The Standen Fruit Farm orchard is situated in Kent in the High Weald – an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB). With its heavy clays, poor sandy soils and steep hills the High Weald is particularly suited to growing fruit and vegetables and the county of Kent has been known as the Garden of England since Tudor times.
Traditional orchards with large ‘full standard’ trees were once a common sight across England and especially in the Weald. However, with the advent of the easy to pick dwarf trees, the number of traditional orchards has declined by nearly 60% since the 1950s. The Standen Fruit Farm is believed to be one of the largest traditional apple orchards remaining in the South East of England.
The volunteers of the Standen Fruit Farm Community Orchard Association work to maintain and preserve the special habitat of the land near Iden Green in the Parish of Benenden. Here are some of the milestones in the history of the site and its owners and managers.
From fruit farm to parcels of land
The advertising copy for the Standen Fruit Farm plots extolled the investment value of the land. People from throughout the UK, possibly hoping one day to build a retirement bungalow or chalet, flocked to buy either single or multiple plots. But stringent planning restrictions prevented plotholders from developing their land and – with more than 150 different owners – it became impossible to farm commercially. It wasn’t long before the trees were neglected and much of the 55 acres became derelict.
Into the 1990s
Standen Fruit Farm Development Association formed
From the outset, an association of plot owners had been formed which soon became the Standen Fruit Farm Development Association. Its first chairman was Stanley Jasper. Initially the Association had the backing of the farm’s new owner who still retained more than 100 plots as well as all the access ways. In 1975 he applied for permission to build eight houses facing the road which was denied and it became clear that there would be no possibility of developing the land. In the following years, the orchard benefited from little or no maintenance and it rapidly became overgrown with brambles strangling the trees. The neglected orchard featured in a television report on Channel Four News in the early 1990s following which grants were received to clear the land and plant hundreds of replacement trees. It seemed a Herculean task but Eric Preece, the Association’s then chairman, persevered – not only reviving the orchard but teaching the art of grafting to perpetuate the DNA of the older apple varieties.
Tracing owners, going organic and becoming a charity
Eric Preece died in 2004 but work in the orchard continued in his spirit. One major task was to trace all the plot owners and inform them about what the Association (SFFDA) was doing on behalf of all to restore the orchard, steward the land, seek grants and recruit local volunteers to work on the land.
The management committee – all volunteers – with David Nichols (Chairman), Thai Goulton (Secretary), Mary Powles (Treasurer) and Kent Barker (Orchard Manager) began to look for new sources of income to cover the annually recurring expenditures for pruning and mowing and servicing equipment. Grants were being applied for and the sheep were being brought back to graze the orchard. But before that could happen, the young trees needed protecting which meant re-staking and netting hundreds of trees.
In 2007 SFFDA also began the five-year process of obtaining ‘organic’ status. This meant that only sheep that had never grazed on land that uses pesticides were allowed in the orchard – consequently farmer Keith Bugden of Woodchurch moved in his organic flock. In order to attract more volunteers and be eligible for further grants the Association members agreed in 2011 that their plots should form a Community Orchard. With a grant from the High Weald AONB the Association bought a chain saw, pole pruner, masher and apple press. The Big Lottery Fund paid to replace the old metal gates with traditional ones in oak. Another grant-aided acquisition was an old Fordson Major tractor.
In 2011 the orchard’s crop was picked and 21 huge bins shipped to a cider producer – the first time apples from the orchard had been sold since the 1970s.
In 2013 the Association was granted charitable status as the ‘Standen Fruit Farm Community Orchard Association’, registration number 1152055.
The orchard today
Plenty to do
The Association’s annual ‘Apple Day’ has become a firm fixture in the yearly calendar of the orchard – giving plotholders, associate members and the wider public an opportunity to enjoy the beauty and the fruits of this special place that is Standen Street Orchard.
Today, the main challenges remain the annual pruning of some 2000 fruit trees, paying pickers and finding markets for the apples.