russet and many more. We also grow many of the apple varieties re-discovered by Dave and The Lost Apple Project. Nero, Shackleford, and McAfee to name just a few. What encourages me most about preserving the history of these varieties is that the vast majority of apple consumers have no clue that this rich diversity of apples exists. There are currently 7,500 varieties of apples currently existing in the world but that number used to be doubled. Every year we lose varieties that were once part of homesteads that dotted the plains or high mountain farmsteads across the country and if they aren’t rediscovered and put back out into the world, we lose those genetics, diverse flavors and qualities forever. By seeking out and cultivating these varieties here in North Idaho, our preservation orchard ensures yet one more location where these historical and diverse genetics can flourish and be preserved. Not only do we preserve the genetics but we can share through the age old practice of grafting. It’s the only way to accurately replicate identical genetics of any given apple variety. Those genetics cannot be replicated simply by planting an apple seed. It all exists in the scionwood.

Can you share a little bit about the “natural” growing practices you focus on that enhances the flavor and texture of your farm-fresh apples?

I truly believe that a simple and traditional approach to apple growing ensures the freshest, cleanest flavors. I try to not to overcomplicate my orchard practices. First, our water is sourced from a year round, spring-fed creek that crosses our property. That clean mountain spring water ensures healthy new growth on the trees and plump, beautiful apples in the Fall. A healthy orchard can stave off more pests so adequate irrigation is vital. We find that drip irrigation simply doesn’t work for our operation. Once Summer sets in the grasses and wildflowers dry up and invite in the grasshoppers. Our plans moving forward from a historic drought season this year is to move to overhead watering which will keep the orchard green, and the root systems of the trees more adequately nurtured. We utilize organic sprays and traps that prevent codling moth pressure to the apples. While worms and worm holes are often-times seen as the signature of organic apples, we like to keep the worms out altogether. Our 30 laying hens also frequent the orchard which keeps the soils fed with their poo, and the insects down. We like our soil to remain as regenerative as possible which also greatly benefits the apples themselves. Finally, there is nothing quite like a first frost to bring up the sugars in the apples. Most of our apples are late season apples so we won’t begin picking until late September, early October. We are very proud to adhere to all natural practices on our farm.

What does the process of harvesting apples from your trees look like from start to finish?

Since our trees are only 5 years old with another three of the original from the homestead orchard (about 40 years old), we will visit each apple tree once the sugars have come up and pick with ladders and traditional picking bags as needed. Having a Kubota with a front-end loader is also very helpful to move the bins and baskets of apples.

What products do you make from your uniquely rare and historical apple varieties?

Our historical apples have just now begun to produce over the last two seasons. The plans for these special apples are vast. With the cider varieties we plan to press and sell both fresh and hard ciders for sale and also host family cider pressing days where families can come pick their own unique blends of apples ( sweet, tart, bitters), and press their own in one of our historical crank presses. Baking apples will be sold to consumers directly and also brought into our farm-based licensed kitchen and be baked into traditional pies and other baked goods. Dessert apples will get the full treatment of becoming dumplings and other delicacies. Another larger scale plan is to grow enough apples to provide us with a full season of unfiltered apple cider to produce our farm’s signature product, our Apple Cider Syrup aka Apple Pie In A Bottle. What started out as a farmers market experiment has now become a product that supports our farm-based business year round when apples aren’t in season.

In addition to selling apples from the orchard you tend to, we see that you craft seasonal baked goods – yum!! For those who are discovering you for the first time, do you sell these just at your local Farmers Market or are they available online?

We established our farm-based licensed kitchen in the Fall of 2020. With it’s completion we’ve been able to dream big and scale up the baking side of our farm business. The primary purpose of our licensed kitchen was to provide a large facility where we could continue to produce and grow our Apple Cider Syrup and Apple Cider Caramel line. We began selling it at farmers markets in 2017 and now have it in 50-60 retail stores throughout Idaho, Eastern Washington and Western Montana. We also ship our farm- crafted syrups to all 50 states through our website. On the bakery side, we bake many varieties of apple and fruit pies, nut pies, and traditional pies like buttermilk, vinegar and other historically-based pies. We are inspired by what is currently in season here in North Idaho. Blueberry pie during the u- pick season, Strawberry Rhubarb when our rhubarb is in season, honey-inspired during our honey harvest, and maple-inspired during the season when we are tapping maples and producing our very own Authentic North Idaho Maple Syrup. The apple season is the highlight with fresh dumplings available, fresh Apple Cider Syrup and Apple Cider Caramel, cider donuts, apple pies, caramel apples and more. Right now all of our baked goods and shelf stable goods are offered and available at our local farmers markets as well as our farmstand that currently operates every other Saturday. We have plans to build a permanent farmstore that will be open weekly so visitors can come on a regular basis and get their syrups, caramels, pie and farm-baked goodies fix. We feature a local, non-gmo pastry flour that is grown and milled at a four-generation wheat farm in North Idaho and utilize rendered lard from a heritage hog farm less than a mile from here. The lard serves as an extremely clean and local source of fat to make our crusts extra flakey and delicious. We try to stay away from commercially processed ingredients by instead using clean, hyper local ingredients. The use of own farm fresh eggs, local butter and heavy cream separates us from the rest. Our pies and specialties are truly and authentically farm-crafted.

Do you have a favorite type of apple you prefer using? Which type of apple would you recommend to the novice who wants to try their hand at pressing cider or crafting a delicious homemade apple pie?

