Last week, Ben (our BOP Program Coordinator) and I were approaching an overgrown lot which once had aspirations of becoming a neighborhood orchard. We were checking it out, hoping to help realize its dreams. The weeds were as tall as I - a towering 5 feet or so - and as thick as molasses. To fight our way in, we needed to clip away some hops that were vining up and around the gate, and then to clear something of a path to check on the young trees that were somewhere inside. I went to my car to get a pair of loppers, and as I approached the gate a second time, this time armed with a sharp instrument, a small boy, about 5 or so, came tooling down on his scooter. He stopped a stranger-appropriate distance from me and plaintively, so plaintively it could break your heart, said, "Please don't chop down the apple tree."
I assured him we were there to help the tree, not chop it down. We were going to figure out how to help clear the lot. He immediately disappeared, and came back with a shovel!
I sadly had to tell him it would take more than a shovel to help clear the lot and that we weren't going to be working on it now - but that when we did, we would very much welcome his help.
He went away, somewhat disappointed - he was hoping for an adventure and to be helpful - but came back now and again over the next little while to check on us. Just before we left, Ben braved the thicket and discovered the two apple trees that had been planted there two years ago. One had one lone but lovely apple on it. That was the entire harvest.
Ben picked it, and we gave it to the boy.
Here's to a whole bushel of apples next year.
The winter of 2013-2014 was devastating for local figs. Most varieties suffered, their leaves and branches dying back to a small portion of their prior selves.
This is being reported on several websites and confirmed here in Baltimore by our hardy group of Fig Tree Buddies. These are BOP volunteers who adopt a fig tree to check on and monitor.
The good news, however, is that figs are hardy plants and are taking this year to recover. Some have put on several feet of new growth already. If your fig tree is one of these, folks at Edible Landscaping recommend selecting 3-5 of the larger, healthier trunks to save and weeding out the smaller new growth. This should strengthen the tree and help it survive this coming winter in tact and enable it to produce figs next summer.
In the long run, this may provide healthier and more productive trees.
If you know of fig trees in the area - or any other fruit trees - please do let us know. We have 245 fruit trees registered on our Tree Registry (not including the trees we plant with schools and organizations), and we would love to double (and eventually triple and quadruple and more!) that figure.
And remember the fall planting season is fast approaching. Fruit trees make beautiful, enchanting neighbors.
We are sometimes asked what gleaning means, or how gleaning differs from harvesting.
Indeed, we often use the two words interchangeably - both referring to the act of gathering foods from managed fields (as opposed to foraging, which is gathering foods from the wild).
But there is a big difference between the two.
Gleaning is biblical concept which refers to the act of gathering foods (grains, vegetables, fruits) from a managed field that is not your own. In the biblical period, the poor and needy were permitted to go onto neighboring fields and collect enough food for their own consumption. Not enough to sell and do commerce with, not enough to stockpile their pantry, but enough for a day or two so that they and their families wouldn't go hungry.
The field owners did this not as an act of magnanimity or philanthropy but as their obligation. The poor, in the biblical world, held a partial claim against the goods and wealth that come from the land. Thus, the community as a whole had an obligation to feed the poor, and those with land were obliged to allow the poor to come and gather for themselves.
This was neither gift nor handout. The poor were not given this food; no one else harvested it for them. They had to work for their food by gleaning - which provided an element of dignity, a sense of ownership and a sense of earning what they got.
Even more, through this modest expression of shared ownership, the landowner was reminded that he in fact did not fully possess his property or even the produce upon it; that in a sense, he is beholden to powers greater than he, powers he does not control or possess (like earth, soil, water, air as well as people who help create the safe society and economy in which he functions) that are responsible for his success. His work and his land are part of a great economy of the commons that he is temporarily using. And in return, he has the obligation to share its abundance and its yield with those less fortunate in his community.
Harvesting, by contrast, is when an owner gathers the produce of his or her own field, or when someone is hired to gather it for them.
The BOP is somewhere in between. We glean, in the sense that we gather fruits from trees that others own, but we then give the fruit to those in need. And while this is good, we hope to move to real gleaning, by planting fruit trees and food forests in the midst of food deserts, close enough so that those in need can gather for themslves. But even more, we want to create harvesters, so those now in need may plant their own orchards and food forests on lots of land close by them, and gather their produce for themselves. As well as remember the obligation to share it with others.
The last, unfinished work, of Henry David Thoreau was a magnum opus of the wild fruits that populated the woods in his beloved New England.
