From Hunting to Growing a Family’s Supply of Produce, Stacy Lyn Harris Can Do—and Cook—It All

About an hour outside Montgomery, Alabama, there are seven acres of green fields, carefully grafted fruit trees, a garden, and natural woodland. Here, deer, elk, squirrels, rabbits, quail, ducks, wild turkeys, and doves live and forage, eating the acorns dropped by the oaks, grazing freely in the fields, and enjoying the fruit from the trees. This woodland, these fields and trees, are especially for them. The people who own this land deliberately cultivate it so that the wild animals can live healthy lives here, as they firmly believe that “we all can share.”

Stacy Lyn Harris and her family steward this land. They live about 45 minutes away, on an acre of land 10 minutes outside Montgomery, and they visit their wildlife sanctuary every weekend. All the meat they eat comes from their own hunting and fishing on their property, and all their vegetables come from their gardens grown near their house. They also raise chickens, and for a while they kept bees.

For Harris, her husband, Scott, and their seven children, “our sustainable lifestyle is about stewardship,” she said. Guided by her faith, her goal is to live in harmony with nature and without fear, she said, because she knows “we could survive.”

Now, Harris is an expert in her field, speaking about her approach to living off the land at homesteading conferences and on podcasts and interviews, as well as hosting “The Sporting Chef” show on the Sportsman Channel, which she has appeared on for the last 10 years. She’s written best-selling books on sustainable living and cookbooks on how to make venison delicious; her latest is a book about homeschooling, set to be published this year. In all, she estimates she has reached more than half a million people through her books and blog, and more through the show.

At the beginning of her journey, however, “it was kind of an accidental sustainable lifestyle,” Harris recalled. Her husband’s passion for hunting was the unlikely gateway.

Stacy Lyn Harris prepares to carry a rack of ribs from a wild pig into her smokehouse, at her family home outside of Montgomery, Ala.(Graylyn Harris)

An Unexpected Path

Harris grew up in Montgomery with her mom and step-dad, and they “went to the store for everything,” she said. She had something of an antagonistic relationship with hunting when she was younger: “My dad lived in the country and he hunted and fished, but I didn’t spend a ton of time with him. He was never there when I went to visit, and I had this aversion to hunting.”

During college, however, she met Scott. “I married this guy who is the biggest hunter you ever met in your life,” Harris said. “When we were dating, he would go out every single day of the hunting season, and he would do that now if he could.” In their early marriage, they struggled because “I felt in competition with the hunting,” she said. Eventually, “I felt a tug in my heart going, ‘You know what, you can choose to be happy here and get on board, or not.’” So, Harris said, “I did.”

She quickly discovered “why women weren’t involved in this at all.” It was because, she said, “they didn’t like the meat. They didn’t know how to cook it, and there weren’t any beautiful cookbooks.” Overcooked wild game, she noted, tastes horrible.

Harris gave herself three months to learn how to cook the meat well. “If I’m going to eat something, it has to be really good,” she explained. She went to antique cookbooks and recipes from times when people “had to deal with their old roosters, their hens who weren’t laying anymore, tough wild turkeys, grass-fed beef.” She learned the old techniques for handling meat that doesn’t have a lot of fat—such as braising, which cooks tough meat long and slow, allowing the fibers to relax—and marveled at how good it could taste. Eager to share her knowledge, she wrote her first cookbook, “Tracking the Outdoors In,” published in 2012.

From there, their path forward seemed to naturally unfold. “Scott hunted and we had all this great meat. Then we said, ‘Why don’t we start a garden and have vegetables, too?’” Next, they added chickens to the plan. “We didn’t talk about it a whole lot,” she said. “I thought Scott was just doing projects with the kids, building chicken tractors,” perhaps as part of their homeschooling, but one morning at 6 a.m., she got a call from the post office, and “They had chirping birds for me!”

And so it went. They now have about 50 chickens—when they aren’t being raided by coyotes—“and then we started bees, and we made a bigger garden, and we started grafting fruit trees, and we saved our seeds,” Harris said. The family has a well for water, hunts from their land, fishes from their ponds, and gathers vegetables from their gardens.

