A Recent History of Velwell Orchard

By Jeremy Weiss

From its conception in 1993, to the present day, Velwell Orchard has undergone significant changes. From a bare, parched field, to a commercial market garden, concentrating on vegetable growing, it has now developed into a mixed smallholding, centred around volunteers. It is now entirely tended and funded by voluntary contributions of time, energy and money. 

Back in 1993 Derek Lapworth founded Velwell Orchard when he purchased a two acre field up a small green lane near Dartington, Devon. Derek recalls how the field was almost bare after a drought, having been overgrazed.

The only patch of green was in one small area of the field.

Over the next few years Derek set to work, planting fruit bushes, trees, and opening up areas for vegetable production. He built a shed for tools, and set up a polytunnel, and began to sell to local shops and box schemes. He started making cordials from rosehips, elder and blackcurrants which he sold locally.

When I began working for Derek in 1997, aged 14, I saw it as an easy way to earn a tenner on a Saturday morning, as the site was just up the road from home. I had no idea I’d still be there more than 20 years later, using the same hoe, watching the same roses growing, harvesting blackcurrants planted many years ago.

By then, Velwell Orchard was already well established at as Biodynamic Market Garden, and a centre for many local Biodynamic events. Derek had close links to the Steiner School just down the road, where I went to school. I continued working for Derek over the years, on weekends and during holidays while attending school, college and then university in Plymouth. I began to get to know the land intimately.

To mark the turn of the millenium, Derek planted a Walnut Tree, where the small patch of green had been in 1993. Only now the tree was surrounded by a beautiful garden, where before had only been bare earth. A colourful oasis full of flowers and insects filled the small valley, and many people came to help out and experience the beauty that Velwell Orchard had become.

Now, in 2021, the tree is the centre of all things at Velwell Orchard. Children love to climb and swing from it, and the hard working volunteers take much needed rest in the shade under its boughs. In the autumn it throws down hundreds of delicious nuts…

The Walnut Tree

 In 2008, Derek announced his retirement and I made the decision to take on the responsibility for continuing the development of the project. It felt like a big commitment but the 1st of January, 2009 saw me signing the lease along with business partner for that year, Hannah Townsend. Hannah and I spent that first year working hard on the land, Hannah growing the salad, while I concentrated on the rest of the fruit and vegetables. Hannah spent only one season at Velwell Orchard, but her salads were so incredibly colourful and tasty, and hopefully that still lives on today.

I ran Velwell Orchard for three years as a commercial market garden, following in Derek’s footsteps. I lost £8000, which was all my savings, and by the end of 2011, I realised something had to change. I was not prepared to get into debt, as Derek had done. It was time for a radical rethink.

I had started my Aikido training in Totnes, in 2003, under Sensei John Stoner. Aikido totally changed the way I saw the world, and was instrumental in allowing me to find a way out of the predicament I was in.

I realised that there was something of a paradox in the way that people value things, in this case fruit and vegetables. On the one hand, I was not bringing in enough to cover the cost of production, the vegetables appeared to be practically worthless. But on the other hand lots of volunteers were turning up to Velwell Orchard to help out and they had a completely different appreciation of the vegetables they went home with. To them, the produce was priceless. Worthless and priceless at the same time? I realised that the produce was by definition “invaluable”.

Invaluable fruit

In Aikido, I was being taught the importance of respect, and of putting oneself in the place of others. I was also taught how to disarm someone of a knife, and how to free my wrist from someones grasp. I had direct experience that the harder you pull your wrist away, the harder the grasp becomes. The more you try to take something away from someone, the more they want to keep hold of it.

Sensei John taught me that it is not the knife in the hand that is the problem, but the mind of the person whose hand holds the knife. And I suddenly realised that money is just the same as the knife, it’s a tool, not a problem. It depends upon the person, what they do with the money or the knife. Can you imagine a ten pound note jumping out of your wallet and attempting to strangle you?

So I decided to embark on an experiment. Instead of selling vegetables for a fixed price, we’d give them away instead. Those who took the produce would be welcome to make a contribution, in whatever way they could, to keep the project going. I remember one friend commenting that it sounded like financial suicide but we started the new system in 2012, and now, 9 years later, we haven’t lost any money! In fact, the generosity shown by everyone has been extremely humbling.

We have money coming in through regular donations, a jam jar in the packing shed, and significant sums have been donated for specific projects such as a new polytunnel and vital repairs to the track. A lady who died recently left us a significant sum in her will. After many years of struggle it’s a relief and a joy to be tending the land with such an enormous amount of support.