03/27/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Planting an Urban Orchard

Imagine that first slice of your next apple pie. Fresh baked, made from just-picked apples. A la mode. I know, it isn't autumn, but I said your next one, whenever that may be (and if you're like me, you won't wait for next fall).

Instead of your pie being made from the standard variety of apples at your local grocer, let's say that you get to choose from an array of trees you've never heard of nor tasted before. Oh, and say this grove of apple trees happens to be in your city; you walk down the street rather than drive an hour or more to the suburbs. An orchard in the city?

Neither this pie nor this orchard now exist, but someday, they might. Chicago resident, Dave Snyder, and his friend, Carl Baratta, founded the Chicago Rarities Orchard Project (CROP) and with friend Doug Lynch, and many others, they are planning an urban orchard for Chicago.

But we're not talking about just any urban orchard; rarely bred varieties of fruit are a cornerstone of the project. CROP has grafted 60 trees of 35 varieties of fruit so far, 14 of which are on the Renewing America's Food Traditions (RAFT) Red List of endangered food species.

Where do you put an orchard in a dense urban environment? That's the question CROP is currently trying to answer. They are finding many receptive people both in the city and in some aldermen, as well as the non-profit NeighborSpace, which works to preserve open garden and park spaces in Chicago.

Uncommon Ground on Devon, a restaurant, which boasts the first certified organic rooftop farm in the U.S., has also lent a helping hand in many ways, even donating fifty cents from every sale of one of their drinks, to be unveiled at the restaurant on Monday, January 25 at 6:00. The evening will include a complimentary cocktail, hors d'oeuvres, music, a raffle and discussion with CROP founder Dave Snyder. Tickets are $20 and all proceeds benefit CROP.

Local government, a related nonprofit and a like-minded business all offering their help? Sounds like CROP is off to a great start. Snyder is also quick to point out the invaluable efforts of CROP's volunteer board, including Vanessa Smith, Erin Foley, Erin McMillan and Megan Larmer. He also mentioned the generous pro bono work from lawyer Garret Hohimer.

Who would not be in favor of Snyder's vision? "In my mind, the orchard is beautiful. Full of trees and a place where people can come to pick fruit and learn about orchards," Snyder described.

He and Lynch went on to discuss the educational benefits of having children and adults alike see how much fruit can grow in the city. For a relatively cheap price and some effort, you could have a dwarf fruit tree planted in your yard. Snyder pointed out that a dwarf fruit tree can last a lifetime and that a full-grown apple tree could last over a hundred years and produce hundreds of pounds of locally grown fruit annually.

Which brings us to the question, what happens with the fruit? Once the trees begin producing, CROP has made it a priority to have it stay in the community in which it is grown, whether by sale or by hosting some free picking days. "We hope to begin harvesting in 2014," Snyder says.

A portion of fruit sales will go to support the organization, but they also plan to work with food banks and soup kitchens and potentially have some available for restaurants and farmers' markets.

While the group is currently looking for land to plant one orchard, Snyder and Lynch point out that there is potential for smaller orchards, pockets of trees throughout the city.

Now, some might say, "Sure, we have fruit trees in our cities already and we could plant more if we wanted."

However, while some among us know how to care for fruit-bearing plants, many do not. To have a place dedicated to both demonstrate the potential and give people the tools to plant fruit trees and bushes at home is the type of food system educational infrastructure that supports a movement of consumers toward locally grown, organic food.

CROP could help improve food access and build community while beautifying the space their orchard occupies and offering ample educational opportunities about our ability to grow food in urban environments. Orchards planted in a city can put locally grown fruits into peoples' hands while providing a symbol of what is actually possible: changing the manner and location of growing our food.

As for the manner of growth, Snyder says the goal is for CROP to adhere to organic growing standards. "Indeed, we would look forward to proving to people that apples don't have to be shiny, bright, red to be delicious," Snyder adds.

Chicago has also recently had some new plantings of fruit trees at a handful of our schools, with the help of the Fruit Tree Planting Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to collectively planting 18 billion fruit-bearing trees and bushes worldwide. None of their plantings in Chicago are the size of the one CROP is planning, but the educational value and the increased potential of local fruit production is significant.

Certainly, one orchard or even a series of orchards do not alone fix a broken food system that depends so heavily upon fossil fuels for both fertilizer and transportation, and toxic chemicals for protection from pests, among a myriad of other problems. But when people see that it is not just Snyder, but Snyder and Lynch, their board, Uncommon Ground, NeighhborSpace, the expertise of the Midwest Fruit Explorers, support from Slow Food Chicago and collaborators at the city level, all helping to make CROP a reality, you see a food system that is changing. This is just one such project in one city; new projects, large and small, are beginning all the time across the U.S. What's remarkable is that when a new player such as CROP wants to join the feast, the others are happy to pull another chair up to the table and offer their resources to kick off the effort.

Still, finding appropriate land for such a project can be difficult, as this is a long-term investment of space. While it will take a number of years before any fruit is produced, an orchard can be an asset on that land for a very long time. So, there needs to be a lasting commitment of the land for this purpose. While Snyder says he has gotten so much support for this project, the difficulty is that regarding land use, this project is very different from most gardens that have had land set aside.

The first orchard is planned to have apple trees as well as fruits ranging from pears, peaches, plums, and cherries to the less common stone fruit, paw-paws, and medlars.

You have likely heard of the locavore movement, but you cannot ignore that CROP is taking this a step further by focusing on growing rarely bred varieties of fruit. While the Svalbard Global Seed Bank (to name one), along with efforts such as Seed Savers all help to protect the biodiversity of our food supply, by growing the fruit, CROP can help ensure that another handful of species are actively being cultivated. Protecting that biodiversity improves the security of our food supply.

Just think of the greater possibilities: with local food councils assembling across the U.S. to help connect new ideas to an existing network of people and organizations working for sustainable food, startups like CROP are becoming more and more common. Yes, the route from idea conception to implementation is in many cases getting easier.

Not to paint too rosy of a picture, we are far from a sustainable and just food system, but small steps are adding up. Many hurdles still exist to change. However, the demand of consumers to have a greater variety of more locally grown, organic, and healthier foods that exploit neither people nor environment is growing. Groups like CROP can help provide it.

I cannot help but see the beauty in a project such as this one: a couple of friends dreaming up a project and actually reaching out to others to carry it out. While they have a way to go before their trees are actually planted in the ground, the progress CROP has made is unmistakable and I'm looking forward to seeing this project go through to fruition.