Village communities are an integral part of farming life and, with many facing their own challenges, one rural village has joined together to help preserve its future. Marie Claire Kidd finds out more.
They have kept rural Husthwaite’s mobile library up and running, subsidised a new playground building and helped revamp the village’s vintage sign.
And, thanks to residents, smallholders and farmers in this pretty North Yorkshire village, apples have become something of a focal point now as they are being turning into juice and cider for the last seven years.
Through the Orchards of Husthwaite co-operative, they have shone a light on the village’s fruit farming heritage and raised thousands of pounds for local causes.
Volunteers have planted more than 1,000 apple trees, picked and pressed more than 50 tonnes of fruit and produced thousands of litres of juice and cider.
So far the co-op has made and invested more than £40,000 locally – not a bad result for a village of just 420 people.
Orchards of Husthwaite started as a local history project. Husthwaite was known as ‘the orchard village’ and had a long tradition of commercial fruit farming. Its excellent loamy soils and a favourable micro-climate allowed growers success with apple varieties much farther north than is normal. History reveals Husthwaite farmers even traded with Captain Cook ahead of his oceanic voyages.
Many of the villages 100 or so houses have large smallholdings or ‘garths’ behind them, which traditionally included orchards.
A good number have retained their fruit trees including the orchards at Flower O’May Farm, close to the centre of the village, which go back 300 years.
However, the changing nature of agriculture meant that, by the late 1960s, many of the larger orchards had been grubbed up. Just about all the village’s commercial fruit crops had disappeared by the time the railway stopped serving Husthwaite in 1963.
But Orchards of Husthwaite revived this culture in 2009. Soon it established a cider mill in the 12th century manor house behind the church and is overseen by Cameron Smith, an accomplished cider maker who lives in the village.
The bestseller is Galtres Gold, a crisp, medium dry apple cider. Another popular choice is Galtres Premium, a dry, clear, strong bottle-conditioned cider, likened to an apple Riesling.
Other products include apples, pears, pear cider, cider vinegar, fruit liquors and Yorkshire and heritage variety fruit trees. The produce is available online, at farmers’ markets and festivals and through local independent retailers.
Its volunteers planted trees wherever they could. At Baxby Manor, a 45ha (110-acre) farm, Barney Smith has made space for 70 trees at his campsite, the Hideaway, which sits on a six-acre field.
“We get 150 people here every day in the summer and a lot of our customers like to camp among the trees,” he said.
“The blossom looks amazing in spring.”
Some 750 trees went into gardens and garths in the village and there are even 12 apple trees behind the village pub, formerly known as the Orchard, now the Curious Plum. And Husthwaite C of E Primary School is looking after another 50, and the children have enjoyed getting involved in grafting, planting and juicing.
Cameron Smith estimates these new trees already produce up to 12 tonnes of apples a year. “There are enormous amounts of apples,” he says. “What we didn’t realise is there were already enough apple trees to do what we’re doing before we started.
“We’re unique here in that we have centuries of fruit growing behind us. There are so many old orchards.”
The people who host trees maintain them as they wish and enjoy as many apples as they like.
“If they want to they can take all the fruit, but if they choose to give us the surplus that’s great,” says Cameron.
“The hard bit is getting them off the trees and to the press, and selling the cider. Make no mistake, it’s a lot of hard work.”
The cider mill can produce up to 7,000 liters of cider a year. As well as a clean room, a fermentation room and a press, there is a small pastueriser, which means the co-op can produce unlimited juice.
“We have a potential turnover of £15,000-20,000 a year,” says Cameron, whose background is in retail management.
Minus expenses such as rent, bills and bottles, that leaves around £5,000 profit annually, all of which is used for community benefit.
The board of trustees has allocated grants to set up a new indoor bowling club, buy genealogy software for the historical society, support a food bank and contribute towards a defibrillator in the village centre.
It has paid £7,000 towards an air source heat pump in the village hall, £800 for a new games and playground building, £600 for a village noticeboard and £600 towards replacing the church door.
If Orchards of Husthwaite wanted to sell more cider and juice it could. Its limiting factor is labour as the apples are hand picked and the pressing is labour intensive.
The process requires volunteers from end to end and Cameron, who also works as orchard manager at nearby cider maker Ampleforth Abbey, intends to continue managing the project as a volunteer.
He hopes in the future someone younger will feel equally passionate and bring new energy to the project.
“We need to establish a self-motivated volunteer base to pick the fruit every year and get the fruit to the cider mill in order to make the project sustainable,” he says. “Of course there are incentives in the grants available for good causes.
“We’ve set ourselves a massive challenge over the coming decades in Husthwaite. It’s up to us to come together as a rural village and rise to it.”