Ellen Burns (left) from The Hidden Orchard and Pat Green (right) Photo: Sarah Greenwood-Smith

Hidden Orchard Helps

We interviewed Ellen Burns, a Brown Hill local and one of the founding members of The Hidden Orchard. Ellen introduced us to Pat Greene, who has a fabulous fig tree in her Brown Hill backyard.

Tell us about The Hidden Orchard

The Hidden Orchard (THO) is a group that harvest unwanted fruit from trees on public land or private properties (with permission of course!) and redistribute it to the Ballarat community.

It was started in early 2017 by four food-waste warriors - Kris Thomas, Sandra Hawkins, Steve Burns and his daughter (me!) Ellen Burns, after the Ballarat Local Food Forum brought them together.

One of the speakers that day was a member of 'Growing Abundance', a Castlemaine group that harvest unloved fruit and redistribute it to their local community, as well as running workshops and pruning days. They follow a model of thirds; dividing the harvested fruit equally between the tree owner, volunteers, and the wider community.

There are a couple of similar groups in Victoria that we know of, including the Darebin Fruit Squad, but we are the first in Ballarat and hope that other Victorian communities follow suit!

The Hidden Orchard is being auspiced by the Ballarat Permaculture Guild (BPG). They are brilliant and have supported us from the start. THO are under their umbrella and that enables us to apply for funding and use their insurance, as well as handling the financial side of our administration needs.

On a broad scale, what has been achieved?

The Hidden Orchard has only been around for less than a year and the group has already harvested and re-homed over a tonne of fruit. This was achieved with a very small group of fairly disorganised volunteers, so just imagine what could be achieved once we get up and going!

We have, so far, been successful in receiving a City of Ballarat Community Grant and also a Rainbow Serpent Community Grant, which has given us the funds to purchase our initial equipment, such as 'Joey Fruit Picking Bags', eskies, fruit-pickers and secateurs.

We held two processing days last year where we made fruit into preserves and attended two markets to raise money and awareness about THO.

Do you visit any properties in Brown Hill? Tell us about that...

At the moment we only have one property that we regularly visit in Brown Hill. Luckily for us, the owner, Pat Green, is happy for us to pick all her lovely figs, as otherwise they get eaten by her dog!

She has a Weimaraner that can stand on its hind legs and reach the fruit and has a tendency to get a little overweight during summer because of it. I'm more than happy to take the figs off her hands, though I always have the dog watching me through the back door!

Pat also has a plum tree that she doesn't want harvested, as she keeps those for herself. She has a persimmon that we will be harvesting for THO when it is ripe.

We recently had another lead for an apple tree in Brown Hill that we are about to follow up.

What do you do with the fruit?

The Hidden Orchard follow the thirds rule, dividing the fruit equally between the tree owner, the volunteers, and the community. However, most of the time, the tree owners have no desire for the fruit and we end up giving more to the community.

Our go-to for small harvests is the 'Food is Free' (FIF) Laneway in Central Ballarat. FIF is a brilliant initiative that we love supporting. When we deliver fruit there we know that it is being accessed by the wider Ballarat community.

We have also delivered fruit to local distribution agencies via Ballarat Community Health, Norman Street Salvation Army, Wendouree Neighbourhood Centre and to school breakfast programs.

Some of the fruit we harvest cannot be eaten fresh, like cooking apples, damson plums, quinces, etc. If we harvest an excess of these kinds of fruits, we keep them and process them into preserves which we then sell to raise money for THO.

What about fruit that is on the ground?

We try and get to fruit before it drops but sometimes that just isn't possible. Damaged fruit is often collected and taken to a local free-range pig farm, or home to feed volunteers' chickens or add to their compost heaps. We have also delivered some loads of damaged fruit to the Ballarat Wildlife Park.

How frequently do you visit a tree?

How frequently we visit a tree depends on the type of fruit and the owner. Some trees may only need visiting once a year, when all their fruit ripens at once. Other trees, like figs, ripen slowly in batches and may require a visit every couple of weeks. Often, properties will have more than one type of fruit tree, which need visits at different times.

We often rely on property owners to contact us once their fruit is ripening, but sometimes we see fruit ripening or dropping as we are driving around town and will attempt to contact the owners.

Do you do anything else with the trees? Pruning etc.?

At the moment we are focusing on harvesting and building up our registers of fruit trees, volunteers, and recipients. When we are fully up and running, we hope to do some pruning training and offer pruning services and workshops, so watch this space!

What is your favourite tree to pick from? Which ones are difficult?

My favourite tree to pick from is definitely my local fig tree. Figs are quite easy to pick, though they can be a challenge to spot amongst the leaves!

A lot of fruit trees in Ballarat are well-established which means they can be incredibly high. Often, we can't reach the tops of the trees and a little fruit is left for the birds. There is a quince tree in central Ballarat that grows very large fruit. Often, the fruit is too big to fit in our pickers' claws and getting it down can be a challenge!

How do you get to the top of the tree?

At the moment we are mainly using small step-ladders and the help of fruit-pickers on long sticks. We received a Ballarat Council Community Grant last year and some of the funds from that will be going to buy a taller orchard/tripod ladder.

Do you get sore arms?

Harvesting can get a little physical, but the picking is varied, and more fun than difficult. Picking from high branches is the most challenging, but you can mix it up by picking some fruit at head height or picking from the ground. There are usually a few volunteers at each harvest and you can swap and change jobs so that no one is doing any one task for too long.

Any messages for people living in Brown Hill?

We would love to see some more fruit trees be registered from Brown Hill, as well as more volunteers. Being a Brown Hill local, I'm keen to meet more people from my local community and build stronger relationships here. It would be great to get some local volunteers who can help us with local harvests and see bonds within our community created and strengthened.

The Hidden Orchard is about redistributing unloved fruit, but it's about much more than that - it's about getting people out into their community, getting some sun and a little exercise, chatting to others that have similar interests in community, food, waste or the environment. It's a free activity that allows you to give back while also going home with new friends and a share of the harvest.

What sort of training do your volunteers need?

Our volunteers don't need any training or special skills. It is really useful if volunteers are able to climb ladders but we have jobs appropriate for pretty much any skill set.

If anyone has pruning knowledge or even administration skills in areas such as social media, promotion, design, etc., we'd love to hear from them, but we will happily take volunteers of any shape or size!

How can people get involved?

Through our website, hiddenorchard.org, anyone who is involved with a community group or food charity that would like to register to receive fruit can sign up.

People can also register fruit trees that they own or know of on our website and/or register as volunteers.

Ellen Burns, founding member of The Hidden Orchard

"The connection Food Is Free Inc. has with The Hidden Orchard makes so much sense. They are all such passionate, dedicated lovers of local produce and warriors when it comes to combating waste - just like our dear volunteers at Food Is Free Inc. We love Kris and her team dropping off produce in abundance to our Laneway site, as it ticks all the boxes of food security, community and promotion of a waste-free society. We applaud what they do and recognise them as a vital local group of wondrously community-minded people.” Lou Ridsdale - Food Is Free Inc. Founder & Director, finalist in the 2018 City of Ballarat's Australia Day Awards for Citizen of the Year. foodisfree.com.au