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.
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.
The bounty provided by just 1 acre is indicative of the “abundance culture” that Josh David has observed taking root in Bloomington. David is board chair of Bloomington Community Orchard, and chair of Bloomington Community Orchard’s governance committee. He came to the orchard a few years after its founding in 2010, motivated by its mission to expand Bloomington’s legacy of local food. He talks about the city of 85,000 residents as though it’s an oversized small town, no doubt because roughly half that population, made up of students attending Indiana University’s flagship campus, seems to ebb and flow with the seasons.
“When outsiders envision a small town in Indiana, they might think soybeans or corn or race cars,” David says. But he asserts that a more accurate image should include a vibrant regional food system. The Bloomington Community Farmers’ Market has operated for 46 years. Aspiring green thumbs support numerous landscaping services and garden centers. And the orchard’s cousin, Willie Streeter Community Gardens, has been growing at the north end of the same woodland complex since 1984. Over the years, students have often intensified the fervor for local food, offering labor and love in ready supply.
In fact, the metaphorical seeds of a community orchard were planted about 11 years ago by an Indiana University student plugging away at her senior thesis. In late 2009, Amy Countryman was researching community orchards in pursuit of an environmental science degree. She was introduced to the work of economist Elinor Ostrom, whose pioneering ideas on community-owned resources — in particular, those challenging the notion that a “tragedy of the commons” will always prevent local communities from successfully managing their jointly held resources — earned her the 2009 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences, and she was the first woman to be presented the award. Ostrom argued that people can collectively manage a natural resource when their well-being is intertwined with it and with each other.
Countryman graduated after submitting her final word on the prospects of a Bloomington community orchard: “Local conditions are indeed sufficient to support the establishment of such a program here.” Her thesis brought ivory-tower economics down to the dirt of public land, and Bloomington city officials liked her paper so much that they granted 1 acre of Winslow Woods Park and $2,000 of seed money to pilot a community orchard.
A group of hopeful orchardists held their first public meeting in 2010, kicking the idea into action. Countryman took on the role of facilitator at these early talks, and enlisted friends and family to help. They had few precedents, but could demonstrate enough moxie to operate for at least the 10-year life span of a raspberry bramble (or, with enough foresight, for the life of a plum tree or even an apple tree). Satisfied with their plan, the city agreed to let the group operate as a subsidiary under its 501(c)(3) umbrella, saving a lot of administrative costs. It also donated irrigation water for the first two years. Although the city employed a certified urban forester, day-to-day orcharding would remain up to the orchard’s board and volunteers.
For the first year, volunteers didn’t spend much time planting fruit trees at all. Rather, they planted the site with cover crops, intended to loosen the mostly clay soil and build up nitrogen. One volunteer cut down his backyard locust trees to build fence posts. Another built a garden shed. Neighbors who owned stables pitched in manure; local stores donated cardboard for mulching; and a brewery sent over spent malted-grain mash for composting.
Dani Ansaldo remembers those initial years, and the strong dedication to permaculture principles that threaded the volunteers together. “Experimentation is welcome as long as decisions are made collectively and promote restorative agriculture,” she says. Ansaldo is chair of the operations team of Bloomington Community Orchard, but she’s more tellingly known as the “drought queen,” a nickname earned during the orchard’s second year, when she helped the orchard narrowly avoid disaster. The orchard’s site makes adding a water line impossible without great expense, including tearing up a road. The orchard has instead made do with an old water tank truck refilled off-site. But the truck could barely keep up during the summer of 2012, when Indiana experienced its worst drought in 24 years. Young fruit trees are a thirsty bunch, most vulnerable to dry spells during their first five years. Determined to save the orchard, Ansaldo led a literal bucket brigade, carrying one 5-gallon pail per arm back and forth from the nearest spigot for days, until the rains finally came in mid-August. The orchard survived.
In the years since, a water-catchment system made from small barrels fills quickly during rainstorms, while improved soil stores quite a lot of water on its own. The trees have also matured. The orchardists choose only semi-dwarf varieties — growing to an average height of 15 feet — to avoid the need to purchase or rent a bucket truck. Rather, a sturdy orchard ladder will do.
The site’s perennial challenges will be familiar to home orchardists. Four out of five plum trees have succumbed to black knot, a disease caused by the fungus Apiosporina morbosa that causes black swellings on new shoots. Volunteers have had some success grafting a native wild plum with disease resistance onto the rootstock. Peaches and other stone fruits tend to be susceptible to brown rot (caused by the fungus Monilinia fructicola), causing the flowers to wither and the fruit to shrivel into furry brown “mummies.” Organic sulfur sprays have helped. The orchard had problems with water puddling until volunteers created swales following the contour of a hill and built raised beds to use as propagation sites. When thistle began to take over, volunteers planted comfrey and mountain mint; the thistle all but disappeared.
Mostly, troubleshooting gives way to happier experiments, such as “chop-and-drop” fertilization: Plant deep-rooted comfrey along the drip line of fruit trees to break up the soil and tap into minerals. When the comfrey is mature, chop it at the base and watch the plant drop its mineral-laden leaves as an inexpensive fertilizer. Volunteers also experiment with no-mow zones, and Ansaldo is fond of espalier, a pruning method that trains trees to grow along a fence or trellis to create a living wall. “It’s almost like the tree is holding its arm out to offer its fruit,” she says.
