The Start of a People’s Takeover of our Food System?
The concept of Community Orchards was introduced by the charity Common Ground in 1992, four years after they first began campaigning on orchards. Less than a decade later Community Orchards are to be found in towns and villages throughout the UK and the cause of orchards has been taken up by many. This success can largely be attributed to the multifaceted appeal of the orchards themselves. Common Ground describes its purpose as…
…playing a unique role in the arts and environmental fields, distinguished by the linking of nature with culture, focusing upon the positive investment people can make in their own localities, championing popular democratic involvement, and by inspiring celebration as a starting point for action to improve the quality of our everyday places.
It is easy to see why Common Ground chose orchards to illustrate their cause.
Fruit in our cultural heritage
Apples are the fruit that unites England. As Edward Bunyard explained in his 1929 classic work The Anatomy of Dessert:
“No fruit is more to our English taste than the Apple. Let the Frenchman have his Pear, the Italian his Fig, the Jamaican may maintain his farinaceous Banana, and the Malay his Durian, but for us the Apple.”
The apple grows more slowly in our climate than in warmer climes, but in so doing it develops in flavour. Although we are towards the northern limits of the apple’s growing area, varieties with a later pollination date still flourish in the North of England and Scotland. Every farmhouse throughout Britain would once have had its own orchard close at hand. Brogdale in Kent houses our national fruit collection, the largest in the world, as no other country has ever developed such a wide spectrum of flavours and qualities. The connoisseur status accorded to the apple in Victorian Britain has been equated with that of the vine in France and a distinct category of apple for cooking is also something uniquely British. We have a preference for more acidity in our apples than most of Europe.
There are many old, often long forgotten, local varieties to discover. Commercial apple growing and supermarkets have reduced more than 2300 varieties to a mere half dozen or so that are widely available and of these only three are British – Coxes Orange Pippin, Bramley’s Seedling and Egremont Russet. But there’s a revolution afoot. The children at our local school have been writing labels for the trees in our community orchard, and one mum told me that her daughter has taken to chanting their names. It’s easy to understand why. Names like Pig’s Snout, Cornish Gillyflower, Harry Master’s Jersey, Hoary Morning, Golden Knob and Beauty of Bath would surely capture any child’s imagination.
The apple unites all of Britain, but other orchard fruits reflect regional preferences. Kent has its cobnuts and cherries, Cambridgeshire its plums and gages, The Three Counties of Gloucestershire, Herefordshire and Worcestershire have their Perry pears, and Somerset its cider apples. These fruit were all cultivated, but the English also planted wild plums or cherries along field margins as windbreaks. This gives us Kea Plums, Landkey Mazzards, Warwickshire Droopers, Lythe Valley Damsons – to name just a few.
Old customs, attached to many of these historic varieties, remind us just how important they once were. With its particular slant on cultural heritage, Common Ground has helped to revive many of these customs – and so, for example, the wassailing of cider orchards has once again become common practice. Common Ground has also instigated a new celebration – Apple Day. Timed to coincide with the harvest, this idea has now so firmly established its role in reviving the interest in orchards that it is hard to believe it was only invented in 1990.
Havens for wildlife
Traditional Orchards, with old trees widely spaced at a height to enable grazing, are also havens for wildlife – as indeed is now officially recognized, for in 2007 Traditional Orchards were designated as a priority habitat in the UK Biodiversity Action Plan. Natural England (formerly English Nature), who proposed their inclusion, manages grant aid to restore old orchards. Among the first to benefit was the People’s Trust for Endangered Species (www.ptes.org.uk), with their particular interest is in identifying and protecting the habitat of rare wildlife, such as the Noble Chafer Beetle. The first step is to map the traditional orchards that remain in England – and this information will be invaluable both for their purposes for anyone else with an interest.
Latest to receive funds from Natural England is the National Trust. Many of their properties contain old orchards and the Trust knows that these, with their ancient customs, are well-placed to engage even more visitors. Now they are ensuring that their staff is trained both to manage the orchards and to utilize the produce. Along with two other “Friends” of our Community Orchard, I was fortunate to be included on one of these courses. We learnt how to plant, prune and generally manage our orchard for the benefit of wildlife and in particular for bees. Orchards are of course popular places for placing hives of honeybees, but the habitat also attracts bumblebees and solitary bees, which are equally important for pollination. Tomatoes, for example, can be pollinated only by bumblebees. Four of the seven species of bumblebee on the UK Biodiversity Action Plan can be found in Somerset, and we learnt simple measures that we can take in managing our orchard to make it attractive to bees.
A diverse culinary treasure
But while I’m all for supporting our cultural heritage and wildlife, I’m mainly interested in orchards as a source of food.
“An apple a day keeps the doctor away” was a particularly successful adage coined in 1902 as part of an early American health drive; and apples certainly provide a healthy, easily transported snack containing plenty of vitamin C and fibre. The season for British apples starts in early August and the last of the apples from natural store ends around March. Many people want them all year round, hence the number of imported varieties such as Granny Smith (which doesn’t grow here, despite its very English sounding name), Braeburn, Jonagold and Gala.
But around 70 per cent of the eating apples sold in the UK are imported – and by no means all of them are for out-of-season supply. So why do we import so many, even during our own peak season?
