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Small Farms Features

The Farmer Who Skis Upside Down

If honeybees could ruminate on the idea of skis, they might be jealous of Dan Marion. To travel through the air on skis, with one’s head pointed at the earth, and to then win a silver medal for doing so, is something that honeybees simply cannot attempt. Fortunately, they’re content with making the honey that Marion and his team at Fresh Pickins farm package into jars to sell to customers in Southern Maine.

Marion won his medal at the North American Open Pipe Finals on February 24, 2008, in Breckenridge, Colorado. He was 21. For those familiar with the sport, which is rather like skiing in a huge skateboard park, but much faster and much higher in the air, Marion won the silver “with a 9, a switch 7 and an alley-oop flatspin.”

His mother, Vicki, was not at all surprised that he won the silver medal. She and her husband, Peter, put Marion on skis when he was 2 years old and watched him grow in skill until he started racing at age 10, and then entered the world of sponsored, pro-skiing at 17 when he graduated from Windham High School. He competed in events all over North America, including ESPN’s Winter X Games, where he finished third at the 2009 World Skiing Invitational (superpipe) in Whistler, British Columbia, in Canada.

Although Marion kept skiing professionally until 2012, his life and career were upended in 2008, when he met a fellow skier named Abe at the Open Pipe Finals. Abe Zacharias was from York, Maine, and they discovered that they had the same friend group back in Maine. They also had parents who loved the land. Dan’s parents were naturalists and beekeepers, and Abe’s father owned Zach’s Farm in York.

Dan Marion on his tractor. (Michael Clark)

As Marion recalls, “My passion for farming and ambitions to start my own farm had me trading him a pair of skis for flower seeds the following week. Before I knew it, I was scribbling and rescribbling business plans and budgets while frequently finding my thoughts wandering to the upcoming summer.”

Since one cannot easily ski when the snow melts, Marion recruited his cousin Elliot to help him plow the fields of his grandfather’s land in Limington, Maine. He was planning to plant flowers to sell at farmer’s markets in Southern Maine. His efforts were complicated when his cousin “came down with one of the worst cases of poison ivy” that Marion had ever seen. He discovered that the entire farm was covered with poison ivy. But, since Marion was immune, he kept plowing and planting and attended as many farmer’s markets as he could. Marion was joined by his mother and more helpers as time went by. They grew 30 varieties of flowers, including sunflowers, zinnias, amaranthus, green mist dill, eucalyptus, and even basil.

Marion had obtained a degree in Environmental Science and had a big picture, macro view of farming. With Fresh Pickins Farm doing well in Limington, Marion hired a young lady and snowboarder named Dominic Thibault. Thibault was skilled in marketing and design and had a degree in Scenography, “the practice of crafting stage environments or atmospheres.” Her work and designs can be seen in many plays, including the 2021-2022 run of the play “Le cas Joé Ferguson” at the Théâtre du Trident in Quebec.3

Thibault is a “detail person” with strong organizational skills. She and Marion also share an intuitive sense of what is right for the land. In 2015, Marion, Thibault, and Vicki decided to lease 20 acres of the Ram Island Farm property owned by the descendants of P. Shaw Sprague. The land sits on the ocean in Cape Elizabeth and has proven ideal for Fresh Pickins, and is closer to the markets of the Portland area. They moved the operation from Limington, leaving the honeybees in the careful hands of Vicki in Windham. They currently use about five acres of the Ram Island property.

Thibault has helped rebrand Marion’s venture, dropping the word “farm” from the name, and has created a new look and feel for their website and the designs of the many flower and herb-based products they sell in local stores. They have branched out from the original crops of flowers, although flowers are still a mainstay, with the farm supplying as many as 600 bouquets a week to Whole Foods and many more to other vendors and markets.

Their venture into value-added products like lip balm, honeys, and skin creams has been very successful and has provided year-round income since the products are not perishable. Marion and Thibault also spend time engaged in sustainable wild foraging for plants like wild ramps and the Chaga medicinal mushroom, which they sell under the Fresh Pickins label.

Fresh Pickins products. (Natalya DeSena)

The farm’s off-season products are developed with a particular demographic in mind: for those who pursue an active lifestyle like surfing, skiing, or hiking. The formula is working, and in 2021, revenues grew by 60 percent. Marion employs 10 summer employees, most who came without advertising, all who returned for a second season in 2021. The staff has become adept, to the point that Marion and Thibault could step away, and the farm would continue to run. They’re now focused on building the brand and strengthening community relations.

I was impressed with Dan’s dedication to his work, a work ethic that seemed to match his first career as a professional skier. Hard work is good, as bees will affirm, especially for farmers who ski upside down. But I was even more impressed by Dan’s sensitivity to the land. We had a fascinating discussion about his view of the land as a living organism and the humbling experience of working with the land as a partner, and the importance of being aware of what the land and the plants needed. Our conversation grew quite metaphysical, and Marion told me about a watershed experience he had in 2017:

“I once had a clear moment that, as a farmer, I had a big responsibility. That I’m the bridge between the land and the food or the medicines that people need. I’m the one that is harvesting the fruits of this organism. It wasn’t meant to be scary. It was just to let me know that that’s what I was, and it was a big responsibility. That shaped me.”

After 13 years of farming, working 10-hour days, six days a week, Marion’s efforts, joined by the work of his mother, Vicki, his partner, Thibault, and their excellent staff, have all demonstrated that attitude and creativity make a huge difference.

Marion and Thibault keep their spirits and imaginations fresh by “adventuring” between the months of December and March. They hop in their specially outfitted van and travel far and wide, researching farm and product ideas, hiking in the wilderness, relaxing and meditating, and yes, sometimes, if they’re in the mood, skiing upside down.

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Features Small Farms

Creating ‘Shangri-La’

Twenty years ago, during a difficult time in her life, artist and former legislator, Liz Pike, moved into a friend’s rental home in Camas, Washington. She was told that this place would be her “Shangri-La,” a peaceful place of her own that she could call home. Not long afterwards, Pike met her current husband, an ex-Delta airline pilot, whose best friend had an airport in Washington with the same name as her home: Shangri-La Airport. Considering their connection to be predestined, Pike was determined to call her farm, Shangri-La.

