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How much is an orchard worth?

I can’t recall the first orchard I ever saw, it wasn’t a breathtaking seminal moment for me at the time. I don’t think I really appreciated everything it was or represented. Yet as time has passed and I’ve spent more time in those spaces, walked them, picked in them, even camped in them, I have come to fall in love with them. The colours of the blossom in spring, the sound of the birds in the summer, the smell of the fruit in autumn and the eerie silence in the winter. It’s one of the places I have missed enormously over the last year. I always look forward to opportunities to visit fellow cider makers in the west of the country and walk their orchards taking in the majesty of the trees.

For me now, orchards are priceless. The happiness and reward I feel from being in them cannot have a price put on it. As someone who spends their working days sat in front of a computer, and even more so whilst working permanently from home, the natural world has come to be even more important in my life.  That being said I have found myself wondering, how much an orchard is worth? I don’t mean how much it would cost to buy, or own. I mean what is its value to the world? Above my own personal priceless view.

At CraftCon in April 2019 I had a conversation with Barny Butterfield of Sandford Orchards about Cider Duty [Ed: Sandford Orchards is a member of the National Association of Cidermakers] and I suggested an alternative angle to lobby government, one that looks at the value of the UK’s orchards both to the environment and also the economy. My thoughts being that if we could monetise the value of the orchards farmed by craft producers, and then estimate the potential increases should duty be relaxed or scaled to encourage growth, then a persuasive argument may form. So I set about investigating my theory some time ago. 

Generally if you ask anyone about the value of a tree, they will start by thinking about its timber weight or perhaps its fruit yield. But what about all the other benefits trees provide to the environment? The most obvious being oxygen production of course and if you remember your school science lessons, trees are a double benefit when it comes to the air that we breathe. Through photosynthesis they take carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere, and together with water and sunlight they put oxygen back. Apart from a trip to Iceland 8 years ago, the purest air I have the opportunity to breathe is amongst those orchard trees in full leaf. Then there’s the benefit they provide to the soil in preventing erosion and recycling water. It’s no secret that Britain’s rivers are facing a crisis as runoff from arable farmland increases sedimentation build up and eutrophication, presenting both an ecological and flood risk. As well as losing valuable dirt. 

Let’s not forget the habitats that orchards provide and the biodiversity they encourage, especially those that are unsprayed. Many native species thrive in those environments and many cider makers actively encourage natural pest control and biological diversity to help their trees thrive. The difficulty comes in quantifying and monetising all of that. However, in 1979 professor T M Das (in Indian Biologist Vol.XI, No.1-2,pp 73-79) suggested a tree was worth just over £100,000 over 50 years. That figure was based on the huge benefits trees provide to the natural environment, some of which I’ve outlined above; oxygen production, control of erosion, recycling of water, scrubbing of harmful pollutants, wildlife sheltering and habitats, etc. These are very difficult benefits to quantify in pounds, but it is possible. Nancy Beckham wrote an interesting piece on monetising oxygen value from trees for Australian Horticulture in 1991. More recently however the Green Earth Appeal revised Das’s figure in 2012 to account for the prevailing market price at the time and suggested the figure should now be well over £400,000 over 50 years. It’s important to note that these figures don’t include any of the wider benefits to society.

So to explore that figure and for want of an example to give some relatable context, I’ll use my own very meagre orchard, which I planted in February 2019. I have 30 half standard apple trees and a perry pear tree. To plant the orchard cost me just over £1000, but the value to the environment over the next 50 years could equate to £12.5 million. Obviously I won’t physically see that amount money, after all as every parent tells their children, “money doesn’t grow on trees”, and every cider maker keeps saying “we’re not in it for the money”.

Sadly, orchards in the UK have been forgotten time and again. From the perverse consequences of their exclusion from farm payment schemes back in 2011, to more recent failures to renew contracts from the large industrial scale producers like Heineken. Each time this has led to a pattern of planting followed by destruction. Standard planting density (according to Natural England) is 40 – 60 trees per acre, so let’s take the half way point of 50. If even one acre were to be grubbed up, as many already have, then significant value would be lost. Those orchards aren’t new, so don’t have 50 years’ worth of value remaining, but let’s assume they’ve still got half their life as that works out to the Magners effect planting of the 90s. 50 trees x £200,000 (instead of the £400k over 50 years) equals a loss of £10 million worth of environmental value per acre.

I know I’ve been a bit generous with assumptions and averages here; T M Das’s figure was based on a 6 tonne tree, and I’m not actually sure how much the average apple tree weighs. What I’m trying to highlight is how much more an orchard is worth beyond the wood and fruit. I think there is always a risk of slipping into the ‘default’ as a cider maker to focus on the fruit and the value it represents to the business. But if you really want to sell your cider, then you need to tap into the wider benefits and differences that small craft making represents. Consumers like to have a connection with what they buy, they want provenance and craft cider is in a key position to give that and standout from its mainstream competitors. The life that orchards nurture and their beneficial contribution to our planet are something that should be shouted about by all. I’ve barely scratched the surface on showing the total value here, and if you want to read more I would definitely recommend The Green Earth Appeal

What’s really exciting, is that since I started thinking about the worth of an orchard HM Treasury has completed a study (February 2021): The Dasgupta review, which is looking at the economics of biodiversity. I would highly recommend reading the Headline Messages which recognise the value the environment presents to our economy and that they are not mutually exclusive of each other. In fact nature is our most precious asset and that through sustainability and increasing natures supply relative to our demand is essential to preserve our world and economy for future generations. Planting more cider orchards I would argue is one way to achieve this, encouraging the growth of craft cider and the other by products it produces. Supporting small and local businesses and communities to connect with and recognise the true value of these spaces and the resources they supply. 