Commercialisation is the short answer. The rise in imported apples resulted initially from a deliberate government policy to support the British Empire. But since then they have become a mere commodity, with little or no regard for subtlety of flavour, and few of our varieties meet the commercial criteria. For example, our early season apples don’t keep. They need to be eaten more or less straight from the tree and are also prone to dropping their entire crop in one go. Discovery is the only early variety to have escaped this tendency. Then there is the question of appearance. Yes, appearance is a major supermarket requirement, so that for example, a plain, irregularly sized, Ashmead’s Kernel, although exquisite in flavour, just won’t do.
So our thousands of varieties, each suited to local conditions, and once inspiring hot debate on which made the best pie, sauce, dumpling or even which were best just plainly baked, today are a supermarket’s nightmare.
Community orchards in action
A Community Orchard should offer open access to the public at reasonable times, geared to local conditions and needs. Our Community Orchard in Somerset is on land gifted to the Parish Council, so there is no rent to pay, and villagers sponsored the planting and maintenance of each tree. The fruit in our Community Orchard is there for any of the village to pick, so I couldn’t believe that only a handful of us were doing so. The first initiative was to produce a guide to the varieties grown within the orchard, including their origin, season, characteristics and uses. This brought a couple of issues to light. First, many people, having moved to the village since the orchard was given to the village, hadn’t even realised that it was for community use. Secondly, because the donors choose the variety to be planted, the lesser known ones had been overlooked – the orchard has far too many Bramley’s in my view! So with a little more guidance and a more interesting short-list to choose from, we are gradually increasing the number of old, local varieties in which commercial growers have no interest.
The collection at Brogdale in Kent is of huge importance – and thankfully is now supported by collections of apples re-established in their counties of origin. Several Community Orchards have seen the creation of a Mother Orchard as a key priority – a local, living seed bank from which new trees can be propagated. Particularly noteworthy is the collection built up by Charles Martell and now gifted to Gloucestershire County Council. But the National Trust (particularly in Cornwall) have also made considerable headway, and so has the RHS Northern Fruit Group. It is now becoming far easier for people to taste their regional heritage varieties at an Apple Day and then order the grafting of a tree for their own garden.
Our neighbouring village also has a Community Orchard and they turn their apples into juice, which is sold locally all year round to help cover the costs of the orchard. We, on the other hand, have an apple press that is brought out on Apple Day to enable people to press their own juice from apples picked in the orchard; or they can hire it to press fruit at home – this has been particularly popular with young adults wishing to make their own cider.
Our Community Orchard is close to the village school, which has little outdoor space of its own, and so we are encouraging them to use the orchard as an extension of the school. Conscious that some old people might find it difficult to come to the orchard the school children decorate baskets which they fill with apples to present to the elderly. The potential that orchards have for educating children – about nature, healthy eating, history and culture, was recognised by John Hancox, the founder of the award-winning Children’s Orchard project in Scotland. The latest extension of this he has called the Commonwealth Orchard, an ambitious plan to plant 2014 fruit trees as a legacy of the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow. The Commonwealth Orchard exists not in a single location but throughout Scotland and particularly within schools, with the vision is that every child will grow up with fruit trees a feature of their everyday existence –a fruit tree on every street.
A people’s takeover – and the commercial growers
All in all, then, I see Community Orchards as an important step in instigating a People’s Takeover of our food system, and orchard fruit as a key target area in which the UK could become more self reliant. Orchards really do have the potential to engage everyone. They can be planted almost anywhere and so are particularly useful in cities where the opportunities for exposure to other types of food production might be more limited. They offer a variety of different “hooks”: cultural traditions including folk music (Morris Dancing and Mummers Plays are often linked with Wassail), nature and wildlife, food and drink, history and ecology. They don’t take too much time to manage yet provide opportunities for activities throughout the year.
But this doesn’t mean that commercial growers need be cut out of the market. As people rediscover the joys of local apples there is a growing demand for quality apple juice, particularly by hotels and restaurants. Fruit trees are also selling well, with quince trees being especially popular this year. In our own Apple Day events we have included those small scale growers who do not sell to supermarkets so that they become a part of the community – and they are the first that people turn to for further advice and purchases. The low profit margins on apples have forced many out of the market in recent years to the extent that there is now a shortfall in supply and the price looks set to return to its position of two years ago. With fruit as with most foods, profits can be increased by selling a higher quality product to a direct market.
There are yet further advantages – including all aspects of agroforestry including orchard pigs and poultry (all of which need to be explored further on this website). Meanwhile, here are a few addresses to be going on with:
For insights into agroforestry in general see the website of Professor Martin Wolfe, at Wakelyns Farm in Suffolk.
Outstanding, too, is the work of Martin Crawford at the Agroforestry Research Trust at Dartington in Devon, (www.agroforestry.co.uk). Martin has just written an excellent book on his work, Creating a Forest Garden, to be published soon by Green Books.
For community orchards, Common Ground remains the best starting point. They have even produced a handbook to help you get started. See www.england-in-particular.info .
There are numerous local orchard associations, all of which are listed in Common Ground’s Community Orchard Handbook and many can also be found here: www.nat-orchard-forum.org.uk
Other key national contacts include:
See also the website edited by leading UK fruit historian and pomologist Joan Morgan: www.fruitforum.net.
The New Book of Apples by Joan Morgan and Alison Richards, Ebury Press is a comprehensive history and directory of British Apples.
Finally, for the keen cook, I recommend Joan Morgan’s essay An Apple for all Seasons, found in Common Ground’s The Apple Source Book.