Greatly influenced by James Hilton’s version of Shangri-La in “Lost Horizon,” Pike aimed to materialize Hilton’s fictional paradise through the gardens she created. “We wanted to create a welcoming, peaceful, tranquil setting,” she said. But at the time, Pike was living on a double city lot in Camas. “I had chickens and raised beds everywhere.” Her husband looked around and decided she needed a proper farm. In 2010, they bought one.

Growing up on a dairy farm, Pike was well-accustomed to hard work. Eventually, she left her family farm in pursuit of her future, but she always dreamed of returning to the simple, tranquil life she once knew and loved. “At this point in my life I just want to stay here and paint, and take care of my farm,” she said.

For Pike, living on a farm is one of the most satisfying things in her life, as it allows her to experience the immediate gratification of farming. “In a corporate environment, you might be working on a project lasting three or four years, and it just takes a really long time to see something to fruition,” she explained. “On a farm, you spend an hour on a part of your garden, and all of a sudden, it looks really good.”

Putting Politics Behind

Liz Pike smiles as she stands beside some of her sunflower paintings. (Photo courtesy of Rachel Deschand)

Pike was a member of the Camas City Council from 2003 to 2007, and a state representative for Washington Clark County from 2013 to 2018. In January 2016, she published an open letter, declaring her resignation from the political sphere to embark on a new chapter of her life. She wished to dedicate all her efforts to her farm, and to raising animals.

Her resignation also allowed her to focus more on her other passion—art. From a young age, Pike painted as a way to relax. “I painted a lot while I was in the legislature, just to escape Olympia. I would come home on the weekend, and just immerse myself in the farm, and my art, just to get away from all the negativity of politics,” she said. Her paintings have been on regular display at the Camas Gallery for the past five years.

Pike regularly features her love of nature in her oil paintings. She enjoys painting sunflowers, mountains, and sometimes, still life. Today, she offers affordable, short oil painting classes, referred to as “Sip and Paint” workshops, in her converted garage art studio. She accepts no more than nine people for any given class, and spots are allocated on a first-come, first-serve basis. Guests have a choice between morning or evening classes, and Pike provides fresh-baked treats, including her homemade truffles, as well as either wine or coffee. The workshop cost covers all art materials, complete with easels and aprons.

Ten years in, Pike is now a certified Master Gardener, providing regular contributions and demonstrations in the Clark County Master Gardener program. She has also been beekeeping for the last five years and owns several different colonies. “I plant a lot of oregano around the farm because the flowers from those herbs boost the bees’ immune systems, and they’re healthier,” she explained.

Painting on a Real-Life Canvas

The Shangri-La tea room is nestled amongst the trees. (Photo courtesy of Rachel Deschand)

The farm itself serves as a secondary canvas for her to unleash her creativity. Initially, the farm wasn’t in great shape, with an abundance of thick, 40-foot-high blackberry bushes, and weeds. There were molehills, unkempt pastures, abandoned possessions from previous owners, and plants starved of water. Due to her strict organic gardening practices, Pike had to dig out the bushes or pull them out by hand. In doing so, she discovered many sickly rhododendrons that had been buried away for years, which she then carefully nursed back to life.

Pike takes great pride in her organic gardening practices. She adheres to an all-natural, organic approach to gardening, using her chicken manure rather than commercial chemical fertilizers. She pulls or digs out any weeds on her property and makes a continuous, conscious effort to use many native species of plants to encourage wildlife, and create a healthy, balanced ecosystem. “We don’t use any sprays or pesticides for the simple reason that I don’t want to eat poison,” she said.

Today, the farm is a beautifully-crafted work of art, with paved pathways leading to different areas of the garden. A Japanese tea house sits in the front of the property, complete with a little bridge, right across from the farm stand where Pike regularly restocks her fresh produce and baked goods for sale: from blueberries, green beans, plums, squashes, and tomatoes, to scones, jam, chocolate truffles, eggs, and even kombucha.

Transforming a nearly two-acre property was no easy feat. “My advice to somebody starting out would be to just do one little project at a time,” she said. Working on small areas, particularly those areas one frequents the most, is a good starting point. For Pike, those areas were around her work shed, where she keeps her garden and woodworking tools. So, she beautified that area with rose gardens.

Peace and Happiness

Liz sells many of her fresh produce at her farm stand at Shangri-La Farm, WA. (Photo courtesy of Rachel Deschand)

Neighbors and local visitors are often impressed with the beauty that encapsulates Shangri-La Farm. “There’s a lady that lives about a mile from here, around the corner, and she’s been living over there for the past 15 years. She drove by this place when it looked bad,” said Pike. She started crying when she drove by and saw the new gardens.

Much of the charm comes from Pike’s creativity, where she often uses old items and reworks them into new ones. One instance was when she took some limbs off an old cedar tree and turned them into posts to hold up the four corners of her Japanese tearoom, and even her grape arbor. She has also recycled her old campaign signs to use as posts.

“The theme of our farm is peace and happiness,” said Pike. Walking around the beautiful paths, visitors can experience the soothing power of nature surrounding them. Visitors come to Shangri-La Farm for the farm stand but stay for the garden’s tranquility. Benches and chairs are scattered all around the perimeter of the garden, providing ample seating for visitors. Oftentimes, Pike said, they will come over with a cup of coffee, and just sit outside.

Pike has even started to label all her plants in the garden, in the hopes of someday transforming it into a true botanical garden. “That way people can wander around, and there’ll be a listing of all the plants in that color,” she said. Paths are carefully designed cyclically, allowing visitors to wander around and end up back where they started.

Pike even has her own method of marketing her farm stand. Painted wooden signs hang on hooks and eyes along the entrance to the farm, visible to roadside drivers. The signs are all interchangeable, and serve as her roadside marketing system, alerting visitors about what produce and goods are currently available.

