Philadelphia Orchard Project

by J.F. Pirro
12/13/2013

       
        When you're in Philadelphia, you might define an orchard a bit differently; maybe one fruit tree makes an orchard in a city this size, or it could be four fruit trees and 10 berry bushes. Thanks to the Philadelphia Orchard Project (POP, www.phillyorchards.org), an orchard can be defined in many ways and feature a variety of edible plants.

        Philadelphia is the fifth largest city in the U.S., with 40,000 vacant lots and 10,000 acres of park (the nation's largest system). Phil Forsyth, POP orchard director, says it is an ideal location for what his nonprofit is accomplishing. Since POP was founded in 2007, it has helped plant 34 orchards with community partners that include schools, churches, historic sites and urban farms.

        For those entities that want to become partners, there is an application process. If approved, the partners receive help designing the orchard space, get support for tree and plant purchases and planting, and receive ongoing technical advice about pruning, pests, etc. The partners handle the day-to-day operations, weeding, harvesting and sale of the produce.

        In the application process, the community partner must first prove that it has long-term legal access to the proposed land, either in the form of ownership or a lease. The site also needs to have suitable soil, all-day sun exposure and protection from vandalism. Finally, partners must agree to using produce and crops to help improve food access for those within their community--usually low-income areas. Partners with better income must agree to give a percentage of the produce they grow to food pantries and other such outlets in their neighborhoods.

        POP's overarching mission is to plant orchards in Philadelphia at a rate of four to six a year in order to grow healthy food, create green spaces and foster community food security. "It's been amazing to see what we have done in a short number of years," Forsyth says.

        He defines an orchard as any perennial crop, be it fruit, nut, berry, vegetable, vine, herb or even ground cover. "Not all plants are edible, but we want our community partners to understand that there's a food forest. It's permaculture, and we're really a permaculture organization. We believe in creating supportive ecosystems, so there's a wide interpretation of the word orchard. Plus, POP is just a nice acronym."

        Community partner leaders say that if it weren't for POP, orchards wouldn't be popping up all over Philadelphia. Sister Alia Walker of Earth's Keepers (www.earthskeepers.org) says, "They're making it affordable and possible to do. It would not have been possible without the financing and the knowledge. POP is very holistic in what they do. POP is phenomenal."

        "We created our model from scratch," Forsyth notes. Other similar programs have since been started, including the Boston Tree Party, the Baltimore Orchard Project and The London Orchard Project in London, England.

        The sky's the limit
        POP does not require a set number of fruit trees or berry bushes. Its smallest orchard has four fruit trees, but its largest, located in West Philadelphia at Bartram's Garden, one of the country's oldest and most historic botanical gardens, covers 1 acre with 120 fruit and nut trees and berry bushes. Until the partnership with POP, there was no orchard at the site. Since it's a well-known public access site, it's been great exposure for POP.
Though none of the current orchards are commercial--they're all community-scale orchards--Forsyth says he would be open to proposals for larger-scale operations or commercial ventures as long as the new project is consistent with POP's existing mission: food access and security for all.

        The most important yield from any urban agricultural program, and from each of POP's 34 orchards and another 10 sites that it co-supports, is education, Forsyth says. "People in inner cities have been cut off from the connection to their food supply and to how things are grown," he adds.

        Forsyth has a degree in horticulture and landscape design, but he wanted to use his knowledge and skill set for "something other than a luxury service for those who could afford it." He began urban farming in Brooklyn, N.Y., before moving to Philadelphia.

        Forsyth is not the founder of POP; that distinction belongs to economic development pioneer Paul Glover, who recruited others to carry out his vision. Glover was confident in Forsyth's abilities and left a year into POP's success to move on to other ventures.

        Forsyth especially enjoys the school plantings. POP has partnerships with about six schools, and while they are challenging in some ways (summertime recess among them), the success stories are powerful.

        "You see kids in spaces where they had no previous exposure," says Forsyth. "They get so excited just to see worms or bees, let alone the fruit. It's amazing to see what kids can do if they have their hand in the growing. If someone put the same fruit in their hands, then there wouldn't be the same interest."

        For planting days, POP recruits from a list of 1,800 volunteers. Each planting is also an education event, with lessons in how to plant and on the relationship between plants, along with samples of fresh fruit as a "teaser of what's to come," Forsyth says.

        A partner may start with 12 trees and berry bushes, and then add more over the next few seasons. "It's a way to work with partners who are not sure how they will do with the first 10 trees," he explains.

        POP often gets rootstock and propagates trees to be used in the program. The organization runs its own nursery and plant storage facility at Weavers Way Farm at Awbury Arboretum in the Germantown section of Philadelphia. Some trees and plants are donated, and some are discounted from nurseries.

        After a planting, community leaders are set up with an orchard committee liaison, who works with the group on an ongoing basis. Forsyth gets involved if there's a technical issue, such as a pest or disease. POP also offers a range of workshops throughout the year on topics ranging from composting to water harvesting to pruning, all of which are either free or at a reduced admission rate for community partners.

        Earth's Keepers efforts
        Walker's work with POP is at a 0.25-acre site in the Kingsessing section of the city. Her forces, which include many young people, are growing organic fruits and vegetables. Along with partner-organizer Safiyah A. Latif, she first traveled to Milwaukee, Wis., to receive training with Will Allen's Growing Power.

        In Philadelphia, Earth's Keepers works with fellow community organizations and university groups, like Agatston Urban Nutrition Initiative at the University of Pennsylvania. All have helped start the flagship Youth Agriculture & Entrepreneurship Program, the umbrella under which the high school-aged participants prepare and sell produce at the farm's market. The market is open Monday through Thursday from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. in the summer and from 4 to 6 p.m. during the school year. They also discuss preparation and cooking instructions, and this year handed out recipe cards to customers.

        Each week of the growing season, Earth's Keepers generates about 75 pounds of produce to sell at the market. Prices are reasonable, typically $1 for a bundle or bag. "The objective is to get the fresh food into the community's hands," Walker says.

        The younger kids, ages 7 to 10, used their art skills to draw a series of pictures capturing the growing process, from seed to fruit.

        About 60 people are involved, 45 of them young adults. There are tours, workshops, community events and so much outside interest and requests for help that Walker says she can't keep up.

        "It's contagious now," she says. "We had a concern in our community that we were eating largely packaged goods, but now the awareness is phenomenal. It's like a revolution, and Philadelphia is one of the leaders in this revolution."

        What helps is that the children first see the seed, and then they see something pushing up from that seed that they nurtured and cared for, and they are amazed, Walker says. "They will say to me, 'Sister Alia, I didn't used to eat my vegetables, but now I do,' or one said, 'I didn't know that vitamins and nutrients come from the food you eat.' They get it now, and they really do want to be healthy, and because they're involved in the nurturing, they're more invested," she explains.

        One particular story is proof positive that POP is working. While Earth's Keepers has just about everything under the sun planted--pears, nectarines, plums, apples, cherries, figs, blueberries, blackberries and strawberries (which offered up a second harvest this past year)--it's the unusual pomegranate bushes that are interesting. The fruit grows best in areas where it is warm year-round. With POP's guidance, Earth's Keepers planted the bushes up against a brick wall of the adjacent Philadelphia Free Library. The bricks reflect light and heat during the day, and stay warmer at night, making it possible to grow the plants.

        Though the farm is next to the famous library, and her young growers are often in there researching what they're doing, Walker says the children learn more from their hands-on work on the farm. "That's because they're experiencing it," she says. "That's more than just reading about the theory."


The author is a reporter and writer who lives in Quakertown, Pa.



Photos courtesy of the Philadelphia Orchard Project.