Two years ago, the idea of picking fresh fruit from a public tree without paying in Bloomington was unheard of. Now, thanks to Amy Countryman, an entire orchard is dedicated just to that cause.
“This is food, and it’s free,” the 35-year-old force behind the Bloomington Community Orchard said. “You should be able to come in and pick apples and take them home just because you can, and because we care about each other like that.”
The orchard is located in Winslow Woods Park at 2120 S. Highland Ave. and is one of the only projects of its kind in the nation. It is publicly owned, operating in partnership with the Bloomington Parks and Recreation Department. Among its goals are to contribute to Bloomington’s food security, inspire joyful community engagement and educate citizens.
The volunteer-run orchard not only provides annual harvests that are available to anyone in the community, it also educates community members to grow their own.
“We care about helping people grow fruit trees in their own yard so people can use that in their own lives,” Countryman said.
Countryman moved to Bloomington 14 years ago when her family started an organic farm. Growing up in Indianapolis, she recalls, she enjoyed working on the garden with her father.
“That kind of carried through my life,” she said.
Growing food and making it accessible was always an important part of her life, Countryman said. When she was pregnant with her son and unable to have her own garden, she helped friends in the area with their farms.
This story is part of a series called Student Reports that features the work of students at the IU School of Journalism.
While tending one of about a thousand trees in a friend’s orchard in Daviess County, Countryman realized how much potential an orchard has.
“I was amazed by how much fruit was coming off these fruit trees,” she said. “Just bushels and bushels of fruit, and that really moved me. I thought we should have fruit trees everywhere so that people can have access to food.”
This small idea grew into a larger vision when Countryman decided to put it into words. After typing a proposal for a community orchard in her School of Public and Environmental Affairs (SPEA) undergraduate thesis paper, she decided to give a copy to the city of Bloomington.
A month later, Countryman received a phone call from a member of the city government accepting the proposal. Shortly after, the orchard was born.
Countryman called a public meeting in February 2010, and by Oct. 9 of that year volunteers planted the first trees. Since then, the number of citizens involved in the orchard expanded to eight board members and many more volunteers.
Countryman hopes it will continue to grow.
“In the beginning people looked at me like the leader of the orchard,” she said. “I’m really excited about being involved, but I don’t want this to be my orchard. I want this to be the community’s orchard.”
For now, Countryman does various tasks for the orchard. These include tending trees, keeping up with maintenance, working on the finance and government committee and helping volunteers.
Countryman mostly values the bonds that form while working.
"I’m really excited about being involved, but I don’t want this to be my orchard. I want this to be the community’s orchard." - Amy Countryman, Bloomington Community Orchard
“My favorite part about it is just all the people that I’ve gotten to meet,” she said. “It feels like a gift to be able to work together with a lot of different people toward a common goal that none of us are getting paid for.”
Stacey Decker, Countryman’s friend and co-worker, is one of those people.
Although Decker met Countryman about eight years ago, their friendship blossomed when she heard about the orchard proposal.
“My first thought was, ‘Wow, this is a really good idea,'” she said.
Now Decker works on the operations team as the volunteer coordinator. She responds to involvement requests from the community orchard website and coordinates volunteer efforts with Countryman.
Decker credits the orchard’s success to Countryman’s dedication to Bloomington.
“I think Amy is a mover,” she said. “She really has a wonderful community involvement. She’s kind of one of those people that is really out there.”
Decker also believes Countryman’s desire to bring people together creates a goal for the community. This allows more people to get involved and feel like they are working toward the same outcome, she said.
“She can really engage somebody very easily,” Decker said. “She’s a great public speaker and really can just speak passionately about the orchard, and I think people really gravitate towards that.”
Despite Countryman’s dedication to the orchard, she has other goals in life. Taking care of her family, including a new husband and her 5-year-old son, is a top priority.
She also is working on a master’s degree in public affairs at IU in sustainable development and public management.
Although Countryman doesn’t know what her next project will be, she has some ideas, including a community wide composting system.
“I don’t know exactly what I want to do when I graduate,” she said. “But I would like to do something useful to help out.”
Emily Peters can be reached at .