Fruit Preserves: CROP plants the first urban rare fruit orchard

Pawpaw fruit (courtesy of the U.S. Agricultural Research Service)

The pawpaw grew in George Washington’s and Thomas Jefferson’s gardens. This pear-shaped fruit, something between a banana and a melon in taste, was among the former’s favorite desserts and was popular among the 16,000 apple varieties grown in American orchards at the turn of the century. But today, the pawpaw is on Restoring America’s Fruit Traditions’ (RAFT) list of endangered fruits.

The pawpaw is also one of a dozen varieties of endangered fruit trees that Chicago Rarities Orchard Project (CROP) founder Dave Snyder has grafted and hopes to root in an orchard. Conceived in the summer of 2008, CROP’s goal is to grow and publicize rare fruit varieties. The project currently possesses sixty grafts of rare orchard trees, which are temporarily housed at Honey Coop, an organic bee hive collective in North Lawndale. If things proceed on schedule, the grafts will be planted in a permanent garden space near Logan Square and will be bearing fruit by 2014.

Snyder, CROP’s founder, had no interest in gardening when he moved to Chicago in 2005 to pursue an MFA in creative writing, but his apartment in Avondale happened to be opposite a charity garden that grew organic produce for an AIDS soup kitchen. Snyder used the garden as a stress reliever after long class days and soon became immersed in the city’s community garden network. Interested in utilizing undeveloped land for agricultural purposes, he was inspired by a New York Times article on endangered heirloom apple varieties to start the CROP project. Although community gardening is a widespread practice throughout Chicago, most gardens are small-scale and oriented towards perennial, easily cultivatable vegetables and herbs. Snyder’s CROP project will be the nation’s first urban orchard to focus on rare varieties of fruits.
While environmental reporting brought Snyder to North Lawndale, the neighborhood where CROP’s temporary space is located, Snyder knew he needed a permanent plot in which to cultivate his plants.

“There’s a lot of open space in the city, and for a long while, Chicagoans have been making use of it,” Snyder said. NeighborSpace, an organization that provides educational support for community gardeners and helps to legalize their use of city land, currently aids three hundred community gardens throughout the city, including the charity garden opposite Snyder’s home. Working with NeighborSpace, Snyder found land in Logan Square to plant the grafts that he and his organization have created.

But growing organic trees is only a small part of the CROP project. More important, Snyder said, is spreading consumer awareness and demand for rare varieties of orchard fruits. “If we’re interested in crop preservation, it’s not going to come from growing those trees, it’s going to come from educating people. The real way in which crops are best preserved is not simply getting do-gooders to grow them. It’s making them popular.”

Snyder cites the successful recovery of heirloom tomatoes by organizations like Whole Foods in the late ’90s as an example. Prior to the appearance of Black Crim and Green Zebra tomatoes in Whole Foods’ produce sections across the nation, Snyder said, “people never thought you could sell a fluted tomato.” Snyder hopes the same transition will occur in the way consumers think about orchard fruits.

The project’s emphasis on making rare varieties of fruits more visible makes its prospective location on the highly trafficked Logan Square–adjacent to a local farmers market and Slow Food restaurants like Lula Café that utilize local organic produce–ideal. Snyder hopes that supplying local restaurants, markets, and retailers with lesser-known varieties of apples will heighten consumer consciousness.

Snyder has already gained support from a number of environmentally conscious Chicago-area restaurants and organizations. Uncommon Ground, a hybrid restaurant/bar/art gallery with a rooftop produce garden, is hosting a fundraiser on January 25 for CROP. At the fundraiser, Uncommon Ground will introduce a new Eco-Cocktail which will be added to the restaurant’s menu. Fifty cents from every Eco-Cocktail purchased, as well as all profits from the fundraiser, will be donated to CROP.