Growing fruit trees will be a familiar and natural part of school life in the state of Maine in North Eastern United States if Richard Hodges has his way.
He founded the charitable organization, ReTreeUS, in 2009, with the goal of offering local schools the opportunity to have an orchard planted on school property – for free.
Hodges’ goal is to help the students and their teachers get their hands dirty. Students are trained to plant the trees and he trains staff to oversee fruit tree maintenance activities including pruning, mulching, and monitoring for pests and disease.
Signage is an important part of the program as Hodges has developed signs for the school orchards that teach children about local food production and the environment, the benefits of trees, and the role of pollinators in food production.
As for the “yum” factor, Hodges has carefully selected fruit tree varieties for school plantings that are hardy, disease-resistant and well-suited to the local climate – and that will produce fruit that tastes great!
“This year we are planting Northern Spy and Liberty apple as well as Contender peach and native Beach Plums. We are also introducing Maine heirloom varieties like Black Oxford to schools, communicating the rich apple history Maine has,” Hodges says.
Hodges has been interested in agriculture and the environment since he himself was in high school but he developed this idea during a stint working in a permaculture farm abroad.
“I had opportunity to plant some fruit trees at a small school in Costa Rica with a permaculture farm I was working at and I became interested in garden education. I realized that fruit trees are a good option for schools because the kids get to see a legacy over time when the trees produce fruit.”
While cash strapped public schools do not have to pay for these orchards, Hodges has worked hard to secure funding in other ways through grants, donations and even memberships.
For instance, a $20 membership to ReTreeUS will give you access to the group’s newsletter and free admission to events. For $100 you can have a plaque installed in your name at the base of one of the school fruit trees. For $500 you can have an entire school orchard planted in your name, which will be reflected in the school’s educational signage.
To date, ReTreeUS has planted 10 school orchards in Maine and two partnership orchards with non-profit groups – and each year that number is growing.
As for the future? In 2015, Hodges is developing school curriculum materials that schools can use to help teach young people about fruit trees, how they grow and how to care for them.
“It’s going to start this spring with grafting lessons that we will be doing at some participating high schools where students will learn about heirloom apple varieties that originated in Maine,” he says.
“The students will get opportunity to graft their own trees that they can take home and plant. The lesson will go over history as well as science of grafting so it’s pretty interdisciplinary”
As for the future? The non-profit is called ReTreeUS because Hodges’ goal is to offer free orchards to schools not just in the state of Maine but across the country.
“My goal is to create a really successful model in Maine and eventually to build enough funding and support so that we can partner with other organizations to help plant the trees in their regions. ReTreeUs could be a hub to obtain trees and to find partnership organizations.”
You can learn more about ReTreeUs at http://www.retreeus.org. And if you want to learn more about buying fruit trees that will thrive in your unique climate, check out Orchard People’s Certificate in Beginner Fruit Tree Care at www.orchardpeople.com.