We got in contact with the Orchard Project, a national community orchard charity, that focusses on the creation and restoration of orchards across the UK. The CEOs, Kath Rosen and Neil Kingsnorth, kindly agreed to give us an interview about their passion for orchards and their valuable work. Here, we talk of community, the food production chain and local incentives! If you liked this interview and want to find out more about the Orchard Project, a great opportunity to meet some of the team will be at the Merton Fruit Festival in Mitcham on the 21st October, apple day! You can go apple bob, make fresh apple juice, find out about bee-keeping, listen to some music, basically have a day of fun surrounded by orchards on their special day!
Alex and Chloe: How did the Orchard Project start?
Kath and Neil: The Orchard Project is the UK’s national community orchard charity. We started out as the London Orchard Project in 2009 and still have our strongest presence in the capital. The project arose when one of the founders was in a park in London and suddenly realised how different the city would have been if the Victorians had planted fruit trees instead of ornamentals. There is a huge demand in urban areas to plant and look after fruit trees and landowners (usually local authorities) who are keen for local residents to run their own green space projects.
The Orchard Project nurtures communities and people as well as fruit trees. We support groups to create new orchards or restore existing ones back to health. We enable people to develop skills, connect with each other, have access to local green space, celebrate orchard heritage, and grow and enjoy local fruit. Through engaging communities in orchards, we enhance local outdoor spaces, improve wildlife and biodiversity, and enable people to have pride in their local area.
A & C: How many towns and cities is the charity involved with?
K & N: We mainly operate in London and also have a presence in Greater Manchester, Leeds, Birmingham, Edinburgh and Glasgow.
Last year, we engaged over 6,000 people across more than 100 community orchards, and planted and restored over 3,000 fruit trees.
A & C: How do you think community incentives like this help change the food production chain?
K & N: We do this in a variety of ways. Firstly, people are able to access free, organic fruit on their doorstep so don’t need to go supermarkets to buy fruit. The food miles are literally food metres. Through our work we are planting new orchards in ‘food deserts’ – areas where there is a lack of access to fresh food and restoring and improving access to neglected orchards which provide an abundance of fruit. We are also helping to prolong the life of the produce (which tends to arrive all at once in a glut at harvesting time) by training people how to make juice and cider from urban orchards.
Through our training and outreach programmes, we talk a lot about the benefits of eating locally produced food and this is helping to increase awareness about the deficiencies in the current food production model.
People often don’t have the confidence to simply pick fruit that is growing around their local area. It’s not part of many people’s mind set to do this and fruit that isn’t packaged at the supermarket is somehow seen as less valued, when actually it will be healthier and it’s free!
A & C: Do you think there’s a lesson that supermarkets / mainstream ways of thinking about food production can take from the way that Orchard Project functions?
K & N: To celebrate local diversity, especially with different varieties of fruit. For example, there are over 2000 varieties of apple in the UK and supermarkets only stock a handful of these. Our community orchards are full of unusual, fantastic tasting varieties of fruit.
We would love the mainstream fruit producers to take into account more of the sustainable, organic principles that we are teaching through our work to reduce chemicals and CO2 and increase biodiversity.
We have also been investigating ways to enable local communities to sell their produce into the mainstream food market but there are many barriers to this.
A & C: Have you seen the value of implementing education programmes within your charity goals (both for kids and adults)?
K & N: Of course! This is integral to our work. We get comments back from kids that picking apples and making juice was one of their favourite memories from school and our training programmes for adults are helping people to have more confidence in looking after their own orchards, which is what our model is really about.
A & C: How have orchards helped in creating communities?
K &N : They create a neutral space where people can gather and orchard often act as catalysts for other community gardening, eg raised beds and bee keeping. Most people like fruit and understand the value of orchards, from whatever culture you are from, and orchards are positive assets in the community. Through helping to tend and plant the trees, people meet their neighbours for the first time and realise they have something in common. The spaces we plant in are often neglected green grassy areas only used for dog toilets, and they are transformed into tranquil, beautiful places for the community to be in.
A & C: Is it complicated getting permissions from councils for new community orchards? Or are they usually welcoming of such actions?
Very welcoming, getting permission from landowners is not a problem. Local authorities have a very devolved stance on managing their green spaces and actively looking for ways for local people to look after them. In fact, it is usually the opposite problem – landowners want to see orchards planted as they see the intrinsic value of them, but there might not be a community group able to look after the trees. We only plant orchards where there are local people keen on getting involved as otherwise the trees will not thrive.
This is a contrast to many other countries where the city leaders are far less accepting/trusting of local communities taking control.
A & C: How has your Restoration Project been going so far and what inspired you to start it?
K & N: It’s been going great! We are really proud of this project which is called A Celebration of Orchards. We started restoring orchards at the beginning of the charity when we realised that there were over 250 neglected orchards in London (and more nationally). It seemed to make sense to help bring old orchards back to life while we were planting new ones. The Celebration project has really helped take this to a new level and enabled us to start an accredited orchard management programme, a schools project and of course our cider and juice enterprise, making produce from these old orchards which would otherwise not been used.
A & C: How will operations like this be affected by Brexit (in thinking about food production on a micro-scale)?
K & N: Not sure about this – it’s too hard to predict. Brexit has definitely divided communities though and looking after community orchards is a way of bringing people back together. A lot of commercial growers rely on EU workers to pick their fruit, while ours is picked by local people. There may be an increase of fruit going to rot in commercial farms because of this, which we can look at repurposing through community gleaning and feeding into our juice and cider enterprise. Who knows?…
A & C: What are your future plans for the Orchard Project at this day (congratulations on your recent launch of the London cider by the way!)?
K & N: We are investigating funding for a national orchard education programme, an urban harvesting programme and a project helping to introduce forgotten fruit varieties back into orchards.
A & C: What is the most important lesson the Orchard Project can pass onto us/civil society after existing for eight years?
K & N: We have only just started! We’d like to see community orchards in all green spaces so that as many people as possible have access to fresh free fruit. We’d like to see our all our cities as places where you can step out of your door and pick an apple or plum on your way to work or school and that this is totally normal.
A & C: We’d like that too!
Thank you again to Kath and Neil and the team at Orchard Project for their help, support and time!