Educating and Empowering Others

Now very passionate about hunting, Harris explained that “hunters are such conservationists. They’re seeing how to manage the wildlife so they don’t get overpopulated or underpopulated, and they’re out there seeing the diseases so we can keep our wildlife healthy.” Hunting is also economically feasible for a family—“one deer will get you through about 40 meals,” Harris said. As part of the homesteading movement, she occasionally speaks at conferences to educate people about sustainably incorporating hunting and fishing into their lives—“and I teach them how to cook it to make it really good.”

After hunting, gardening was a natural next step in Harris’s journey into a sustainable lifestyle. (Graylyn Harris)

Harris is proudest that she and Scott have “taught our children that they can survive, they can make it, and they are able to do it, all of it—the hunting, the cooking, the gardening,” she said. By homeschooling her children, she’s been able to build education into their way of life, so that they learn for learning’s sake. “They may never need it, they may never have to be self-sustaining, but because they can be, they’re going to take bigger risks in life. They can walk through life without fear.

“That, to me, is the most important thing,” Harris said. “If you think, ‘I’m afraid I will lose everything if I do that,’ you will never live to your fullest potential.”

To others looking to become more self-reliant, Harris’s advice is to gain knowledge and experience in “fun and normal circumstances to see if you can do it—and most people can,” she said. “You need salt for curing, a water source, knowledge to build a fire, and some basic cooking tools,” she said. “That’s a skillet, seasoning, twine, a good knife, and a cooking board. You can feed the world with that.” Her long-term goal is “just to reach as many people as I can,” she said, “and to encourage them in their walks of life.”

Living a Life of Joy

Harris wakes up each day with more tasks on the agenda than she can possibly get done. But by praying every morning, she tries to follow the path that God sets before her.

Over the years, she’s realized that “sometimes you have to do the big stuff and let everything else go,” she said. She keeps a list of her priorities in order: “God, husband, kids, home, extended family, church and community, emails, notes, business.” Every day she considers what needs her attention, and her list helps keep what’s most important at the forefront. Since she keeps family first, even their interruptions come before her other tasks, and she raised her kids to know that they can go to her at any time with anything to say.

She feels grounded by how well they have turned out: “They’re seeking God, they’re doing things together, they’re movers and shakers,” she said. “I think walking in joy every day, choosing to walk in joy, helps that. [It] helps your children to want what you have.

“If I start feeling anxious or short-tempered, then I know I’m not going in the right direction, I’m not doing what I should be doing because I should be able to do it in peace,” she said. “My calm is a peace inside. If I can’t laugh, then something’s wrong.” For Harris, life is a journey that she chooses to walk in joy and in harmony with the world she shares.

From January Issue, Volume 3

Features American Success Generation to Generation Small Farms

Historian Victor Davis Hanson on the Farmer’s Virtues

It’s nearly a 200-mile commute home for historian Victor Davis Hanson from the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, where he travels once a week, to his quiet family farm in the fertile Central Valley of California.

As a classicist, he’s at ease with the ancient world but often brings a historian’s insightful perspective to current events. And he’s also a fifth-generation farmer.

His house, surrounded by almond orchards, holds many stories—from the generations who sacrificed all of their soul, sweat, and hard-earned money trying to save the farm, to later generations who decided this wasn’t the life for them and moved away with no intention of ever returning. Of the original 180 acres that were passed down through the years, only 42 remain—rented out to a farmer who owns 12,000 acres in the surrounding region. This is California, where agriculture has gone almost all corporate, leaving farming families with few choices: mainly to scale up vertically and jump into agribusiness, or to sell and move away.

The America where 40 acres per family was the norm is now long gone. But its personality, the strength of its communities, and its work ethic were all deeply shaped by family farming. In this conversation, Hanson talks about this important aspect of our nation’s heritage.

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

American Essence: Looking back at America, and its early days as a nation, what was interesting to Europeans about what American farmers were doing?

Victor Davis Hanson: The history of Europe was always too many people, and too little land. When the American nation was founded, 95 percent of the people were homestead citizens, and they had their own land. They were completely independent and autonomous; they raised their own food. They were outspoken, and they were economically viable.

Observers who came from Europe, [for example] Alexis de Tocqueville, noticed that the American citizen was not a peasant. He was not indentured, he was not attached to a manor, or he wasn’t like an English subordinate. He wasn’t a Russian serf. He was an independent person because he had all of this land. And until the mid- or early 20th century, that was a peculiar characteristic of America—there was so much farmland, and there were so many people from all over the world that wanted to be independent farmers. That had been impossible in their own land.

