Throughout this year, 2019, we are celebrating 10 years of our existence as a charity. Some of you may have attended our fantastic 10th Birthday party in May, which was a great way to thank all the volunteers, staff and supporters who have helped us reach this tree-mendous milestone! Here’s our CEO, Kath Rosen, with her reflections on our impressive journey through this first decade.
In the last ten years, we have helped plant, restore and maintain over 420 community orchards across the UK; that amounts to around 8,000 fruit trees planted or revived. We’ve involved over 50,000 people in community orchards and generated hundreds of tonnes of free fruit for local communities, completely pesticide free.
But how did we get to where we are now?
We started life as The London Orchard Project, the brilliant brainchild of our founders Carina and Rowena. After completing a Forum for the Future Masters in Leadership for Sustainable Development, they felt fired up with enthusiasm to make a difference. The story goes that Carina was jogging round her local park and had a sudden epiphany about how much local fruit there would be in London, if the Victorians had planted fruit trees rather than ornamental ones. Could we create orchards in London to help feed people? Just imagine what a difference that would make to food sovereignty, if you could step out of your home and pick a piece of fruit on your doorstep? Forget about food miles, this would be mere food metres.
It turned out they were on to something great. They sent out an open call to community groups asking if any of them would be interested in planting orchards and hundreds of people got back in touch. Operations started from Carina’s back garden, stockpiling trees to plant across the city with the help of friendly pomologists and orchardists, such as Russell Miller from The Tree Musketeers and Bob Lever from Fruit ID, to give expert advice to groups.
Our model for reviving UK orchards
Carina and Rowena’s model for planting orchards is the same one we use today and is quite unique: For a start, we only want to help plant orchards where there is a genuine community desire to have one. This means that we are responsive to need, and, importantly, that our model focuses on involving local people in both designing and maintaining the orchards for the future. We do a lot of preparatory work with groups before spades hit the ground, collaborating to design an orchard that will best suit their needs, as was the case in this example at Alexandra Park orchard in Glasgow. We have also recently developed an orchard design kit to help groups visualise what their orchards will look like (soon to be available on our website, – and particularly useful for orchard groups in localities where we don’t currently operate). Orchards are long-term investments and we want to ensure they will be there for decades to come, loved, cherished, well looked-after and utilised by the local community. This model has been really successful and 98% of people living near the orchards said that they had helped them feel more positive about where they live.
Our model also involves providing expert advice and training community groups in orchard management skills for long-term sustainability. Over time, we’ve built up a huge amount of expertise among our team, making our offering among environmental charities quite unique and very valuable. To pass this on, we usually work with around five keen volunteers from each community group and train them as Orchard Leaders. These people then become the custodians of fruit tree knowledge, and take on responsible for looking the orchard, consulting with and involving others people in their neighbourhood.
Upskilling communities and training people lies at the core of everything we do at The Orchard Project. As the charity has evolved, we have found lots of different ways to help give people more confidence in looking after their orchards, from one-day training courses, to our Orchard Mentors project, not to mention our unique, accredited certificate in community orchards (a first in the UK). Our cracking Guides and Advice website section also receives thousands of hits per month, proving its popularity as a credible source for orchardists and fruit growers everywhere.
Expanding and Becoming a National charity
In 2014, we began a partnership with Heineken to plant and look after community orchards in other cities in the UK. This exciting opportunity saw us launch projects in Greater Manchester, Leeds, Birmingham, Glasgow and Edinburgh along with new staff in these cities. A couple of years later, we secured funding for a large-scale orchard restoration project in London, called A Celebrations of Orchards. This lottery funded project has enabled us to help people rediscover and rejuvenate London’s previously forgotten heritage orchards. There are some wonderful profiles here about these beautiful sites.
The title of this project, – ‘Celebrations’, – is another key aspect of our work that has been present since our inception. Holding orchard and fruit-related events is a great way to raise awareness of how special these green spaces can be as venues for community gatherings. Since the 1950s, 60% of traditional orchards have sadly disappeared. Events like Apple Days, Blossom Picnics and Wassails bring people back into the orchard, while also helping them understand their benefits, their place within our history and their importance for both our wildlife and our rich and diverse fruit heritage. (Did you know, by way of example, that you could eat a different variety of UK apple every day for 5 years? Such is our fruit cultivar wealth!) The more people understand the value and magic of orchards, the more likely we are to protect them.
Through this project, we also started our community cider initiative, – Local Fox, making cider and juice from surplus and waste fruit. Powered by an army of local volunteers, we’re delighted that our cider project has been shortlisted for the BBC Food and Farming Awards!
There is a lot of evidence now about the benefits of time spent in nature for well-being; we certainly find this through our work and, recently, we’ve been deepening our understanding of this impact. There is something intrinsically ‘good’ about orchards and they tend to help bring out the best in people. This is a very rewarding part of our work, whether you are getting involved in a planting day, learning about how fantastic orchards are for biodiversity or taking part in an anarchic wassail, you will come away feeling better both emotionally and physically. 93% of our beneficiaries say being involved in orchards has improved their well-being. In terms of connecting to nature, orchards are very special in this respect, enabling humans to connect with the natural world in a visceral, tangible way by eating the fruit it provides. We are now experimenting with other ways of using orchards for well-being by holding ‘Orchard Bathing’ workshops, immersing people within the sights, sounds and smells of orchards with a view to connecting to something bigger than ourselves. In a world of looming climate breakdown and chaos, caused in part by our disconnect from our natural environment, we need to do everything we can to help people re-connect with the natural world and protect it for future generations. Orchards provide the perfect solution.
As we look forward to the next 10 years of The Orchard Project, we wonder where our work will take us next. This decade has been fantastic, creating a community of orchardists in their tens of thousands, up and down the country; we will build on this huge success, evolving our model and activities to help future generations enjoy the bounty, benefits and beauty of community orchards.
Kath Rosen, CEO.