We have so many varieties suited to these uses that coming to this preservation orchard can be very interactive. The consumer can choose how to tailor the flavor of their pies by choosing any number of combinations of our baking apples paired with some pippins, or perhaps bringing home some Calville Blanc apples which are famously known as THE french dessert apple. The biggest tip I like to share is a combination of baking apples makes the best apple pie. Red fleshed apples are fun for making pies, such as the Redfield or Pink Pearl. I’ve yet to find a favorite apple. They are each unique with such diverse flavors. The same goes for pressing cider. Many apples are meant primarily for cider so you want to choose some sweet apples, some with bitter profiles as well as tart to give your cider a full bodied fresh apple flavor. Golden Russets and Grimes Golden are two amazing cider varieties as well as Tolman Sweet.

What additional resources or supplies do you recommend for others who are interested in learning the traditional skill of growing an apple orchard and preserving apple traditions?

One of the most beneficial resources I utilized when I began my orchard was visiting my local University of Idaho Extension office. They provide so many affordable courses on topics relevant to orcharding. Through this resource I’ve gained knowledge regarding pruning, beekeeping and grafting. The rest is just honing the skills through practice, experience, and reading methods of traditional orchardists. One resource I invested in early on was the 7 volume piece, The Illustrated History of Apples In The United States And Canada. It contains a complete index from A-Z of every apple variety that has ever grown in the two countries. Author Dan Bussey has become a good friend of mine and has become a highly valued resource for many of the rare and historical varieties we now have growing on our farm. This apple encyclopedia of sorts may not be printed again so I’d suggest anyone serious about historical apples to invest in their own copy. Another fun resource is the USDA Agricultural Library. You can research pomology and view countless watercolor renderings of apples once grown in the United States. It was the governments way of cataloging everything that was growing in the United States at that time ( late 1800s-early 1900s). Prior to the age of accurate photography, artists were hired to paint these realistic renderings in order to document the existence of the fruit and details.

Your Farm Story

What is the name of your Farm, Ranch or Homestead?

Athol Orchards Antique Apple Farm

Where are you located?

Athol, North Idaho

How and/or when did life as a farmer, rancher or homesteader begin for you?

When we purchased our property in 2016. I promised myself that I would utilize my teaching credentials, graphic design degree and photography skills all towards cultivating our unique apple orchard and business. I told my husband and girls that I never got the chance as a kid to chase my apple farming dream. It was going to be now or never. I am proud to be a first generation farmer.

What do you grow and/ or raise?

We primarily grow historically significant and rare apple varieties, tend our own apiary which provides our annual raw honey harvest, raise and utilize Blue Orchard Mason Bees for the purpose of orchard pollination, heirloom culinary and decorative pumpkins, heirloom and uncommon sunflower varieties, and we also raise and tend our herd of ADGA Registered Nigerian Dwarf Goats. This year we are planning to finally begin milking the does for raw milk, artisan cheeses and soaps. This past February we launched our North Idaho Mapleshed Project by collecting Sugar maples and Red maples throughout the region and tapping them for sap. The sap collection was then transported to our farm based kitchen where we boiled it down, filtered and bottled a very pure, very authentic North Idaho Maple Syrup. It is the only commercial production of its kind in the Northwest.

Do you have a favorite farm recipe you wish to share that is made all the more delicious with your apple varieties? 

We have an amazing Apple Dumpling recipe that was recently printed in FarmMade’s first recipe book! Page 15!

Photo Credit: Ben Norwood

What is at least one farm tradition you uphold?

Every Spring I like my husband and girls to walk the orchard with me to see all the beautiful blossoms. In the Autumn we invite schools, homeschoolers and families out to learn all about the history of Apples In America. We bake and sell fresh cider donuts and talk about the true story of Johnny Appleseed and why our living history orchard is so important to share and preserve. You can also rest assured my girls know my top secret Blue Ribbon Apple Pie recipe.

Photo Credit: Ben Norwood / Staging Credit: @Attic Vintage Rents

What inspires you to continue a farm/orchard lifestyle?

Stressing the importance of local agriculture and the survival and preservation of ag. land in every community has become a vital mission of mine. When families and children come out to our farm, they absolutely fall in love with the simple concept of growing ones own food, self sufficiency, tending to the land, being a good steward of what God gives us. They see that this life is a meaningful and gratifying life. The biggest reward for me is when kids ( and adults alike) realize that what they thought they knew about apples is a very narrow view. What we are doing is important work and I’ve met so many kids who’ve left my farm telling their parents they want to be apple farmers someday. We are also losing a large number of traditional orchardists and preservationists every year due to old age. I’ve met a number of these lovely old timers and their knowledge is vast and vital in this field. I wish to continue their legacy by growing our orchards and leasing more farm land in hopes of keeping it productive and preventing urban sprawl.

What words of inspiration or uplifting wisdom do you hope to impart on the future generation of farmers, orchard growers, and homesteaders?

Apples are a rich part of our past. Their existence is woven into the very fabric of what makes America, America. It was once seen as a staple survival food at a time when the earliest settlers didn’t know whether they could make a life in this new unchartered land. In fact it was one of the very first crops planted when the ships came over – young apple trees transported over the Atlantic in barrels. The uses for apples are vast and early Americans knew it. So if you are ever in the position to buy land, get those apple trees in the ground. Your family and future generations will thank you.

Where can people find you/your farm products online? 

Our website is www.atholorchards.com. We are working to build and open a year round farmstore/farmstand at the orchard here in North Idaho. For now we open the farm every other Saturday or so, with announcements made through social media. We are also working to establish an on-site and online Orchard School where locals can sign up for workshops and field trips at the farm that are seasonally focused. Eventually the Orchard School will be available as an online interactive learning platform available to anyone.

Athol Orchards Mission: “Growing History One Apple At A Time”❤️

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