An Everblooming Garden

A curved road leading into Shangri-La Farm, WA. (Photo courtesy of Rachel Deschand)

Books serve as an important source of inspiration for Pike. A treasured favorite is “The Layered Garden” by David L. Culp. The book discusses garden design ideas for year-round beauty, and is inspired by Brandywine Cottage, Culp’s beloved two-acre Pennsylvania garden. Her favorite part of the book is when Culp discusses coming up with garden plans.

The secret to a great garden is to always try to incorporate the various features that already exist in the space for the garden, so when drawing out a plan, it’s important to draw it out once, and then put it away in a drawer. Then, go out into the garden space and look at the features already there, like a tree, or an old fence.

“If you strictly go by the piece of paper and the plan, you’re going to miss all those things that you can take advantage of that are already out there,” Pike explained. She said that for her farm, that element was the old mother maple tree, positioned almost in the center of the garden. It wasn’t originally part of her garden plan, but once she stood out there, she realized the importance of the old tree, and knew she had to keep her there.

The book also encourages planting perennials and discusses the design technique of layering: interplanting different plant species in the same area, so that when one finishes blooming, another one will begin. This results in an everblooming garden, full of colors that continually change throughout the seasons. This is precisely what Pike incorporated in her garden, choosing to plant mostly perennials, allowing her to always have something blooming, and providing important forage for her bees. Another bonus for her is that she can create bouquets for her table all year long, even during winter.

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Building Beautiful Friendships, One Cup at a Time

Tea has always been a part of the Stowe family. What initially started as a traveling tearoom in 2011, bringing tea and baked goods to families all over Middle Tennessee and parts of Alabama, has transformed into what is now a physical tearoom on a 68-acre farm in Campbellsville, Tennessee. Three Sisters Tearoom is run by Jennifer Stowe and her three daughters, Julia, Andrea, and Meredith.

The Stowes would drive in the family car and set up base at various sites, including local senior centers, nursing homes, and libraries, to bring tea and cookies to local communities. The family would organize discussions about the history of tea, teach patrons about the different kinds of tea, and offer tea tastings.

The girls enjoying a cup of tea outside their Airstream camper trailer in 2011. (Courtesy of the Stowes)

Three Sisters Tearoom

After the family’s barn burned down in 2014, they had the idea of rebuilding and transforming the place into a physical tearoom. “We just thought maybe we didn’t need to travel so much bringing tea to people—we could have them come to us,” said Jennifer, mother to the three girls. Despite sitting on a large farm, the tearoom itself is tiny, with maximum indoor seating accommodating up to 20 guests at any one time. Weather permitting, there are an additional eight seats outdoors. “Six years on, that little tearoom has been home to all of our events and gave our traveling tearoom a home,” said Julia.

The three sisters: Andrea, Julia, and Meredith. (Courtesy of the Stowes)

All three sisters have a role in the tearoom, from greeting guests, to baking the numerous sweet treats on offer, to washing dishes after a long day of entertaining guests. “Meredith was only six when the tearoom first opened. She was our greeter and just hugged everybody! And a lot of our clients are seniors, some of them widowed, so it meant a lot to them, getting a hug from a little girl,” Jennifer told me.

Jennifer’s second daughter, Andrea, is responsible for the analytical and organizational aspects of the family business, like filling out the spreadsheets, scheduling, sending newsletters, and other administrative duties. Julia oversees the baking. “She has mastered the scones. We have our signature lavender white chocolate scones, which she makes so well with lemon curd,” said Andrea. The youngest sister, Meredith, still greets all the clients, even at the age of 13. She also irons all the tablecloths.

Julia’s famous lavender white chocolate scones. (Courtesy of the Stowes)

Operating a family business has its advantages. Jennifer said if she didn’t have the chance to run the tearoom with her daughters, she probably wouldn’t run one at all. “For me, it’s really the best situation. I get to do something that I love, express creativity, extend hospitality, and work with my most favorite people in the world.” The tearoom simply serves as an extension of the Stowe family home, and this translates into the domestic comfort and warmth it provides to its patrons.

The most important part of running a tearoom is building a community, Julia told me. “It’s very much a place to build friendships, and seeing people through the years who were strangers now become very dear friends, both with us and each other, is a treasured aspect of having a tearoom.”

A Place of Deep Friendship and Community

The tearoom served an important role to the local community after the pandemic lockdown restrictions were lifted. “Mom brought a lot of joy into their lives,” said Meredith. “It was just a time for them to come and enjoy peace, and spend time with people after being home for so long.”

Jennifer explained that a lot of women who visit her tearoom have suffered many heartbreaks and tragedies, whether that be losing their husbands, jobs, or other family members. However, the tearoom offers them much-needed solace and friendship.

One of the most touching aspects is the uniting of patrons, regardless of age or experience. “When you see a senior and young adult who just find similar passions and can converse about it, that, to me, is just amazing,” said Meredith.

Three Sisters Tearoom patrons share many smiles around the tea table. (Courtesy of the Stowes)

The tearoom also offers events, one of their popular ones being their Afternoon Tea Flight, which involves learning about a different country each month. “We enjoy tea the way they would have it, and we eat their food,” said Jennifer. The owners provide a small presentation on the origin of the tea, along with cultural aspects like music, food, and even the use of incense. The tea flight starts from China, continuing all the way through Europe, and eventually landing in the United States. Each attendee receives a little passport and gets a stamp for every Tea Flight attended. Jennifer said it offers customers the opportunity to experience different cultures, something they may never have gotten the chance to encounter coming from a small town.

They have even featured yak butter tea, a popular beverage in the Himalayas of Central Asia, particularly in Tibet. This drink was traditionally drunk by the Tibetan people of the North to provide energy and to keep warm in the harsh winters.

Literary tea events are another community favorite, where, according to their website, ladies of all ages are invited to join book discussions over delicious cream teas. The event features a perfectly curated, themed menu that reflects the essence of the book.