He takes the reader through a season-worth of ripening, in order of appearance, from elm and dandelion in May to birches and pitch pine in November.
I have just begun accompanying him on this journey - and am delighted that it is just the right season to join this leisurely sauntering.
How wonderful if there were a comparable calendar of ripenings for the mid-Atlantic region. Then, perhaps, with guidebook in hand, folks like me - whose discerning eye is strained at anything beyond serrated vs smooth edges - might stand a chance at discovering the ever-blossoming, changing world of plants around us.
But I write to share a quote that captures a sense of why I am compelled by the work of the BOP:
"My profession," Thoreau writes, "is to be always on the alert to find God in nature -- to know his lurking places."
To me, our orchards are such places. And perhaps more than just lurking there, God - or however we speak of the power of nature that calls forth life and works and celebrates and struggles for its existence - resides in our orchards.
"Urbanist Jane Jacobs ... famously said “New ideas need old buildings”, pointing out so definitively how dependent a vibrant city economy is on connecting the new with the old. Businesses grow incrementally, with old work being converted into newer work, and older, more affordable workspaces make that kind of creative morphing possible.... There is something ethereal, not quantitatively measurable, about older buildings that appeal to entrepreneurs. Maybe its because they see the possibilities in adapting an older space to their newer use, and that just feels better than the pristine floorplates of new construction. Or maybe they just like them because they’re cheap. But old spaces are most often where today’s entrepreneur wants to work. A dynamic entrepreneurial ecosystem needs a mix: of old and new, of small suppliers working in make-shift spaces, and larger corporate services."
(Mary Rowe and Vin Cipolla in "The Nature of a City Economy: Towards an Ecology of Entrepreneurship")
The edible food forest movement is growing. Planted on public lands, tended by volunteers and neighbors, created with the blessings and assistance of city park systems, food forests are growing up in communities across the country. In Iowa City, "The goal of the Wetherby Park Edible Forest is to design, plant, and grow an edible urban forest garden that inspires our community to gather together, grow our own food, and rehabilitate our local ecosystem."
In Baltimore, 20% of our population are unable to obtain and anticipate on a regular basis sufficient , healthy, desirable foods. That translates in 120,000 people. Imagine if thousands of them could walk out their front doors, down the street and help manage and then harvest varieties of fresh foods for nine months out of the year: perennial vegetables, varieties of fruits, healthy nuts. Some of this food would be eaten right away. The rest could either be stored for later consumption or "put up" - canned, jellied, dried, frozen - for consumption over the winter months.
We can do this - Baltimore has an enormous resource in unused, poorly used and under-utilized land throughout the city.
We can do this on private property, but that might limit access. We could also do this on public lands - vacant lots that can be secured for 25 years, parkland that can be dedicated to building strong, healthy communities in body and spirit for generations.
But we need your help - to encourage the city to use the parks in this way, and to build the social capital, ie, the people and passion, to care for these food forests over the years.
Sign up on our Meet Up page to join us.
I had the amazing privilege of speaking to members of the USDA's annual Agricultural Outlook Forum today. They asked me to talk about the state of the field of urban agroforestry. Which was both humbling and difficult because urban agroforestry (efforts like ours to plant and harvest fruit and nut trees, and establish food forests in urban environments) does not really see itself as a movement yet. But it is and it should be seen this way. And this invitation may be an indication that it is happening.
I post here my opening comments, which address my take on the motivation that is animating this movement. Specifics about what the movement is, what it does, and what it needs will follow in a subsequent post. As always, I welcome your feedback.
Cities have always seemed a bit unnatural – alluring and vibrant but artificial and decadent, a bit unhealthy and far from the land. So throughout history there have been cyclical efforts for city folk to return to the land. We are in one of those cycles now. The 20th century witnessed several – motivated largely by political strife, and social, moral and economic insecurities.
These efforts were largely predicated on the belief that working the land, and in particular, producing food, would intensify society’s moral, physical and social well-being. Today’s return-to-the-land movement is motivated a bit by these impulses, but by three new ones as well:
1) The clear and present impact of climate change (especially on the food chain)
2) The degradation of our lands and waters (in part due to modern agricultural techniques)
3) An urge to change the ways we feed the world, and to heal the wrongs we have laid upon it.
So whereas in earlier iterations of these cycles, the idea seemed to be that through returning to (and working the land), the land would redeem the people, today the idea seems to be that through returning to and working the land, people will redeem the land.