And even today, when we have people from Asia, or India, or Mexico, it’s astounding how many of them want to buy land, because that was an unavailable, yet they have it deeply ingrained in their psyches: If you have land, you’re going to be protected, you’re independent, you can raise your own food.

Victor Davis Hanson walks among the almond orchards surrounding his home in Selma, Calif., with two of his beloved dogs. (Samira Bouaou)

American Essence: You mentioned a quote in an opinion article you penned in 2015. Thomas Jefferson wrote to James Madison in 1787, “I think our governments will remain virtuous for many centuries, as long as they are chiefly agricultural; and this will be as long as there shall be vacant lands in any part of America. When they get piled upon one another in large cities, as in Europe, they will become as corrupt as in Europe.” What is the connection between farming and preserving a virtuous society?

Mr. Hanson: That’s an old idea that farming serves two purposes. It’s not like agribusiness. It doesn’t just produce food, but it [also] produces citizens. The idea behind it goes back to Greece, if you read Xenophon’s “Oeconomicus” or Varro the Latin agronomist, the message that comes out of that is that farming requires your brain and your brawn. So you plan an orchard, but then you physically have to enact that, so if you’re a farmer who can only think, you’re not going to succeed in a pre-industrial society, but if you’re just a brute, you’ll make mistakes. So they felt that farming gave a person the perfect balance between the head and the body. And then it allows them to connect in a realistic fashion with nature. People in town … were either afraid of it or they romanticized it. But the farmer was a partner with nature. He knew that he had to kill bad bugs to produce wheat. But he also understood there were good bugs that ate the bad bugs. So he tried to find a balance.

In classical agronomy, the idea was that that process created a different type of citizen. In other modalities, people either didn’t own the land that they worked, or they were indentured—in other words, they had small plots, but they didn’t have a title to it. So if you give a man a title, and they own it, they improve it, and you have inheritance laws that allow them to pass it on, then you create an involved citizen. If the citizen is a serf, or peasant, or renter, then you cannot have a constitutional government because they’re restless, they’re envious, they’re angry, and they don’t improve the property when they rent something.

American Essence: Thomas Jefferson saw the yeoman farmer as key to the preservation of a good government. Yet over the centuries, that ideal has been displaced. A smaller and smaller chunk of the population farms the land, pushed out by agribusiness and government.

What then is there to conserve when we speak of conserving the farm and traditional food production?

Mr. Hanson: When the Founders ratified the Constitution, 95 percent of the constituency was farming. … By the end of the Depression, World War II, we’re down to 20 percent. It’s now down to 1 percent of the population is involved directly, or maybe 2 percent. So it’s maybe 4 or 5 million people out of 330 million.

The Founders were worried about a number of things. People wouldn’t know where their food came from. They wouldn’t have that experience of working physically, with nature, to grow something. They wouldn’t have a compound rather than just a house. The farmhouses, when I grew up, in the last vestiges of farming, were multi-generational.

So this house, I was told, in 1935, had 28 people living in it, and the other buildings around had another 30 during the Depression. When I grew up, this house was full: My grandparents lived here, they had a daughter who was crippled, we lived down the road, the kids free-ranged, cousins were here, neighbors dropped in. It was just booming. And that was what farmhouses were. So my grandmother had the Wednesday Walnut Club [consisting] of all the people who had walnut groves, and they tried to do self-improvement. Or they had the Eastern Star or they had the Masonic Lodge or the Elks Club. And when you look at them, they were all about self-improvement.

Davis Hanson contemplates the future of family farms in America. (Samira Bouaou)

So it was the type of sinews and community that encouraged Little Leagues, hospitals, PTAs, community schools, but it’s wiped out now. All the houses around 40 acres, they’re wiped out. The person that I rent 42 acres to, he owns 12,000 acres. And the houses that he rents from used to be homesteads. They’re now usually inhabited by people from Mexico, many of them here illegally. There is an MS-13 group down here, there’s a gangbanger there. There’s prostitution there. There’s dogfighting. Because people are renting the home, and the land has been farmed by a corporation. So there’s no community. It’s rich and poor. And so that’s what Jefferson and other people were worried about. [Family farming] was a way of maintaining a middle class.

