Food insecurity is an international issue exacerbated by the global pandemic and some, such as Guelph activist and orchardist, Matt Soltys, are identifying simple, local solutions to this complex problem.
“The pandemic has certainly highlighted how fragile our dependence on the international economy can be,” said Soltys. “Imagine if every neighbourhood had a home orchard in it. We could be so much more resilient.”
Soltys has been managing the orchard at the Ignatius Jesuit Centre since 2019 but his passion for gardening as well as his connection to urban agriculture and local activism goes back more than 20 years.
He is the author of a book on social and environmental issues called Tangled Roots and from 2005 to 2010 he hosted a radio show of the same name on 93.3 CFRU at the University of Guelph.
“I have always seen food as this amazing confluence on so many issues of class and social justice,” said Soltys. “Access to health and nutrition, how we are adapting to climate change, having more of a local food economy. All of these things are big and important issues that unite everyone really.”
In 2006 he identified local food resources that were being under-utilized, even neglected.
“I used to run the Fruit Tree Project,” he said. “We basically built a data base of people with fruit trees in their yards that they didn’t use that much, and we organized volunteers to harvest the fruit like cherries, apples, pears, whatever and we would donate the fruit to shelters, food banks and stuff like that. It was a popular program and that taught me how many people have fruit trees out there that aren’t being used.”
It planted the seed in his mind for a unique business concept that is, not so much a new idea, but the re-imagining of a traditional way of life.
“Two generations ago everyone had more food security,” he said, “They had fruit trees and fruit bushes if not an animal or two.”
He decided if he was going to do more, he had to learn more.
“I went back to U of G in 2017 and I am just finishing my undergrad now,” said Soltys. “It’s a bachelor of arts and science in biology and philosophy – mainly focused on biology and plant science. So, I have been studying that stuff in university and also with my job I have been equipping myself with the relevant knowledge.”
Soltys lives in The Ward with his wife and two young children where they maintain a large and varied garden.
“Here at my place, we have more than 20 different species of fruits and nuts,” he said. “We are always planting new things, but I love seeing how much the kids love picking the berries. In July when raspberries, gooseberries, currants, mulberries and elderberries are ripe, the kids love it. They just get lost in the bushes and that to me is another big part of my motivation. That all kids can know that joy of eating fresh, delicious, healthy fruit from right outside their homes.”
It is from his home and garden that he formalized the concept for his new business, The Urban Orchardist. He then applied for a grant under the Seeding Our Future project, which is one of 40 projects supported by the City of Guelph and Wellington County as part of the Grow Back Better: Our Food Future’s 10-point, COVID-19 recovery plan.
“They got awarded $10 million for a more circular food economy,” said Soltys. “My business proposal for the Urban Orchardist won one out of 40 small business grants. That gave me $5,000 and a small business mentorship, which has been instrumental.”
The business concept encourages people in the city to plant new fruit trees and better maintain existing trees.
“I found 10 years ago when I bought this place that people I knew that had fruit trees didn’t know how to prune them and that no one in Guelph currently specializes in offering services that specialize in fruit tree pruning and horticulture education,” said Soltys. “I want to fill that gap and be that resource to people to care for mature trees and also get new trees starting out on a good foot.”
He offers a suite of pruning and maintenance plans along with organic disease and pest control services as well as design and consulting services for selecting fruit trees and bushes that best match the climate and needs of individual customers. He is also starting a tree nursery.
“I want to focus on ways to make it easy for people to leave a legacy in their yards and supplement their own food too,” he said. “If people don’t want the fruit then I would like to help them find a way to donate it to people in need through those food security programs that offer free produce to people.”
To learn more about The Urban Orchardist visit: www.theurbanorchardist.com