Why should anyone want to establish a community orchard? Who is it for and why bother?
These are questions that I have addressed as I am trying, with other members of a small environmental organisation, somewhere in the Chilterns, to find a piece of land to plant some apple and some pear trees. I belong to a local group called Change4Chalfont. We are in the process of joining the Transition movement, a grass roots movement of local communities committed to combating the effects of climate change. The movement is fast gaining in membership across the country, and throughout the world.
Based in Chalfont St Peter, our initiative aims to reduce our local area’s contribution to climate change and our dependence on fossil fuels. We are going about this task in various ways, and one approach is to encourage people to think about sourcing their food locally and making choices that include lower ‘food miles’. This is a reason why we should like to plant and tend a community orchard in our village.
There are many benefits of planting an orchard. Some of them are as follows:
• To cultivate local and more unusual varieties of fruit.
• To be an open and free amenity for the public to enjoy.
• To encourage wildlife.
• To provide an educational resource for local schools.
• To be used as a meeting place for older people and to host local events such as Apple Days.
• To raise awareness of orchard projects.
• To promote the health benefits of eating fruit.
• To encourage people to plant fruit trees in their own gardens.
By way of a brief background, since 1970 half of the pear orchards in Britain have been destroyed. The situation with apple growing is even worse: in the mid 1950s there were three thousand commercial apple growers in Britain, whereas now there are just eight hundred and many of these are on a very small scale. Instead, we import and today seventy-six per cent of apples consumed in the UK come from overseas, mostly from China (which produces pretty much all the apples from which we make apple juice) and Turkey.
There is now, however, a growing movement to rediscover local fruit varieties and to plant new orchards. Common Ground, an organisation dedicated to promoting the planting of new orchards and recovering abandoned orchards throughout England, says there are already more than 300 community orchards in the UK run by and for local people.
We are looking for land situated as centrally as possible upon which to plant the fruit trees, which we intend should be both apples and pears of types that have historically been grown in this area, rather than the usually homogenous varieties. There is a triangle of land at one end of our local allotments which has been left to grass for as long as I remember. Since there appears to be little demand for it as cultivated allotments, we are trying to persuade the owner, the local parish council, to let us have it so that we may use it to benefit the community as a whole, as the site of our orchard.
We do not wish to upset anyone by planting an orchard and clearly current allotment holders could feel imposed upon if we are not careful. From this point of view, the location of this land is ideal: if trees are planted on it, they would not shade other people’s plants; it is also on the edge of the allotments so would not cause pedestrians (or their pooing dogs) to wander from existing paths. The site would also be clearly marked as a community orchard and we would display signs which make it clear that whilst people have the right to help themselves to the fruit, they may not pick anything elsewhere.
We aim to make all aspects of the establishment of the orchard as inclusive as possible; in particular we would like to encourage local schools and organisations such as scout and guide groups to raise money to buy their own tree. We plan to organise a day when everyone who has contributed or is interested can get together to plant the trees.
The trees will be financed through sponsorship as outlined above, individual donations and grants. In particular, our local district council runs a Community Grant Scheme which is designed to support local community voluntary groups and not for profit organisations which deliver community projects and services that improve the quality of life for Chiltern residents. Our scheme clearly fits the criteria for this scheme as we are able to demonstrate how it links into Chiltern’s Sustainable Community Strategy and the Council’s key objectives. We understand that grants are made of up to £1,500 per year for any project.
We intend to plant the trees in the late autumn so that they may establish themselves over winter and spring. We have sufficient volunteers to take care of the trees and keep them well-watered when necessary, so we will not depend for any outside help.
We hope that the planting of a community orchard will go ahead in our village as we believe it would enhance community spirit, and contribute to awareness raising and action against climate change.