As the cider revival continues, Sally Coulthard talks to Orchards of Husthwaite’s Cameron Smith about a sweet success.
In these straitened times, economic success stories are few and far between. And yet one small North Yorkshire venture is doing rather well. What’s perhaps more surprising is that it’s essentially a community project run entirely by volunteers, in an industry that’s traditionally dominated by big corporate brands.
Orchards of Husthwaite was formed in 2009 by Lawrie Hill, Philip Hewitson and Cameron Smith, with one ambitious goal: to plant hundreds of fruit trees in and around the village, collect the crop and transform it into juices and ciders. A bold idea but also one that tapped into Husthwaite’s heritage as a focus for fruit growing. For three centuries villagers had been furiously cultivating and exporting fruit to surrounding regions.
Renowned for its apples, pears and plums, Husthwaite had long been labelled the “Orchard Village” and it was only as late as the 1950s that production finally stopped and the orchards were grubbed up.
With only a few residents left who remembered these glorious fruit harvests, Orchards of Husthwaite formed just in time to record the story and revive the village’s link to a 300-year-old tradition.
Four years on and the business is still growing. Orchards of Husthwaite has established itself as well-known and popular brand in the local area, selling to wholesale customers and at farmers’ markets, beer festivals and fairs. What’s more, the project has used its profits to help other worthwhile causes in Husthwaite including supporting village groups, buying a new church door and village noticeboard, funding the village fete and donating £7,000 to help build a new village hall.
So what’s the recipe behind the success? It’s tricky enough to turn a profit in a conventional business, with paid staff, so how has a volunteer-led group managed such a coup? And, more importantly, are there any lessons other community groups can take away from Orchards of Husthwaite’s experiences?
Projects that involve volunteers always come with their own set of challenges. People are often passionate at the start but their interest can soon wane, making it difficult to see a venture through from beginning to end. People’s lives are complicated – they can’t always fulfil commitments, especially ones that are unpaid, so how has Orchards of Husthwaite managed to keep its volunteers keen as mustard?
On chatting to its chairman, Cameron Smith, one of the things that you can’t help noticing is that the project has always been run by a small number of very dedicated people. What started as a group of three is now still only five, including Husthwaite residents Jim Murray, Jane Maloney, Erik Seaman, Jan Coulthard and, very much at the core, Cameron. Villagers help en masse at busy times of the year – such as harvest time and pressing – but the day-to-day management is undertaken by a tightly-knit group of committed individuals rather than a huge swathe of press-ganged “volunteers”. Lesson one: bigger is definitely not always better.
Orchards of Husthwaite also takes its business seriously. If a community project is going to attract funding it has to be absolutely rigorous in its approach to finances and strategy; public money is precious so it’s handed out only when there’s concrete evidence of the underlying sustainability of a project. Orchards of Husthwaite had this and managed to secure grants to pay for fruit trees and convert a village building into a base for its activities. When Cameron tells me his background is in retail management and he’s started three businesses over the last 40 years from scratch, it becomes clear why the project had the confidence to compete for funding and have a clear commercial goal. Lesson two: just because a project is run by volunteers doesn’t mean it can’t be savvy.
Beyond the boardroom stuff, there’s also a lot to be said for setting up a project that genuinely piques your interest. “The project originally came from the History Society,” explains Cameron. “We decided to research and try and capture the story of why and how Husthwaite was renowned as the orchard village of North Yorkshire.”
From those seeds grew the idea of replanting the orchards. “I have also always liked to mess around with fruit trees,” Cameron laughs, so it was a joy to learn more about the art of growing and pressing fruit. Lesson three: Get involved because you’re passionate about something.
As with other businesses there’s an imperative to keep up-to-date and constantly evolving. With a market as competitive as cider, Orchards of Husthwaite soon realised that it was crucial to keep customers coming back by introducing new and exciting flavours and products. “We now make apple juice, apple and pear cider, fruit liquors and grow up to 300 Yorkshire and heritage variety fruit trees to sell each year. Our bestseller is the Galtres Blush cider – a dry cider blended with strawberry, raspberry and cherry juice – and my favourite is the Galtres Gold Apple cider. But the experiment that surprised me the most has been the popularity of Galtres Toffee Apple cider, a new line that is selling as well as Blush.” (If you’re lucky enough to catch Orchards of Husthwaite at Hovingham Farmers’ Market on the first Saturday of every month there are always new flavours to test and delectable samples to sip.) Lesson four: Keep your community project fresh and relevant.
And what plans for the future? Running the project is clearly all-consuming for an already busy Cameron, who also has to fit in working full-time at Ampleforth Abbey. “My hopes are that someone else in the village with the energy and time needed comes along to eventually replace me,” he admits.
But with 2013 being hailed by British cider makers as having the best apple tree blossom in more than ten years and the fact that consumer demand for cider has rocketed by an astonishing 24 per cent since 2006, it seems that things will continue to be buzzing for Orchards of Husthwaite.
With that kind of news I think Cameron might need a steadying drink.