Fresh Produce Straight From the Farm

Three Sisters Tearoom uses locally produced ingredients in all the items on its menu, including eggs, greens, tomatoes, corn, potatoes, rhubarb, peppers, and even fruit. The family grows just about everything on its 68-acre farm.

Andrea tending to her tomato plants on the family farm. (Courtesy of the Stowes)

The family also owns many animals, including chickens (for meat and eggs), ducks, and a small herd of Highland cattle (for milk and meat), as well as a few dogs and cats.

The tearoom is sometimes closed for a week or two during the height of summer, when the garden is bursting with fresh produce. This allows the family to finish canning and processing the food and to get ready to open again the following week.

Looking to the Future

Over the years, the Stowes have brought much joy to the lives of everyone they have encountered. They grew from a simple traveling tearoom to building a beautiful paradise for the local community to visit and relax in. But their journey doesn’t end here. The family has plenty of exciting plans for the future, from organizing tea talks on the road to taking their love for tea into classrooms, libraries, and historic homes in the form of educational classes and lectures.

Jennifer has also written many titles and tea-themed books, like “Book of Days: An Artful Guide to Life-Long Learning,” “Afternoon Tea: Rhymes for Children,” “Infused: Tea Time in Fine Art,” and “Wee Bites and Nibbles: Manners and Menus for the Tiniest Tea Drinkers.” Her daughter, Julia, is a graphic designer and frequently aids in the artistic production of the books.

The family’s old barn was repurposed into a tearoom. (Courtesy of the Stowes)

Other short-term plans involve planting more perennials to liven up the grounds, building a courtyard garden, and building an outdoor room where they can serve tea and host more people.

Outside of the tearoom, the girls share their admiration for tea with their friends in college and while traveling. “It draws people and builds relationships, even outside of the tearoom business,” commented Andrea.

“Our tearoom is certainly very dear to my heart,” said Julia. “And whatever different paths it may take in the future, it will still be part of our lives in some way.”

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Back to Our Roots

The fundamentals of life at Athol Orchards are simple: a tight-knit family, a love for all things apple, and a deep appreciation for mountain air and American soil.

Located in the northern reaches of Idaho, Athol Orchards is owned and operated by the Conley family: Erreck, Nikki, daughters Mackenzie (13) and Madelyn (10), and Nikki’s mother Carole. While it is most known to the public for its historical apple varieties, delectable apple cider syrup, and Idaho-harvested maple syrup, the Conley family looks at the orchard as a token of the American dream: strong family foundations, plenty of hard work (oftentimes backbreaking, as Nikki said), and the traditional, family-owned farm life.

In the beginning, many told Nikki and Erreck they’d bitten off more than they could chew. But since moving to Idaho from the West Coast in January of 2016, the family has been chipping away at their vision, little by little; just six years ago, Nikki was a professional graphic designer working in a Northern California metropolis, parked in front of a computer day in and day out, while memories of the quiet Californian mountain town where she spent her childhood bloomed in her mind.

Nikki with her husband, Erreck, and two daughters, Mackenzie and Madelyn. (Ben Norwood)

“When I was 3 years old, my family wanted to seek a quieter life for me and my siblings, so we moved to the eastern foothills of central California in a little town called Springfield. It was the ideal small town,” said Nikki. “The Sequoia National Forest was pretty much our backyard, and we had a lot of these multi-generational, commercial apple orchards that were being grown in high-elevation mountains there.”

Crisp apples and fresh mountain air are braided into Nikki’s childhood, so much so that she often asked her father if they could become apple farmers. The glow of a computer screen became a headache as the mother of two pictured the quality of life she wanted for her daughters.

Building an Orchard From Scratch

Nikki and Erreck didn’t have a lick of agricultural experience of their own—Nikki herself had cycled through graphic design, teaching, and the medical field, trying to find her lifelong career—but while the orchard dream was still far removed from reality, it remained within arms’ reach.

“We wanted to seek a quiet life for our kids. A slower life, away from the big population densities in California where we were. I don’t know if this happens to all parents, but our minds really started changing in the ways we thought about the world, after watching how things have changed and the world got so fast, unpredictable, scary.”

Northern Idaho checked all of Nikki’s boxes for climate, environment, safety. She, her high school sweetheart, and their kids headed east. And with the town of Athol nearly rhyming with the word apple, it just felt a universal sign to Nikki that it was time to make her childhood dream come true.

Crucial to this was her husband’s willingness to change his own career path, move states, and walk alongside his wife in her new endeavor; while apples alone may not have been a convincing-enough argument, Nikki finding her true calling surely would. Erreck is a 23-year Air Force veteran who remained in government work until joining Nikki in the full-time orchard venture. Carole lives on the orchard and assists in the operation as well, helping with gardening, watering, and tending the berry patches.

The apples and their byproducts are just a delicious bonus. “I’m the dreamer and Erreck is very much the doer. Everything we’ve done, we’ve done together right alongside our girls,” Nikki said.

Nikki Conley chose a small town in Idaho to start her orchard, after years of toiling in front of a computer as a graphic designer. (Ben Norwood)

What to most people is just a household kitchen staple is to Nikki a fruit with a rich, intricate history, which has fascinated her for years. There are multi-volume book series, historians, and national conventions dedicated to the apple, and the varieties grown at Athol are unlike those found on grocery store shelves. Some varieties were lost and found again when abandoned American homesteads, dating back to the 18th century, were rediscovered and explored—the ancient apple trees found on those homesteads were “gifts from our ancestors,” Nikki said.

“I learned about all of these lost, old, historical varieties that really tied in with my love of American history. All the pieces started to fall into place for me.” Nikki now delights in sharing her knowledge through her orchard, which she said also functions as a living history farm.

Back to Nature

Preserving history and providing agricultural education are important, Nikki explained. Agricultural exposure in public school is minimal, and, with the threshold to enter the commercial farming industry so high, she wants impressionable young children to learn the vital role that agriculture—not just commercial farming—can play for a person, a community, and America as a whole. “We want to change the way kids see agriculture, whether it be becoming beekeepers, having their own orchard, or raising Nigerian goats for cheese and raw milk. Public education doesn’t have the time to touch on agriculture anymore, and that’s why we need to hold on to the family farms in our country,” she said.