Photos courtesy Bloomington Community Orchard
Any community orchard sited on public land will face a predicament of the commons: Who gets a share in the harvest? And how will they receive it? Right away, Bloomington Community Orchard’s board chose not to distribute any fruit directly and instead turned to local groups to share the surplus. Mother Hubbard’s Cupboard, a food pantry, receives the most perishable produce, putting it to immediate use in cooking and food-preservation classes. Fruits with a longer shelf life, such as apples, go to Hoosier Hills Food Bank for distribution throughout the region. So far, surplus has been modest. “We’ve given fruit more symbolically,” David says, anticipating that the orchard will have more to give over the coming years.
Photos courtesy Bloomington Community Orchard
Some of the more special moments happen when newcomers visit the orchard. When Pokémon Go launched in July 2016, young people could be spotted, their faces buried in smartphone screens, stalking elusive digital creatures among the trees. Ansaldo recalls running into a couple of young athletes taking a cool-down lap in the orchard after practice at the YMCA across the street. “The image of teenage boys stopping in after playing basketball to munch strawberries was so sweet to watch,” Ansaldo says. Other high school students have taken their senior portraits here. A few couples have even gotten married in the orchard, including its original proponent Amy Countryman. Guests attended a short ceremony, followed by a workday thinning the strawberry patch.
Advice for Would-Be Orchardists
For aspiring community orchardists, David and Ansaldo offer some advice:
First, figure out the business model that’s right for you. Expenses in 2018 totaled about $22,000 for Bloomington Community Orchard. More than half the sum went to maintaining tools, replacing trees, and hosting community events. Insurance consumed around $2,000. Each time the board members have considered hiring paid staff, they’ve decided against it. Even one staff person requires accounting and human resources, not to mention a salary and overhead. What this choice has sacrificed in efficiency and record-keeping — the orchardists make do without a comprehensive inventory of trees or total pounds of fruit harvested each year — it has made up in the organization’s ability to operate at a relatively low cost.
Second, articulate your business model in a way that supports the hunger programs already at work in your city. In Bloomington, the city’s enthusiastic buy-in was essential to the orchard’s success from the outset. Underpinning buy-in is the longer-term strategy to elect the right leaders. David concedes that Bloomington has a reputation in the region for being “crunchy granola,” but the city’s history of proactive and open political discourse has led residents to elect the right leaders to support forward-thinking initiatives, such as the orchard.
Third, develop a site-specific maintenance plan. Bloomington Community Orchard’s is a month-by-month, tree-by-tree care schedule that promotes the orchard’s overall health while maintaining compliance with city park guidelines. Ansaldo has learned that gardeners have strong opinions about technique. “Just vote; go with one way this time, and document how things do throughout the season. Then, you can tweak it for the next year,” she recommends.
Finally, don’t let your enthusiasm get the best of you. Only expand the orchard at the rate your resources can effectively maintain. Ansaldo suggests a good schedule might be to grow out the orchard with additional trees for two years, and then spend two years maintaining those trees before growing further. A couple of years in, the city offered the orchard more land. The board contemplated the logistics; imagined people ferrying tools, trees, and volunteers across multiple locations; and concluded that expanding too early would risk putting the cart before the horse. “We needed the flagship site to be a shining example,” David says, adding that city officials were impressed with that response, vowing to accept a “no” answer only temporarily.
That temporary stay on expansion was lifted in 2018, when the city made an offer the orchard couldn’t refuse: planting Bloomington’s first organic nut grove. The city offered to pay for the trees, soil amendments, and mulch if the orchard would select the most suitable nuts and get to work planting. That fall, the orchardists planted 60 nut trees, including walnuts, pecans, and hazelnuts.
In 2020, Bloomington Community Orchard reached its 10-year anniversary, and David is confident the orchard will help sustain an abundance culture, sidestepping tragedy to bring only prosperity to the commons for years to come. “What we’re fundamentally trying to do is change the landscape of a town — physically and philosophically — to give food back to the community.”
8 Principles for Managing a Community Orchard
Adapted from economist Elinor Ostrom’s Nobel Prize-winning work on common-pool resources, Bloomington Community Orchard exhibits the eight design principles of stable management of common resources.
- Define clear boundaries.
- Address local needs. Make sure you’re matching rules governing the use of a community orchard to local conditions.
- Set democratic procedures. Ensure that those affected by the rules can participate in modifying the rules.
- Establish autonomy. Make sure outside authorities respect the rule-making rights of community members.
- Monitor. Develop a system, even a loose one, for monitoring members’ use of the orchard.
- Take action to curtail abuse. Use graduated sanctions for people who violate the rules of the orchard. (Bloomington’s orchardists have so far never needed to apply any more pressure beyond simple reminders to share the bounty.)
- Resolve conflicts by providing means to settle disputes.
- Recognize that more than one tier of government exists. The city of Bloomington retains control of the land, for example.
These principles can serve as a foundation, but any effort should be bolstered by effective communication and trust-building.
Kale Roberts is a former editor for MOTHER EARTH NEWS who currently works to promote global sustainability, biodiversity, and the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals from New York’s Hudson Valley.