Food therefore and its new ways of production and distribution are seen as a leading edge to saving the world. There is a deep passion here, a sense of grand purpose, urgency, redemption, rightness all mixed up with joy and hope. A sense even of salvation, of righting a great wrong for this generation and generations to come. There folks in urban agroforestry are in it body and soul, and what they lack in technical knowledge and experience, they make up for in dedication, eagerness and hard work.
Statement by Food Research and Action Center (FRAC) President, Jim Weill, on the passage of the Farm Bill today:
Washington, D.C. — February 4, 2014 — The Farm Bill passed today by the Senate will cut SNAP benefits [the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program] to an estimated 850,000 households by an average of $90/month. FRAC has opposed the SNAP cuts because they will harm too many of the most vulnerable members of our society, making monthly food allotments fall even further short of what is needed for seniors, people with disabilities, children, low-income workers, and unemployed people. We appreciate the efforts of the many members of the House and Senate, the many national, state and local groups, and the many editorial writers and social media outlets that have opposed these cuts and spoken to the importance of defending already-inadequate SNAP benefits against these and other cuts.... SNAP benefits and SNAP nutrition education spending now have been cut four times in three and a half years.
All the more reason why the work we do here at the Baltimore Orchard Project, and the 123 trees we will be planting with our partners this spring, are so critical.
And remember to ask your friends, fellow workers, family if they know of any mature fruit trees we can harvest! Then call or text our Harvest Hotline and let us know. 443-562-8483
It is hard to know what to read first of Wendell Berry's.
Essayist, poet, novelist, farmer.
I don't know if there is a progression to his work; or just an astonishingly rich collective body of work.
But I picked up The Gift of Good Land the other day, to see what he had to say in there.
And in two places, he touches on values that are learned from, but transcend working, the earth. (No doubt there are more - but I am just dipping in here and there in the book.)
The first is on p. 49 when he talks about leaving a conference he was at and driving into the desert where his real work, and love, could be found. The feeling was palpable: "I was feeling ... the relief of moving from talk about problems into the presence of the problems themselves. In the presence of the problems intelligence encounters details. It is like stepping from slippery footing onto dry rock."
He speaks here of the immediacy, the challenge and in some ways the comfort of reaching the essence, the stuff of the problem. It is only here that one can try and succeed, or try and fail; but at least one can try - and not just speculate or argue or wonder - and thus learn from one's efforts.
And on p. 51, he quotes Charles Bowden, who wrote of the Papago Indians and what it took to survive in their trying environment:
"The man who hoarded, who saved, who said he and his blood would make it on their own... such a man led his kin to extinction... Power came from toil and could only be stored in other human beings."
It is not just in the desert, but in all walks of life that we need each other.
We eat today what someone else planted yesterday. Of - if we are speaking of nuts and fruits - from trees that others planted years ago. The vibrancy of our knowledge and wisdom and experience (a big part of our collective commons) can only be preserved if it is shared, and given away.
Our safety is in sharing this.
In society, we preserve best what we generously give away.
In "The Demand for the Common Good," Jonathan Rowe, (1/7/04) writes: "The commons is a kind of counterpoise to the market. It provides stability and sustenance rather than restless appetite and craving. It connects to the "we" side of human nature as opposed to the market's unrelenting "me". The concept includes anything not owned but shared in common."
The commons is that which belongs to us all, both natural and cultural: water and air, language and libraries, streets and shade, folktales and humming.
In a world of encroaching privatization, it is good to remember and reclaim the commons. The BOP sees part of its work as creating a culture of the "neighborhood commons" with fruit and nut trees and food for the taking.
No doubt many of the sites we help plant will belong to institutions for their enjoyment and discretion.
But we hope also to plant with groups in parks, abandoned lots and other public-access sites so that people walking by can enjoy the view, the shade, the beauty, the company and, of course, the food.
The question we are asked, when we propose such a vision, is "Who will take care of these orchards and food forests?"
The answer is that much like nature itself, orchards and food forests properly designed and planted should be mostly self-sustaining. With just a bit of annual oversight and management - truly just a tad - these places can be productive, shared edens providing respite, joy, pride and food throughout the year and across the generations.
So we hope also to create a culture of neighborhood pride - with the expectation that every public orchard will have its fair share of neighbors to tend to it. Even folks who will choose to live in those neighborhoods because of the orchard there.
And these places of the commons of fruit trees and food forests will yield more than food. They will yield an anchoring sense of place, and enduring stories about their planting and care and the things that happened there that get passed down from one generation to another.