Nikki does not aspire to run a commercial apple farm. She sees herself as a curator of apples, and her farm a preservation orchard, with its 1.5 acres and 120 trees, holding space in the present for apple varieties that held so much significance in the past. She has plans to plant more trees on an additional 16 acres next spring.

(Ben Norwood)

Athol Orchards is perhaps most known for its signature apple cider syrup. A lover of natural and holistic ingredients harvested straight from the earth, Nikki didn’t like the thought of her family using artificial syrups, so she set out to create a syrup product from her apples. She did not expect that she would soon be selling out of the product at farmers markets—where customers gushed that the syrup was happiness in a bottle or like Christmas for the tastebuds—and shipping to all 50 states and internationally.

Nikki took a similar approach with maple syrup, the supermarket varieties of which can be loaded with additives, after a visit to New England where maple farms thrive. “The whole idea and tradition of maple syrup stuck in my heart just as fast as the apples did,” she said.

A Rewarding Dream

So, what is it like living in the shadow of the Rockies, where your nearest neighbors are apple trees? It is an “amazing silence,” Nikki said, free of the traffic, construction, and general cacophony that steals the quiet away from urban places. The morning of her American Essence interview, she rose early to find wild turkeys foraging the orchard for fallen apples while her Nigerian dwarf goats brayed to hail the morning; in the mountains, the nighttime often leaves a milky fog behind that casts the forest surrounding the orchard into haziness. Elk may emerge to try to sneak a few apples off the trees, and while the Conley family has not yet experienced any firsthand, moose, wolves, and cougars loom in this very much still wild and untamed land.

Metro California, choked and uncomfortable like a person pulling at a turtleneck, seemed a distant memory.

“The forest is quiet, and the atmosphere is cool. The earth is damp, you can smell the soil under the grass. We are a forest-edge environment, which means we let the native grass and wildflowers grow in the springtime,” Nikki said.

The most rewarding of it all has been watching her family slow down—not only watching her dream of apples and syrups blossom, but her dream of true, unadulterated happiness find its way into her daughters’ hearts.

“It’s been a very fulfilling thing for my kids to watch us develop this business. They’ve now realized that they can be entrepreneurs themselves, and they don’t have to work for somebody else, or work for the system. They can build a life for themselves and have a life that they want. They’ll be able to provide for their own families and not have to work on somebody else’s clock and somebody else’s dime,” Nikki said.

The local community has welcomed the orchard and the Conley family with open arms, their message of a more purposeful, slower life included. Nikki recently experienced an accident that left her injured, and the community swooped in to help with farm operations. “People are tired and weary of this fast-paced world. They’re losing connection to humans,” Nikki said. “Our farm has become this place where people can come, and they don’t take out their cell phones, and there’s this kindness and this camaraderie that takes place here.”

Athol Orchards has provided so much more to Nikki than apple pie and maple syrup. She and her family love this land from mountain peak to soil, growing their roots deeper than those of their apple trees. And while Nikki’s father—who played such an important role in taking her to orchards and hearing her childhood dreams of becoming an apple farmer—passed on long before the orchard came to fruition, Nikki looks out over her work and knows he’d be proud, perhaps even smiling down.

Savannah Howe is a freelance magazine journalist currently calling the cornfields of the Upper Midwest home. When she is not telling America’s stories, she can be found on the hunt for the best sushi or coffee out there. 
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Features Small Farms

The Apple Orchard Birthed in the American Revolution

Decades before Johnny Appleseed started planting apple trees in Pennsylvania and Ohio, two brothers created an apple orchard in Limington, Maine, that has endured for 238 years. It was 1783, and the Treaty of Paris had officially ended the American Revolution and ratified the independence of the thirteen American states.

Joshua Brackett and his elder brother Abraham had traveled the 30 miles from Portland, known then as Falmouth, Massachusetts. It was a journey of about a day by horseback. But on their way to the newly settled area of Little Ossipee Plantation, their horses were spooked by an unexpected encounter with a bear. They shot the bear with their Brown Bess musket and considered the fact that the horse had warned them about the animal a sign of good fortune.

Both brothers had followed the example of their father, Lieutenant Joshua Brackett, Sr., and had joined the Continental Army: Abraham in 1778 and Joshua, Jr. in 1780. War in the New World was not new to the Bracketts. Their second great-grandfather, Anthony Bracket, had immigrated from England to New Hampshire around 1623 and was killed by Indians in 1691 at the age of 78. Conflicts with local Indian tribes and the French and Indian War in 1754 brought numerous tragedies to their family.

But when Independence from Britain was declared, the Bracketts joined the American cause, as did many of the citizens of the District of Maine. Joshua, Sr., was a captain of a company of minutemen who marched to Cambridge in 1775. He then became a Second Lieutenant in Captain Joshua Wentworth’s company, while both of his sons served in Captain Joseph Pride’s company, with Abraham discharged in 1779 and Joshua, Jr. discharged in December of 1780.

Joshua, Jr., had the colorful distinction of serving in a detachment of men deployed on boats that warned fishermen about the incursions of the British Naval Captain Henry Mowat, who had burned Falmouth in 1775.

The brothers had received a grant of land as recompense for their military service. Discharged, with the war winding down in 1781, they journeyed to their new holdings at Little Ossipee Plantation, later incorporated as Limington. They found that the hilly country was ideal for apple trees, so the brothers formally established a farm and orchard in 1783.

Joshua didn’t know that 238 years later, a ninth-generation Brackett, his sixth-great-grandson Manley Brackett, would still be running the orchard at the age of 99.

The brothers could not have imagined the future threat to their family farm posed by modern technology or an apple called “Honeycrisp.”

