PRINCESS ANNE — Three years in the making, the Fruitland Mini Orchard is ready for its first harvest. The University of Maryland Eastern Shore Extension’s Well Connected Communities and Horticulture and Fruits programs partnered with the City of Fruitland to serve the community by providing outreach activities to learn about backyard fruit cultivation and sustainability while addressing food insecurity in the Tri-County area.
Situated on a 3,600 square foot plot in a corner of the Fruitland Recreational Park by the playground, the 46-tree orchard has the potential to yield 5,000 pounds of fruit per year, said Dr. Naveen Kumar Dixit, assistant professor of horticulture and extension specialist at UMES. It includes eight different varieties of apple, pear, peach and plum trees.
“This project shows that in a small area, we can produce a substantial amount of fresh, local fruit for the community,” Dixit said. “Our motto is converting grasslands into fruit land. We want to bring fruit cultivation, a once thriving industry on the Eastern Shore, back. The best thing is we just helped plant the trees and provided guidance, but the success is due to the community members who have been taking care of the trees for the past three years.”
Linda Powell, a City of Fruitland employee, took on a leadership role in organizing community members to “help out” in the orchard. Her persuasiveness has resulted in young and old alike pitching in to prune and care for the orchard year-round. She even has members of the Fruitland Volunteer Fire Company lending a hand with the watering detail.
“It has been well received in the community. It’s nice to interact and get to know each other while we are working and learning about what we are doing and what we would like to achieve,” Powell said. Now that there is finally fruit on the trees, she said, community volunteers are anxious to partake of their labors. “They ask, ‘When can we get some!’”
The project came about as a way to teach healthy eating and living habits and help address food insecurity in three Lower Eastern Shore communities, a goal of UMES’ Nutrition and Health Program and the Well Connected Communities initiative funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. A community-driven health needs assessment resulted in the selection of three different projects, one for each of the communities, including “Make Fruits Available to All.”
“We have to do our best to help the population get access to healthy food,” said Dr. Virginie Zoumenou, director of UMES Extension’s Nutrition and Health Program. She points to data from a 2019 Maryland food system map derived from the U.S. Census (2013-17) that lists those experiencing food insecurity at 18% for Somerset, 14% for Wicomico, and 12% for Worcester, above the average of 10% for the state.
“More importantly, empowering the community may lead to more positive and sustainable health behavior changes and may move all involved toward achieving health equity among all groups of people,” Zoumenou said.
— Gail Stephens is the agricultural communications specialist with the UMES School of Agricultural and Natural Sciences and UMES Extension.