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by Eileen O’Donnell

Making a generational impact, one fruit tree at a time

Now in its 16th year, the Philadelphia Orchard Project (POP) is an established part of the movement to develop more sustainable, equitable, and ethical local food systems. Since its founding, POP has worked with community-based groups to plan, plant, and care for urban orchards and food forests. Together, the community, POP’s staff, and volunteer teams have created a total of 66 POP-supported orchards in 24 different zip codes. You can find fruit trees in most Philadelphia neighborhoods! POP received an Impact100 $100,000 core mission grant in 2022.

POP is working to expand self-reliance in food production and to provide green gathering spaces that build community by transforming formerly vacant lots or other underutilized urban spaces into places of beauty and abundance. Community organizations own, maintain, and harvest the orchards, expanding community-based food production. Due to the unique perennial nature of POP’s crops, core values of education and information sharing, and programs that appeal to young children, grandparents, and all the ages in between, POP’s work truly makes a generational impact.

Tracking the programs’ success

In 2022, POP worked with partners and volunteers to plant three new orchards: Life Do Grow Orchard at Urban Creators, FDR Park Orchard, and Fernhill Food Forest. With the help of over 800 volunteers, POP carried out 210 orchard work days which included those new orchards, expansion plantings, orchard work days, pruning assistance, and other hands-on training. 

While POP’s staff are out in the orchard, they don’t lose sight of what their partners need. An annual survey tracks how partners use and value their orchards. “It’s very helpful for us to understand as we are at most of POP’s 66 sites monthly or quarterly,” said POP Co-Executive Director Kim Jordan. “Learning their successes and challenges, and hearing their stories, motivates us to improve our services and inspires us each year.”

Partners reported that nearly 2,900 people engaged in orchard care at least once, with around 260 undertaking more regular orchard care (at least monthly). Over 4,600 people tasted something grown in a POP orchard, and over 6,500 used one as a gathering space. Around 2,200 took part in educational programs offered by POP partners over the last year. Read more partner stories on the POP website

At the POP Learning Orchard at the Woodlands, the team welcomed over 1,000 visitors who engaged in a volunteer work day at the orchard or edible plant nursery, participated in workshops, took a tour, or attended an event like the popular “Nature Nights” hosted by the Woodlands. POP also grew over 1,300 pounds of food – mostly annual crops – which were donated to West Philly mutual aid partners or used in POP or partner programs. As the Learning Orchard continues to mature and the trees grow bigger and shade out the rows, POP will be transitioning from annual crops into perennial understory plants and experimenting with some perennial vegetables.

Hungry groundhogs and program highlights

Figs, paw paws, persimmons and blackberries were the most productive crops for partners last year, though many struggled due to the drought and the increased levels of wildlife predation as Philadelphia’s local birds, squirrels, groundhogs, and other neighborhood residents sought sources of food and moisture. “At the Learning Orchard, we were devastated by the loss of almost the entire crop of watermelons, when what we assume was a very hungry family of groundhogs devoured the fruit the night before it was going to be harvested,” said Kim.

POP has also been boosting its video resources, shared on their YouTube channel. Since the Impact100 grant was awarded, POP has published videos about the use of pickled green plums, ginkgo nut preparation, and fire blight. They were also able to host online workshops with experts on fig propagation and perennial vegetables, both topics of interest to community orchard partners and the public. 

Philadelphia Orchard Project in the news

To learn more about POP’s programs, visit their website’s News section to read blogs, articles, and listen to podcasts. 

Looking forward and building partnerships

POP carried out 33 workshops, some led by POP staff and others by community educators, on topics ranging from ecological orchard care best practices to mushroom inoculation to plant harvest and use. “We published nearly two dozen blog posts – partner highlights, plant spotlights, orchard care advice, and more – and translated several blog posts and orchard care resources into Spanish,” said Kim. “It is a goal of ours to also start translating some of our orchard care videos into Spanish in the coming year.”

POP hired two new team members in January of this year, expanding program staff by hiring an additional orchard assistant, and creating the new role of community outreach coordinator. These additional team members will allow POP to provide more of the hands-on support and training that partners repeatedly say they appreciate. 

One exciting development sparked by support from Impact100 was a partnership with Big Picture Alliance, another 2022 grantee. Together, the organizations have embarked on several video projects: 

  • a 4-video pest and disease identification series; 
  • three different partner highlights where BPA youth are leading the entire process of interviewing, filming, and editing POP’s staff along with partners and volunteers from Sankofa Farm and Orchard at Bartram’s Garden, Village of Arts & Humanities, and Union Baptist Church Garden of Eden; 
  • a mini-documentary about POP’s role in the city’s environmental justice movement; 
  • a new “intro” video to engage new audiences and inform them about POP’s work. 

Stay tuned and check POP and BPA social media profiles to learn about upcoming screening events for the partner spotlights as part of BPA’s annual Big Picture Film Fest.

Volunteering with POP

POP welcomes volunteers. Those interested should visit Events – Philadelphia Orchard Project to learn about upcoming opportunities. “We also encourage you to check directly with our partners, especially if you want to get involved at an orchard in your neighborhood,” said Kim.

The Learning Orchard (the only site directly overseen by POP staff) has more frequent volunteer days to assist with orchard care, annual crop planting and harvests, and nursery prep work that allows POP staff to distribute food-producing plants to partners across the city.