The 99 years of their descendent’s life were, except for a few brief interludes, resonant with the fragrance of apples. Manley Russell Brackett was born on the farm in 1922 and was wheeled in a baby carriage by his mother as his parents planted rows of McIntosh apples.

His parents were Guy Bracket, born in 1884, and May Russell, born in 1881. “An apple a day keeps the doctor away” must have worked quite well for the Bracketts—Guy and May were 78 and 89 when they passed away in 1963 and 1971.

Guy and May had decided to stop raising cattle and had converted the farm to only grow apple trees, even though at that time it was still a small farm of about 10 acres. Manley joined the Merchant Marine in World War II and served for two years on a Liberty Ship as the ship’s purser and quasi-pharmacist. After the war, he came back to the farm and helped his father slowly expand the orchard until, in the ’70s, the apple trees covered 120 acres.

The Manley Expansion

Manley married Marion Virginia Sawyer right after the war when Manley was 25. “Ginnie” was a graduate of the Concord School of Business and served as Manley’s business partner, balancing the books “down to the last penny.” They had two daughters, Diane and Debra. Diane told me that Manley had once remarked that “asking Ginnie Sawyer to marry me was the best decision I ever made.”

Manley and Ginnie grew the business until it was a substantial success, shipping 30 to 40,000 bushels of apples a year, many of them out of state and as far away as Europe. In 1964, Manley was featured in The Portland Press Herald as one of the “Faces of Maine.” The farm is a member of the Maine Pomological Society, an organization founded in 1873 that includes apple orchards all over the state and deals with the science of fruits and fruit growing.

Manley developed the orchard even more when he installed a cold storage facility and took on the task of packing the apples in-house. Both decisions increased profits by cutting out two levels of middlemen.

When Manley was 57 in 1979, he was chosen as the York County Farmer of the Year by the Soil and Water Conservation District. The former Journal Tribune newspaper from Biddeford, Maine wrote on November 8, 1979:

“It is because of Manley’s efforts to conserve soil, his progressive and sometimes aggressive efforts in growing apples, in putting up wind fences, pruning trees, and turning apple-raising into an art that won him the award.”

“Operating an orchard is a year-round business, and the way Manley Brackett operates it is not so much a fight against the elements of time and weather, but rather a combination of agricultural technology with an understanding and appreciation of nature. It is learning to work with the weather, soils, trees, and the experience of apple-raising, handed down from generation to generation.”

Planes, Packing Houses, and Big Farms

In 1972, Manley’s daughter Debra married a young man named Guy Paulin. A year later, Guy started working for Manley in the orchard and has worked there ever since. Debra became a school teacher, and Guy and Debra had two boys who were “mirror twins”—identical twins except that one was left-handed and the other right-handed. Both boys graduated from Bentley College.

For the last 12 years, Guy has been the manager of the orchard and has witnessed seismic changes in the apple-growing business. After years of growth, Brackett’s has been confronted with the stresses of foreign competition and the implementation of modern but extremely expensive packing machines. Many other orchards have gone out of business, but Brackett’s has survived due to the commitment to the orchard by Guy and his wife, Debra, who is the farm’s bookkeeper and full-fledged partner.

Apple brokers are the key to success for a large-scale orchard since it’s an apple broker that arranges contracts with a variety of grocery stores across the country. Manley used a broker to get his apples in stores in Florida, where they were purchased by snowbirds from New England. But he eventually stopped using brokers because their increase in packing requirements was not cost effective.

Prior to the delivery of food items by aircraft, customers didn’t expect fresh apples to be available at every grocery store, 12 months a year. Now, with apples flown in from countries like Chile, one can buy a crispy, delicious apple at any time. Although that’s been great for consumers, smaller orchards have struggled to compete.

Brokers now go with the large orchards that can meet a continuous demand, whether foreign or American, and their requirements for packing and delivery have increased. Instead of apples being shipped loose in a box, many brokers want them packed in individual compartments as they are done with eggs. Additionally, supermarkets want a sticker on each apple, which is too labor-intensive for smaller orchards.

The year-round demand has made it tough for farms like Brackett’s, especially with apples like the Honeycrisp, which have stringent requirements for storage and a high percentage rate of failure.

The Rise of the Honeycrisp

Guy told me that Honeycrisp apples are extremely profitable and popular but require expensive equipment to ship year-round. To preserve them, farms need packing facilities that include controlled-atmosphere storage, which regulates the levels of oxygen, carbon dioxide, and nitrogen, as well as temperature and humidity. Many big packing houses have specialized x-ray machines that scan the inside of the apples for defects. But those machines are far above the budget of many growers.

Developed at the University of Minnesota and released in 1991, the Honeycrisp apple is a hybrid of the Keepsake variety and an unreleased apple labeled the MN1627, a grandchild of the Duchess of Oldenburg and the Golden Delicious apples.

Its crispness and sweet taste have made it a must-have apple at grocery stores, and it sells at a high price. Customers want Honeycrisp apples, so stores and growers have to respond.

Yet for growers, the Honeycrisp is not all joy. In the article “The Dark Side Of Honeycrisp,” by Christina Herrick, published on the Growing Produce website on January 27, 2015, Herrick writes:

“Ask any grower whether they enjoy the experience of growing Honeycrisp year in and year out and they’ll likely tell you no. But it’s a necessary evil. Without Honeycrisp—one of the most profitable varieties to have in an orchard—many growers believe they can’t stay competitive. …”

“It is by far and away the most difficult variety I’ve ever grown,” says Bruce Allen, president of Columbia Reach Pack in Yakima, WA.1

In spite of the problematic side of the new Honeycrisp apple, Guy has planted over 3,000 Honeycrisp trees at Brackett’s. Because of changes within the industry and the consolidation of many smaller farms into larger ones, Guy also had to cut costs to stay competitive.

Downsizing and Fine Tuning

After years of expansion of their farmland, Guy has trimmed the land down to 55 acres. The orchard grows McIntosh, Cortland, Honeycrisp, Spencer, Macoun, Yellow Delicious, Red Delicious, and Northern Spy apples. He’s also added blueberry bushes and peach trees. The Brackett farm stand sells its own apple cider as well as a variety of other local products.

