Bloomington Community Orchard: Prosperity for the Commons

An orchard available to all is setting the standard for community resource sharing.


Bloomington Community Orchard in 2013
Photo courtesy Bloomington Community Orchard
Picture a pasture open to all. A group of shepherds stocks the pasture, each introducing a single sheep from their herd. A bit of time goes on, and one of the shepherds notices that while they keep all the income after selling their animal, any costs associated with damages to the field are shared among their fellow shepherds. They go ahead and add another sheep, then another, and another. Their neighbors naturally do the same, until the pasture is munched to a moribund mud pit.

Reading like a fable, the shepherds’ tale illustrates one of contemporary economics’ most entrenched beliefs: The collective management of a resource by self-interested co-owners ultimately leads to the demise of their shared asset. This “tragedy of the commons,” to use the phrase coined in 1968 by ecologist Garrett Hardin, portends that “freedom in a commons brings ruin to all.”

Five decades later, in ways more practical than philosophical, a single acre of land tucked into an Indiana college town is demonstrating that a shared resource can, in fact, avoid tragedy — and it’s doing so with fruit trees, rather than sheep.

In the orchard’s early years, board members and volunteers built fence posts, planted cover crops to improve the site’s soil, and planted new fruit trees.


Photos courtesy Bloomington Community Orchard

Blooming in Bloomington

Bloomington Community Orchard is one of the first community orchards in the United States. A doughnut hole at the center of a ring of residential neighborhoods, the orchard occupies one of 30 wooded acres of city parkland, 2-1/2 miles southeast of downtown. From the street, the orchard’s meandering rows of apples, plums, cherries, and currants, along with clusters of more than a dozen types of berries, might blend into its woodland backdrop. A visitor could be distracted by the sounds of cheering Little League fans watching a game at the baseball diamonds across the street, or by a pickup game of basketball at the nearby YMCA. But step into the orchard, and you’ll be transported. Depending on the season, ‘Whitney’ and ‘Manchurian’ crabapple trees will display either an explosion of white flowers or clusters of red fruit. ‘Redhaven’ peach trees may present bright-gold fall foliage, or hang heavy with blushing yellow orbs. You may stumble upon fruit not typically found in a grocery store: ‘Chocolate’ persimmon, ‘Aromatnaya’ quince, a couple of jujubes, and North America’s largest native wild fruit, the pawpaw. If you manage to snack your way to the orchard’s center, you’ll be rewarded with a strawberry patch sprouting asparagus spears encircled by two types of plums and a half-dozen pear cultivars.

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