Guest Post: Raising funds for the community, by turning surplus apples into juice

Kirkby Fruit Project, a volunteer-led project to stop locally grown fruit from going to waste, has been turning unwanted apples into delicious juice and cider for over ten years. Their mission is not only to prevent fruit from rotting on the ground but also to give back to their local community. The abundance of unwanted fruit begs the question: why is there so much surplus? In this guest post, Chris Simmonds, one of the project organisers, explores the history of English apple cultivation, the decline of local producers and how Kirkby Fruit Project is helping to curb apple waste.
Here at Helmsley Walled Garden, we grow over one hundred different varieties of apple, seventy of which are Yorkshire varieties. Kirkby Fruit Project presses the popular juice sold in our shop from the apples grown in our garden. We will be launching the next season’s apple juice this coming weekend (21st / 22nd October). As apple yields are down this year, we have less apple juice available than in previous years, so don’t dilly-dally if you’re looking to stock up

The trouble with apples

A carpet of apples on the ground beneath an apple tree is an all-too-common sight at this time of year. And the reason that the Kirkby Fruit Project was set up over 10 years ago. We are a group of volunteers who prevent locally grown fruit from going to waste by turning it into apple juice and cider, which is then sold locally, and all profits go back to local community groups. Over the years we have juiced around thirty-five tonnes of unwanted apples, producing more than 16,000 bottles of pasteurised apple juice, 140 barrels of our KirkbyMoor Cider and raised around £17,000 for community groups. From a modest start, the demand for our service has grown to the point that we now have to limit the size of the area from which we can accept fruit. (A c.7-mile radius of Kirkbymoorside.)

A green & red apple grows on a tree

But why is there so much unwanted fruit?

English apples are known as the best in the world. We are fortunate to live in the ‘Goldilocks zone’ for apple cultivation, with just the right amount of heat and cold, sun and rain for the fruit to flourish. Add to that a history of apple cultivation that goes back hundreds of years and you have a rich diversity of beautifully tasty fruit with more than two thousand named varieties and many more ‘local’ varieties that are not even officially recorded. Given all of that, why is it that I can walk into any supermarket and only find a choice of three or four varieties of apple with the likelihood that most of them imported? All the while fruit is rotting on the ground in gardens and orchards around the UK. In recent years there have been calls from both government agencies and conservation groups for people to plant orchards, even generous grants available. And yet we don’t even use all the fruit that is currently growing. What has gone wrong?

The golden age of English apple growing was in the late 1800’s. There were orchards in every town and village, plenty of people to help with the harvest and a new rail network to move the fruit quickly to markets in the cities. Things began to change after the first world war, when there were fewer able-bodied men to harvest fruit from traditional orchard trees. New rootstocks were developed, with trees that did not grow so tall, and many old orchards were grubbed up. The decline continued slowly through the twentieth century, and the combination of supermarkets with their huge, centralised buying power and rapidly expanding international trade sounded the death knell for many smaller local producers who just could not compete. The British public became used to the limited, but reliable offerings of perfectly formed imported fruit and the conservation of our diverse apple heritage was left to home gardeners and a few enthusiasts. There are still remnants of some of those old orchards, but most of the unwanted fruit brought to the Kirkby Fruit Project comes from trees planted in orchards and gardens in the last 60 years.

One of the 100 apple trees grown in the orchard at Helmsley Walled Garden

One of the most frequent questions asked is “I want to plant some apple trees, what should I grow?”
I always respond with two questions, “Why do you want to plant apple trees?” and What are you going to do with all the fruit?”
A normal, garden sized, apple tree can produce over 150kg of fruit a year once it is mature. Multiply that with three tres and you are heading towards half a tonne of apples – an awful lot of fruit!
Add to that, early ripening varieties will only keep for a few weeks before becoming inedible and certainly not long enough to eat more than 100kg. You can see why there might be a problem. We have become used to the limited number of varieties available commercially, so we eat what we know. These apples are specifically bred for longevity and ease of transport, so many people have forgotten the joy of the various shapes, sizes, flavours, and textures on offer in other varieties.

Despite this, I would encourage anyone with even a tiny amount of outside space to think about growing an apple tree or two. Do the research and find out what you like, there is no point in growing something with an interesting name or history if you do not want to eat it. Apple trees are remarkably easy to grow. Although, unless you can use a potentially large crop, it is best to grow your trees as upright cordons which will give you a couple of dozen fresh tasty apples. Growing them this way means that they will fit into even the smallest garden, and you can have several varieties without being overwhelmed with fruit. There is a wealth of tasty and interesting flavours out there just waiting to be rediscovered.

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