The $64,000 question is, can that ideology be transferred to a modern industrial society? So if you have an independent trucker—to take just one example—he owns his own rig, he’s a mechanic. He is an expert in refrigeration, and he’s responsible for his own load. He’s very different than a teamster that works for Walmart. In other words, he goes to a trucking dispatcher, and they say, “Mr. Smith, you’ve got to take 20 tons of steel to Dallas,” and he figures out the route, he works on his own truck, and he does it. And that creates an independent-minded person. And you can see that when parents run into a school board and say, “You can’t teach my child this,” or “We’re not going to take this.” Often, they tend to be small business people. You have to have people like that in our society. You can’t have everybody working for the government or corporation.

American Essence: How can we maintain the values without that farming family backbone?

Mr. Hanson: It’s very hard because their values are based on shame in traditional societies, and we have transmogrified that into guilt. So if I was in this house 60 years ago, and my grandmother said to me, “You said the word ‘darn.’” She just wouldn’t have said, “You said the word ‘darn.’” She said, “Are you gonna go out there and say that word in front of everybody? What are they gonna think of us? They’re gonna think we taught you that. You don’t say that or you’re going to shame the entire family.” Whereas today, it’s maybe at most private guilt, “Oh, I feel so bad I said it,” but there’s no mechanism to enforce behavior.

I remember my grandfather would say, “Now you’re driving to high school. So I know what you boys do. You all go have a beer on Friday night, but you’re under 21. You want your parents to wake up on Saturday morning and it [a newspaper headline] says, ‘Hanson boy caught with Coors beer in his car’? They will do that, and then what are we going to do?” So that was the emphasis. That’s what the modern therapeutic society rebelled against and said, “That’s judgmental,” but they didn’t replace it with anything other than, “Oh, it wasn’t my fault,” or “I had a bad childhood,” or “I was offended,” or “It was unfair,” or “They did this to me because of my race or sex or gender.” That was a very different method of maintaining a more collective morality.

This article was originally published in American Essence magazine. 


Among the Ashes

Regenerative farmers Robert and Jodi Bronner stood on a charred hillside in Enterprise, Utah, holding hands in the early morning sun. The smell of charred earth lingered in the cool, damp air.

Though they usually began work when the sun came up, they started late on that summer day. They were exhausted. The hills to the north, west, and south were scorched by a wildfire that had ripped through the area in June. Since then, the community—neighbors, customers, and fellow farmers—had rallied to help the Bronners get back on their feet. Even with their help, the couple was still struggling to catch up on their work, as well as their rest.

A Devastating Fire

The Bronners, who specialize in high-quality pork and poultry, had kept their butchery equipment in an aluminum building located about 50 yards uphill from where they stood. Back in June, Robert saw lightning strike about 5 miles to the west of the building. It was 11 a.m. He called 911. The dispatcher said that firefighters were already en route. Though firefighters descended upon the fire quickly, the fire’s behavior was erratic. It grew quickly and burned uphill, devouring everything in sight.

“We thought the building would be safe, because it’s metal,” Robert said. “But it turned into an oven. When I came back later that night, I touched the wall, and it burned my hand. Everything inside was incinerated.” The building smoldered for 10 days after the fire. Somehow, a trunk of blankets survived, as did a photo album.

(David Dudley for American Essence)

About 20 feet downhill from the burned building, there was a small wooden house that had been occupied by pigs before the fire. The little house, as well as the 4.6-acre patch of land where the pigs had lived and cultivated the soil for three years, were the only things in sight that were left untouched by the fire. “We didn’t have time to round up the pigs. The firefighters told us that we had to go. So, I cut holes in the fence, to give the pigs a fighting chance.” Robert said. “Later, when we returned, the pigs were here, safe. It was a miracle.”

A Community Rallies Together

Before the fire, Robert said he had been getting closer to earning his livelihood from his small business. “The American Dream,” he said. But the fire destroyed all of the Bronners’ butchery equipment, feed, and supplies.

“But the hardest part,” said Jodi, “is losing the place where you farm. All of our animals leave the land better than they found it. Just as we try to be good stewards of the land, the animals do, too.”

