Sheffield Pioneers Community Harvest
Peter Hodge tells how the Sheffield Abundance Project is making good use of an overlooked local food resource
Just last week I was on my way home from enjoying the first signs of wild garlic peaking out through what is hopefully the last of the snow, and I saw something that surprised me. Walking through the suburban streets of Sheffield, I noticed a Tesco store selling a range of fruit trees out front. I phoned Stephen Watts and together we smiled while we pondered why this could be.
Since ABUNDANCE took off here in 2007 we have seen so much happen. Keen grower and forager Stephen Watts, together with community and environmental artist Anne-Marie Culhane, started the project as a way to share both the glut of fruit to be found in the city, and also the idea behind it. The idea is a simple one: to realise that already a harvest hangs all around us to be discovered, and it often it just goes to waste. So instead, by sharing with each other there is so much to gain - and fruit is just the start of it.
ABUNDANCE is an open group of people within the community that have come together with this similar aim, helping people to use and redistribute that which is abundant at the most local level, to places that most benefit from it.
Now, as we come into springm we will soon get a chance to see where the fruit will be come autumn. Blossom waves at you in the breeze from peoples' back gardens, roadsides - seemingly everywhere once you start to look for it. This is a planning time of year for us as we think how we might best organise things to run smoothly once the fruit is falling off the trees.
There are many roles for anyone keen to help, and plenty of people have. We continue to gather information about where the fruit is to be found on an online map and have found this really helpful in sharing information with each other when organising harvests. Some people design posters and flyers, which help people to find us with offers of their fruit, or tip-offs of where it can be found. We also contact tree owners ourselves, and more often than not, they are happy for us to help harvest. It is interesting to see how many people continue to buy apples from the supermarkets and not use that which grows in their own gardens.
Since more and more people have got involved here in Sheffield, our methods have evolved, but if you wanted to do something similar, it is essentially simple. All you need is to see some fruit that is not being used, and then find people to harvest and distribute it. We produced a handbook that gives details of how and why we do it, which is available to download from our website. But here are the basics of what we do.
Once we have permission of the landowners, someone keeps an eye out to see when the fruit is ripe. Generally this is when it comes off easily in the hand. When it’s ready first job is collecting up windfalls and picking fruit that can be reached from the ground. Commercial orchards often keep their trees short so this is all they need to do. However, with the neglected and wild trees we sometimes encounter, things get even more fun! Often we then get someone safe at climbing to venture up the tree and carefully shake the fruit loose onto tarps or blankets held by people below. Alternatively long picking tools can be bought or made – it really is a lot of fun finding ways to get it down. Making sure we leave enough for the birds and the soil, we sort our bounty into 'firsts' for distribution, 'seconds' for preserving or juicing, and anything else gets composted. In this respect we aim to have zero waste. Finally, after giving the firsts a wash, these are either taken directly, or sometimes stored before distribution, by pedal power where possible. Lovely.
When in full flow this last year we've had a few separate groups out at once harvesting across the city. The best undamaged fruit is gifted freely to Surestart projects, homeless shelters, community cafés many any other places that appreciate it. Often this has travelled less than a few miles and much of this is by trikes and bicycle trailers. We get crates and boxes from fruit and veg shops to transport and store the fruit.
Some of what is not distributed whole gets made into chutneys and jams during preserving workshops. These are another great way that people who don't come harvesting can get involved, and also we've been able to make our own ABUNDANCE preserves! Finally we also press apples and pears to get juice, which is given away at juicing sessions, often serving as fuel for volunteers transporting produce about.
In Sheffield we have had a free fruit stall in town, and also an interactive exhibition and free fruit shop hosted by ENCOUNTERS, which was a really rewarding way of engaging with people in the community not involved with the project.
Throughout the winter months, volunteers have been also able to learn practical skills including pruning. Through this process we are caring for those trees that provide us with their produce, and gaining an understanding of the processes involved in food production. We are also starting to learn skills such as grafting, and perhaps we can start planting more trees where there is space.
The people in the city who volunteer, donate and receive the fruit, are able to connect with the local landscape, and each other, through the food it produces. This educational aspect of ABUNDANCE is a really exciting part of the process, since we have been able to connect with so many people on an environmental, political and cultural level, just through the simple process of collecting and sharing fruit that would otherwise go to waste.
With most of the fruit and vegetables eaten in the UK still being imported, discovering that Sheffield is one big orchard really makes you wonder. We have found dozens of varieties of apple, pear, plum, quince and even some peaches growing in the city. So why does so much of our food still depend on oil-based farming systems, with so much 'fresh' produce getting shipped across the world
We are seeing more and more similar projects springing up across the country: people in communities helping each other to pick and use that which is already being produced at as local a level as is possible. It is inspiring and also interesting to see what might happen next. . .