Fruitful thinking in Reading
PUBLISHED: 14:47 14 October 2020 | UPDATED: 14:47 14 October 2020
For Ryan Simpson, a project that began over a pint in his local has really taken off, and now he is making the county more fruity!
“I love foraging, and while out with my dogs in the Thames Valley, I used to think how nice it would be for people to be able to forage apples and plums while out walking,” says Ryan Simpson from Lower Earley.
A design director of a global events company, married to Hollie and with three “furry kids” – rescue pugs – Ryan says: “I love the greenery and open spaces in Berkshire, especially Simon’s Wood and the Loddon River. But each time I walked the dogs I began to wonder why there wasn’t more fruit growing in the area. I started to think about how we could make more fruit freely available.”
Around the same time, Ryan had visited a food bank and seen that they’d had apples delivered from New Zealand. The fruit was fine, but because it was past its sell-by date, it went to landfill. “It was staggering. All that produce, all the air miles... what a waste. I thought there had to be a better way. Surely we could grow more fruit in our own country?”
Soon afterwards, Ryan was having a drink with two of his friends – Matt Knight, a school teacher at Shinfield St Mary’s Junior School, and James Whittingham, a telecoms director of his own business – in The Poachers, part of the Sindlesham Moat House. “I told them about how I wanted to put more fruit out into the community,” says Ryan. “And they loved the idea – that we didn’t need to buy apples from abroad, we could grow our own food locally, and if we did so, we would be helping to reduce carbon emissions. So that was it; we decided to embark on our vision to make the community more fruity!”
At the back of James’ house, there is a plot of land owned by Hatch Farm, earmarked for development. “We asked if we could use it as an allotment to grow some fruit for food banks locally – to feed people who can’t afford to buy fruit and veg,” says Ryan. “We asked for donations of plants, compost, pots and more – and put in some of our own money. We started small with potato, vegetable and strawberry beds, but with the help of the community and growing our own plants from seeds, we have now managed to build enclosures to home more than 600 tomato plants, 400 strawberry plants, 100 raspberry plants, hundreds of peppers, brassicas, courgettes and loads of other vegetables. You name it, we probably grow it.
“When we started the only thing I’d grown before were strawberries. Fortunately, Matt was very knowledgeable and we’re like farmers now!”
They give weekly donations – kilos of produce – every Sunday to four or five different food banks and organisations. “Food banks often have tinned and packaged goods but they’re short on fresh produce, so that’s where we come in,” says Ryan.
They have since become a registered charity called Freely Fruity. “We are now looking into developing other sites and helping with other local projects,” he says. “For example, St Nicholas Church in Earley want to work with us, and Emmanuel Church in Woodley have their own kitchen garden they’d like our help with. We are hoping to help the students at Blue Coat School in Sonning with their current site and also Reading University.”
The three Freely Fruity men want to encourage people to be more sustainable. “We want to educate the younger generations about where food comes from – not just the supermarket shelves – and the value of growing their own. It’s a life skill and the next generation will hopefully learn to appreciate healthy food. It would be fantastic for local councils to start replacing planting trees with fruit trees, and if all new housing developments had a community growing space, including individual growing spaces in each new garden, it would be wonderful. I also the love the idea of ‘Foodscaping’, which is where homes grow specific fruits and veg and swap produce with their neighbours,” says Ryan.
“Now with autumn in full swing; harvests are slowing down. And as we come to the end of our first growing season, we look to next year. Hatch Farm has agreed to allow us another year on our current site, which is fantastic, but we are still looking for a forever home... and we always need donations of plants. Please get in touch if you can help.”
Freely Fruity has been a labour of love for Ryan and his friends. “We grow fresh food for people who really need it,” he says. “It’s local, it’s organic – it can’t get much better than that. And the feeling we get when we distribute it is pure joy.”
It’s amazing what can come to ‘fruition’ after a pint in the pub!