The farm has no broker, due to its size, so Brackett’s has been shut out of the supermarket routes of sale. To compensate, Guy supplies apples to 10 school districts within a 50-mile radius. The farm also has a very popular pick-your-own apple program at their high-ground orchard, which has a 180-degree view of the mountains of New Hampshire.

Brackett’s has also struggled with labor, as many companies have. Guy is fortunate that he’s been working with some excellent apple pickers from Jamaica that come every year for 10 weeks, from September to November. One of them has been working for Brackett’s for 10 years. But local help is much harder to find.

I asked Guy about his work schedule, and I was surprised, even though I shouldn’t have been. I’ve known for a long time that farmers are a special breed of human, far too often unappreciated by their customers who enjoy—in this case literally—the fruits of their labor.

Guy’s day goes from around 4:30 in the morning to 7:30 at night—a 15-hour day—seven days a week. One hundred hours of work a week is something that mere mortals don’t normally wish to contemplate. But that’s what farmers do, and that’s what Guy has been doing for the more than 40 years that he’s worked at Brackett’s. He has been fortunate that, as he stated, Manley was “an easy boss.” And, of course, Guy is now part of the Brackett family, and he loves his work.

Guy and Debra are both taking care of Manley as he approaches his 100th birthday. They’ve helped Manley fulfill his pledge to his father “to keep the orchard going.” Manley often told customers as they left the orchard with bags of apples: “We’ll see you down the road.”

Debra’s sister, Diane, has performed the invaluable service of keeping track of the history of the orchard and the Brackett family.

Guy Paulin of Brackett’s Orchard. (Peter Falkenberg Brown)
(Peter Falkenberg Brown)
Guy and Manley. (Peter Falkenberg Brown)

The Future of Brackett’s

We concluded our conversation by looking at the future. It would be easy to sell their orchard, but they don’t want to. They want to continue and make it work. Guy is 68, and he’s hoping that one or both of his sons might manage the farm. The farm is still profitable, although it’s always on the edge, as many small farms are. Crises are always waiting in the wings, in the form of bad weather or crops that fail.

When I looked at Guy, sitting in the small visitor’s cabin on the top of their beautiful hill facing the western mountains in New Hampshire, I was reminded of Rocky Balboa. The Bracketts have been fighting to survive, to grow, and to bring value to their neighbors for 238 years.

The Brackett’s Orchards farm most certainly qualifies, at least in my mind, as a Historical Landmark. It is indeed a historical treasure. In addition, when I drove through Brackett’s apple trees and came back to their farm stand to shake Manley’s 99-year-old hand and wave goodbye, I felt that this was one farm that must not be subsumed by the bean-counters of Big Agra. The orchard has too much soul and too much history. Brackett’s Orchards must continue.

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Features Small Farms

Greenane Farms: A Family Affair

Patrick Rider didn’t set out to run a livestock farm that supplies meat to fine dining restaurants and grocers. He simply wanted to provide healthy options for his family. “I didn’t want my family eating industrial food,” he said.

In 2003, Patrick and his wife, Thanya, began purchasing farmland in Meredith, a sleepy town in Upstate New York, nestled within the Catskill Mountains. Today, they own 400 acres and lease another 1,100. Patrick’s family has lived in the region for eight generations. In his childhood, Patrick’s chores included cutting hay, but he didn’t grow up raising animals.

The Greenane Farms restaurant is painted in colors inspired by Spanish Colonial architecture. (Photo by Lux Aeterna Photography)

A Family Farm

At one time, Patrick had a career in consulting that brought him to Mexico, where he met Thanya. As a couple, they decided to settle down in the lush, quiet area of the western Catskills where they now reside. When the Riders purchased the property, it was an empty field. They built the structures by hand and set everything up from scratch. From the beginning, Patrick resolved to grow vegetables and fruits without chemical pesticides. To this day, the farm’s livestock are also raised without antibiotics or hormones.

Patrick handles the animals with care. During a visit one July afternoon, he was preparing to move about a dozen cows to new pasture, but as the female cows began calling their calves, something suddenly spooked the animals—they didn’t want to budge. After some thinking, Patrick decided it was best to leave them be. He also noticed that a few cows were walking oddly, likely because they had lame legs. Sometimes they accidentally step into holes in the ground, burrowed by woodchucks, and hurt themselves, Patrick explained. He decided to leave those animals in the pen so they could get medical checkups.

Angus cows grazing in the field. (Photo by Lux Aeterna Photography)

At first, Patrick had only planned to produce enough food for his family, but as neighbors and restaurants kept inquiring about his products, the farm grew and grew. Today, Greenane Farms raises about 250 grass-fed Angus cattle in addition to pigs, chickens, quails, turkeys, goats, and sheep. The meat products are sold to restaurants and wholesale markets and are also available to neighbors via the farm store. Meanwhile, the produce goes to a local community-supported agriculture program—and into the farm restaurant’s offerings.

A Mexican Restaurant in the Catskills

The restaurant’s menu is composed of Thanya’s family recipes. There are dishes from her hometown of Mexico City and other places that her family hails from, such as the Baja region near California, and Hidalgo, the central Mexican state.

Family is part of the business at Greenane Farms, and 14 members of the family are employees. Cousins, nephews, nieces, and even Patrick Jr., Patrick’s 6-year-old son, all help out at the farm and restaurant, from feeding the animals to waitressing. Thanya said that while there are challenges to working with family, she treasures how everyone puts heart into their work. Everyone is “part of the project, part of the dream,” she said. In this part of rural New York, where there aren’t many Latin American families, many patrons experience traditional Mexican dishes for the first time while seated at the farm restaurant.

Patrick and Thanya with their daughter, Naomi, pose near the Greenane Farms restaurant. (Photo by Lux Aeterna Photography)

Thanya feels a big sense of responsibility in educating locals about the cuisine. She also values opportunities to “show pride about where we come from.” The most rewarding part of the endeavor is when people tell her they enjoy the food, she said. Some regular customers drive from one or two hours away to have dinner there. The restaurant, which is only open from May to November, is situated within a restored barn that was built in the late 1700s.