The Bronners, who are members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, had to start from scratch. “Though this has been hard,” Robert said, “it has given us the chance to press reset. It has tested our values. I was taught to never give up. You have to have faith when something like this happens.”

The Bronners were used to helping others, but the thought that others would come to their aid had never crossed their minds. So, when their church, neighbors, and customers began offering help, the Bronners were overwhelmed with humility and gratitude. “We needed their help more than we knew,” Robert said. “After weeks of moving things, and cleaning, I realized that I couldn’t do it alone.”

A local church leader offered to bring some men to help the Bronners move the burned equipment out of the building. Then, various community members and customers offered to give the Bronners totes, barrels, and buckets. “We really needed those,” said Jodi. “But really, we needed so much more. We lost nearly everything in the fire.”

That’s when Kat Puzey, the executive director of MoFaCo, stepped in. “What happened to the Bronners would put most small farmers out of business,” Puzey said. “It’s devastating. They’d built something that was well on its way to becoming a sustainable business. And, they have the best chicken around.”

(David Dudley for American Essence)

Puzey started a fundraiser for the Bronners, who’d lost over $10,000 in equipment. She set a modest goal of raising $5,000. Robert was about to dip into his life savings to replace the butchery equipment when he learned that Puzey’s fundraiser had raised $4,500, which was available to use immediately. “With GoFundMe,” Puzey explained, “you can begin using funds before you reach your goal. Robert used that money to buy new equipment, so he could continue to fill orders.”

The Future

A month after the fire, the Bronners were still struggling to get back on their feet. As they looked around the charred hillside, they were silent. They wouldn’t be able to farm this land for a long time to come, and their makeshift slaughterhouse was being razed. Then, Jodi noticed some new plants reaching up from the blackened soil. “That’s the pigs,” she said. “They spent three years cultivating this soil. Now, it’s regenerating itself faster than the rest of this land.” But even that land, an unspoiled island among a sea of charred earth, would take years to fully regenerate.

Nevertheless, the Bronners said they felt blessed by all the support they’d had. They were offered some land in Beryl, Utah, where they had begun to set up shop again and resume their farming operation. Equally important, they said, were the thoughts and prayers offered by the community. “While the money helps to keep our business alive,” Robert said, “people’s kindness has helped to keep our spirits up. We couldn’t do this without them.”

As Robert and Jodi turned away from the burned land to the west, they faced lush fields to the east. They held hands in silence as they walked toward their truck. Then Jodi stopped, squeezing Robert’s hand. “I guess this is goodbye,” she whispered into his ear. “We won’t be coming up here anymore.”

(David Dudley for American Essence)


Home Sweet Home in Oklahoma

Out in this part of America that is not quite the South and not quite the Ozarks, where the land is flat and the people free-spirited, Kelly and Brad Claggett are finally fulfilling their longtime dream after years of hard work.

When they first moved to this 60-acre property in Grove, Oklahoma, around 2009, Kelly recalled telling her husband that she could imagine hosting weddings and events on the bucolic grounds. “The space is beautiful and I don’t want to enjoy it on my own,” she had said, as they looked out onto a small pond.

(Jennifer Houseman)

At the time, she could sense that the property could be turned into a space that was welcoming and safe. More than a decade later, the dream has come true. In the fall of 2020, the couple opened The Local Farm to Table, allowing guests to book lunch and dinner parties on its premises, with Kelly cooking up family recipes and her takes on comfort food. Ingredients and meats are sourced locally whenever possible. Meals are always served family-style, with guests encouraged to disconnect from their phones. In a small town, word travels fast. This fall, bookings were already full through the end of the year.

As Kelly was thinking about the family members and friends who supported her and Brad throughout the years, tears welled up in her eyes. “I’m so grateful,” she said. 

(Tatsiana Moon for American Essence)
(Tatsiana Moon for American Essence)

Coming Together

Kelly grew up in Minnesota, learning to cook and bake from “very confident women” in her family who showed her the ropes, she said. It was a “traditional, generational thing” to pass on those skills. She recalls big family gatherings nearly every weekend—her grandmothers had a total of 20 children. When the family went out camping, the men hunted game and brought back the kill; then the women butchered the animal and cooked the meat over an open flame. Family dinners were boisterous affairs, with the men talking and laughing as the women prepared dishes in the kitchen and children played. Men and women performed their duties “out of love,” Kelly said, “not because it was an expectation.”