Since that discussion at CraftCon I mentioned earlier, my thoughts have moved beyond just cider duty and environmental value to consider climate change as well. November 2019 saw European Parliament declare a climate emergency and shortly after that the Environment Agency (the UK’s main environmental regulator) pledged to become a ‘Net Carbon Zero’ organisation by 2030. Most recently the USA has pledged to cut emissions by 50% by 2030. So then, what value does the craft cider industry present to combatting climate change?

Selfishly I’d love to see an apple tree in every garden, it should certainly be a condition of each new build. It’s the height of carbon offsetting fashion to plant trees these days, so why not make more of them apple trees, even if you end up feeding only the wildlife? The answer is cost and space of course, they’re expensive compared to woodland varieties and can’t be planted as densely, but I think the real value of our nations orchards to our future isn’t understood.

According to the environmental charity ‘One Tree Planted’, mature trees can on average absorb over 3,500 litres of rainfall and consume ~22 kilograms of CO2 per year (among other greenhouse gases) and release enough oxygen for a person to breathe for two years. But what does 22 kg of CO2 look like though? I find myself in need of context.

So I’m going to use the more relatable and often used example of the car, something we all find ourselves in need of (although not too much over the last 12 months I’ve found). The RAC Foundation states that the average car emits 193.2 grams CO2 per mile (way higher than I thought it would be) and achieves (on average) 50.5 miles per gallon. So that’s 9.75 kg of CO2 per gallon, or 2.25 gallons to emit 22 kg. Which means each tree off-sets a journey of 114 miles per year, roughly the distance of Birmingham to London. So thinking back to my little orchard as mentioned last week, it would offset 31 of those journeys per year, or 3,534 total car driven miles. Which is brilliant, but sadly doesn’t cover the total miles I do every year at present (discounting 2020), not even just for work.

However, if we were to extrapolate this to a bigger craft producer like Ross on Wye Cider and Perry, who have 10,000 trees, then their orchards offset 1.14 million car miles per year. That’s 47 trips around the equator, which is an incredible amount. I know I haven’t accounted for the volume of CO2 that the fermentation process generates, but neither have I got into calculating the atmospheric cleansing capacity of trees for other contributors to air pollution, such as PM10 or sulphur dioxide. I’ll talk more about urban orchards in a minute, because the benefits those spaces bring not only to the air we breathe but also to our mental wellbeing cannot be underestimated.

I would also like to raise innovation and reference Westons approach to generate their cider carbonating CO2 by anaerobically digesting the waste pomace, removing 10,000 miles from their supply chain whilst generating clean energy. It’s a triple whammy in terms of reducing the costs and impact of the previous carbon dioxide manufacturing, plus the impact of transporting and then a cherry on top of generating clean electricity. Granted there will be significant monetary benefit to Westons for changing their methods but also kudos for seeking more environmentally beneficial adaptations. Also the Bulmers’ process cleans up the CO2 from the fermentation and then utilises it to carbonate its ciders. If you watched the episode in series 6 of “Inside the factory: Cider” you’ll have seen this process in all its glory. 

In reality it’s the bigger companies that can make the most difference straight off, after all they are the ones with the power hungry processes that could adapt and reduce their impact. But that’s all an exercise in trying to reduce or undo damage, what about the smaller craft producers or community orchards that are dealing in preventative action? 

There are many reasons people choose to make cider. For some it’s the opportunity to make something they want to drink and perhaps hopefully make a few pounds on the surplus. A very worthy cause indeed. For others, something else might drive them to abandon sense and dance with wasps; preserving historic practices or trees, building a community group and/or preventing waste. Personally the latter is close to my heart. I’ve worked in environmental regulation for over 13 years and seen waste in all its horrific glory. Nothing is quite so devastating as seeing mountains of food waste being shovelled around. Waste is also part of the reason for my own cider journey. Many laden apple trees drop their fruit only to rot in gardens in my local village; my hope, if the restrictions allow this year, is to work with my neighbours to use that fruit at Chapel Sider.

Fear of missing out doesn’t just apply to the latest bottle release from a maker (which I have battled with consistently throughout the pandemic), it can also relate to the feeling of belonging and contributing. We know only too well from this current pandemic that it’s a human need to be part of something and to feel valued. We often talk about how great a community cider has but it isn’t just about associations and cider clubs, there are also groups right on the coalface so to speak, in the orchards, with the raw ingredients. Cue community orchard groups that have come together to preserve the trees, recognising the benefit to the environment of those carbon collectors and oxygen givers, as well as the unity, human connection and wellbeing reward they get from working the land together to create something. Be that apple juice, cider, or just to eat the fruit for better health.

As you’ll have read in my Five Cider review on Thursday, even when you are utilising donated fruit where the blend and balance is out your control to a certain degree, a very brilliant cider can still be created. In fact I would wager that even if all you got were Bramleys and the resulting cider was the sharpest thing you’d ever had, it would still be the greatest drink in that very moment as you finish a hard day working in the orchard and drink the fruit of your labours. 

But really it’s the experience, the joy, the feeling of actually making a difference in the natural world that brings the greatest reward. If you missed my Instagram live with Emma Jordan of Blue Barrel Cider in Nottingham a few weeks ago, then have a watch. Emma’s passion for orchard creation and regeneration is inspiring and there are many groups across the country doing the same. Chances are there’s one near you, even if you live in a major city. So if you want to change the world for the better – eat more apples, plant more apple tress and drink more craft cider. 


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