The Catskill Mountains are within view of the restaurant’s outdoor seating. On a clear day, the blue skies and verdant scenery make for an idyllic landscape. On a given evening, there may be a tractor parked in front, or one might find the Rider children and their relatives running around adorably dressed in Greenane Farms T-shirts with name tags attached. Eating at the restaurant is like being invited to a home-cooked meal. All meat and nearly all produce—save the tropical ingredients such as cacti, limes, and avocados—come from the farm.

Patrick Jr. with his sisters Naomi and Mérida, and two cousins. (Photo by Lux Aeterna Photography)

The restaurant’s specialty is a dish called “the volcano,” which originates from the state of Jalisco. It’s served in a molcajete (a traditional stone mortar made of volcanic rock) that arrives sizzling and overflowing with a variety of meats and vegetables—such as house-made chorizo, cactus, scallions, queso blanco, rice, Yukon potatoes, and jalapeño peppers. The ingredients sit in a bath of tangy salsa verde made with tomatillos. The chorizo is a highlight, piquant and spicy from guajillo peppers, but the meat is heftier than store-bought sausages—perhaps because it comes from heritage pigs.

The molcajete dish. (Photo by Lux Aeterna Photography)
Enchiladas made according to Thanya’s family recipe. (Photo by Lux Aeterna Photography)

Thanya and her sisters also prepare a mole according to their family recipe, a labor-intensive task that takes two days. More than 30 ingredients go into the sauce, which is served with rice and a roasted Cornish hen. Thanya hopes that one day her children can take over the restaurant. “We’ll keep it simple,” she said.

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Features Small Farms

Exploring a Connecticut Farm with Historic Roots

On Nikolaos Papadopouloss house—located on the farm in Wilton, Connecticut that he operates, Fairview Farms—a plaque can be found on the facade, presented by the Wilton Historical Society at the beginning of 2021. On this plaque is the name James Vasale, the man who originally owned the property back in 1929.

The plaque is part of the Societys Historic Marker Program, started over 20 years ago as an attempt to both encourage historical preservation as well as identify important historic structures. On occasion, the Society will also award plaques to homes not on the historic survey, as long as the age of the home can be verified and the integrity of the architecture has not been radically altered from its original appearance. These special instances are evaluated on a case-by-case basis by the Societys Historic Preservation committee, a combination of select members of the Societys board of trustees and staff.

In Papadopouloss case, his house was included in the 2018 Phase II of the survey, because it was, according to the Society, a well-preserved example of an early 20th-century vernacular residence and, as such, it is significant as an example of Wiltons stock of early-20th century houses.” 

Purchased from the Vasale family in April 2020, Papadopoulos has come a long way in his farming ways. Calling himself the modern-day renaissance man, Papadopoulos’ ancestors were survivors of the Pontian Greek Genocide, the systematic killing of Ottoman Greeks during the early 20th century, and subsequently guerrilla warriors, as well as farmers and masons.

We brought the farming traditions of the Old World in Pontos to Greece, and then to the United States, where I plan on expanding into upstate New York,” said Papadopoulos. 

Papadopoulos’s historic house. (Courtesy of Fairview Farms)

Once a resident of Norwalk, Connecticut with his grandmother, Papadopoulos was kicked out of the apartment he was in, due to the chickens he was keeping in the backyard. His mother, Teresa, who was an agent for a real estate business in Wilton, was able to help find him the space.

Since this farm has been around since the late 1920s, Papadopoulos wanted to keep the original name, Fairview Farms, as he wanted to keep the integrity of the farm as much as possible. The farmhouse was built in 1929, with over 60 acres of land and had consisted of 10,000 chickens and Black Angus cows.  

In addition, there is a cottage on the property that was built in 1931 and is rented out. It started off in 1930 as a club house,” where the owner would spend time with friends and play cards.

The stone house next to the cottage belongs to the niece of the original owner, where she still lives. The original spread has been split up into multiple properties.

When he lived with his grandmother, space was a bit tight living in the middle in the city. He needed a space large enough for his chickens and the possibility of growing his feathered family. 

Papadopoulos explained that having good neighbors who understood what he was doing made a difference. When the time came to expand, his mother was there, determined to find the right amount of land to open all kinds of possibilities. Papadopoulos described this as a new beginning for him.

However, with the age of the house came lots of TLC, but it was not to be feared, as he had family in the construction business. Together, they were able to complete all the work.

The American flag outside his front door has 48 stars representing the continental 48 states, as it is from the 1930s and has been at the house since it was built. Papadopoulos believes in keeping the original integrity of the house and has been preserving the exterior.

Today, Papadopoulos has over 100 animals on his farm ranging from chickens to roosters, three peacocks, quails, ducks, three dogs, and a rescue horse named Cali.

Roosters and chickens roaming on the farm. (Courtesy of Fairview Farms)

Cali is from Devils Garden, California, which is how she got her name. She was rounded up by the state of California due to an overpopulation of wild horses in the area caused by the wildfires. 

The intention of the state was to put her down, but an organization called All the Kings Horses stepped in and reached her and several more, bringing them to Connecticut to find a home,” said Papadopoulos. I plan on getting another mustang from them soon to give her a buddy, as horses are happier in herds.”

In the future, Papadopoulos plans on purchasing a bigger space for himself and his family, while renting or leasing his current space to someone else who is interested in farming in the area.

With that many animals, it is safe to say that more space will be needed. 

In addition, he will be getting a barn cat—particularly, a black Cornish rex; sheep; and very specifically, Black Iberian pigs, for meat. Other plans in the works include adding a family stand where patrons can buy farm goods, paying with an honor system; selling flowers; and setting up a small greenhouse on the property.

I have always wanted to work with animals, as it started with a flock of chickens and ducks and expanding from there. My family has been very supportive during this time,” said Papadopoulos.