She wanted to re-create that experience for people: to provide a place where people could gather with family and loved ones and cherish their time together. In 2018, Kelly invited a group of her best friends—all who shaped her in some way—to the property for a dinner party. Brad had built two wooden tables, while Kelly strung up lights and decorated the space. They sat by the fire, drank wine, and took photos. After that, Kelly told Brad, “This is where my heart is.” But finances, schooling, and other ventures—including raising poultry and running a food truck that traveled to local events serving burgers, tacos, and other light fare—indicated that the timing wasn’t quite right yet. 


Melissa Hunter and the Smiths—Stefany, Reid, and Mason— provided the furniture and design for Local Farm to Table.(Tatsiana Moon for American Essence)

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit in 2020, it allowed the Claggetts to reflect on what they really wanted to do with their time. During the pandemic, people were told they couldn’t be together with loved ones, and they feared social gatherings, Kelly said. She felt she needed to create “an inviting place during a super-scary time,” where “people can feel safe and enjoy each other again.”

The Local Farm to Table was thus born. 

Brad, who teaches at a local college, always wanted to create a business together with Kelly. From the time they met at 22 and 19, respectively, he was enamored with the way Kelly worked confidently around the kitchen. Nearly 18 years later, Brad is ecstatic that he can help Kelly realize her passion—while raising their 2-year-old daughter, Autumn.

“It takes sacrifice, time, persistence—as with everything,” Brad reflected. He thinks back to the years of struggling through the financial crisis, of juggling grad school and running a day care business with Kelly, of naysayers who doubted them. “You have to overcome people who are against you. … It forces you to choose to love those people too,” he said.

(Jennifer Houseman)

A Community

The Local Farm to Table started with just a dozen people gathered at the table on the Claggetts’ deck. Then, to accommodate growing demand—date nights, birthday parties, movie nights, and weddings, ranging from groups of 2 to 40 people—the couple began setting up yurts on the property. They soon outgrew the yurts too, especially as inclement weather sometimes forced them to cancel bookings. So they decided to remodel a barn that existed on the original property when Brad’s father, affectionately called “Pop” by all who know him, purchased it. Brad is excited to soon start creating new furniture in his woodworking shop for the expansion. They’re thinking of building a pavilion, possibly getting a pizza oven, and maybe setting up overnight stays on the property one day.

Kelly and Brad’s group of friends who helped make The Local Farm to Table a reality. (Tatsiana Moon for American Essence)

A group of friends and local producers make the experience possible: Brecka, who operates a kitchen store in the downtown area of Grove, supplies the tableware. Kim, who arranges flowers and Kelly says is able to know what she wants “like she’s in my brain,” Kelly said. Holly, a baker who caters special desserts for Local Farm to Table, has known Kelly for over 15 years; while Reed and Stephany, who are the contractors who helped design the space, are “like family.” There’s also an Amish friend from whom Kelly regularly buys pantry samples and gets baking tips. Small-scale farmers like Bobby Alfaro supply the meat—she swears that giving her pigs belly rubs makes the meat taste better.

(Tatsiana Moon for American Essence)


It can be hard to balance work and family while running a small business. But it’s clear that the Claggetts’ love for each other keeps them going. They named their daughter after their favorite season because they got closer in the fall of 2002, while hanging out on a pumpkin farm where Brad worked at the time. They plan to name the farm on the property Autumn Acres, where they currently raise several Scottish Highland cows and a horse named Scarlet.

While reminiscing about their wedding, which took place in 2007 in Eureka Springs, Arkansas, they had an epiphany. The couple had invited a small group of family and friends to a cabin in the woods and held a party underneath a covered deck—just like the dinners they’re currently hosting. “It was exactly like this!” Kelly said, with a similar array of hodgepodge chairs. Amid the chaos of wedding day, no one went to pick up the catered food. So Kelly and Brad drove to the caterer in their wedding dress and tux. They laughed at the memory.

“We had no idea 15 years later that we’d be doing this,” Brad said. 

“We wouldn’t change a thing about it,” quipped Kelly.

(Jennifer Houseman)
Features Small Farms

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.