"Kosztela" project interview

How did the idea of the “Kosztela” project, which has been run in Poland since 2015, originate? Interview with Elżbieta Lenarczyk, the coordinator of the “Kosztela” project on behalf of the AgriNatura Foundation (agrinatura.pl)

Why Kosztela? There is an enjoyable anecdote to it:

“Kosz tela?!” (“One basket only ?”) exclaimed one day John III, King of Poland, showing his disappointment at the not-quite-full basket  of small, sweet, greenish-yellow apples from the garden that his beloved Queen Marysieńka used to eat with great gusto. That year the apple trees gave much less fruit and Marysieńka had to wait for her favourite apples until the following year. However, this vibrant name remained till this day.

Kosztela is a Polish variety of apples created by monks in Czerwińsk in 1590. The fruit is juicy, very sweet and tasty. The apple tree bears fruit every other year, grows robustly, does not need fertile soils, is resistant to frost, hardly susceptible to disease, and rarely attacked by pests.

The first traditional orchards date back to the 11th century in Poland. We owe them to the Benedictines and the Casimir III the Great who brought the monks from Monte Cassino to Sieciechów back in 1006. With them, the Benedictines brought their know-how and skill of grafting and cultivating fruit trees. Soon, backyard gardens were set up in monasteries. Over time, similar fruit tree gardens appeared in castles, manors and peasant homesteads. Thus, Poland’s landscape gained small gardens, known as backyard or traditional orchards. Conditions prevailing in the 18th and the  19th centuries and partly also in the 20th century favoured their creation. It was not until the second half of the 20th century that the difficult period for the orchards began. Consequently, the number of these valuable ecosystems dropped by 80 percent over the last fifty years.

The Slavic word  “sad” (orchard) means a garden of fruit-producing trees. This is the garden Mikołaj Rej, a Polish poet and prose writer of the emerging Renaissance in Poland and one of the founders of Polish literary language and literature,  wrote about when describing an orchard as a ray of light reminiscent of a delightful paradise. It is a place for a man to enjoy, a place where man finds nourishment and relaxation. His melancholy departs, his heart cheers up, while his mind is nurtured.

A traditional orchard can be described in similar words even today. It is not a monoculture nor a biological desert, but an ecosystem buzzing with countless sounds, smells and colours.

The Convention on Biological Diversity enshrines the obligation to protect agricultural genetic resources as a guarantee of human survival on Earth. If we let them to perish, no biotechnological methods can bring them back to life.

With the aim of protecting and multiplying agro-biodiversity, the AgriNatura Foundation believes that the best way to embrace the Convention is to act, for instance, by setting up traditional orchards. This is the only way of preventing bioresources from disappearing. 

Since 2007, more than 40 000 fruit trees of the old varieties have been planted throughout Poland thanks to the initiative and the support of the Foundation’s team.

Why was it decided to invest in the development of fruit orchards of old Polish varieties?

Traditional orchards are a priceless collection of old fruit tree varieties. Only in those orchards we can find very rare apple varieties such as Krótkonóżka Królewska, Kantówka Gdańska or Reneta Kulona right next to Papierówka, Antonówka, Kronselska, Kosztela, Malinówka, Boiken, Szara Reneta or Grochówka. Only here we have pear varieties such as Cytrynówka and Pomarańczówka and extremely interesting cherry varieties such as Kanarkowa, Różowa Wielka or Wolska.

Traditional orchards are an oasis of biodiversity. They are a rich ecosystem; it has been scientifically proven that they are a home for more birds and insects than forests and that the biological balance between beneficial organisms and pests is maintained in those gardens.

The same pests that pose a threat to trees (and crops) in commercial orchards are not a threat to trees of old varieties as their number is effectively limited by small birds and predatory insects such as ladybirds. Furthermore, frogs, lizards and small mammals such as moles, hedgehogs, voles, dormouses and squirrels  are the natural allies of birds in the fight against insects.

Traditional orchards also play other important roles. Tall trees effectively constrain wind erosion by reducing wind force and water erosion by increasing soil permeability. Orchards favour growth of other plants by reducing wind force and thus preventing  excessive soil dehydration. Furthermore, traditional orchards reduce environmental pollution because the trees are not susceptible to diseases, so they do not need to be protected by pesticides.

The resistance of these trees to difficult weather conditions such as drought or frost is equally important.

Opponents of traditional orchards tend to accentuate  their low productivity caused by fluctuating yields because, as a rule, fruit trees of old varieties produce abundance of fruit every second year. The trees simply rest during the year in which they produce much less fruit. However, the solution is to properly manage the yield by converting fruits into juices or mousse to make them last longer than just one season.

How is this project financed?

Thanks to a simple mechanism of towel reuse by hotel guests, the Orbis Group contributes 50% of its savings for the program of replanting traditional orchards as well as preserving and multiplying the old varieties of fruit trees.

Accordingly, we financed 17 500 seedlings of old varieties in 4 years.

The AgriNatura Foundation, farmers and landowners of the new traditional orchards contribute to the project in the form of land preparation, setting up the orchards and its proper cultivation.

In what way are the fruits from these organic orchards different from conventional ones?

The old fruit varieties have a higher usable value as they are more resilient to diseases and are valuable in biological terms. They are simply healthier than many new varieties that cannot be cultivated without intensive use of pesticides and agents for tree disease control which are far from indifferent to human health or to the environment.

According to a study carried out at the Warsaw University of Life Sciences (SGGW) in 2007, old apple varieties taste good and have higher nutritional value as compared to new commercial apple varieties.

Products made from old variety apples can be a dietary alternative, since these products may contain more antioxidant compounds than fruits of the new varieties and can therefore make a significant contribution to health improvement.

Three old apple varieties have been selected for the study: Antonówka Półtorafuntowa, Kronselka and Grafsztynek Inflandzki. These varieties came from small backyard orchards. The new commercial apple varieties were: Lobo, Idared and Jonagold. The results revealed that creams made from apples of old varieties had a higher content of vitamin C and polyphenols in general, including flavonoids, and showed a higher antioxidant activity as compared to creams made from new varieties.

Thanks to the “Kosztela” project not only more than 160 traditional orchards have been set up in Poland, but the project proved to be of real help for small landowners. How can it be of help? What is most important for the beneficiaries? What have they gained?

Anyone who owns land on which at least 50 fruit trees can be planted, that is about 0.25 hectare, can apply to join in the project. However, the decision on participation in the project is made by the Foundation’s team after a site visit and analysis of the location, the environmental conditions and an interview with the landowners during which the potential and the needs are discussed. Based on this data, the expert prepares an individual plan for each orchard.

Beneficiaries are offered theoretical and practical workshops on orchard planting and cultivating young trees in their first three years. Proper cultivation during these first years will predetermine whether the orchard will be fertile.

Each beneficiary receives an educational package with detailed descriptions and information. Moreover, the Foundation’s team visits every new orchard for two years to provide individual consultancy. Thanks to this, many potential mistakes in orchard management can be avoided.

The project beneficiaries are farmers, owners of agritourism farms, local organisations, local communities and small landowners.

Every orchard tells a different and interesting story. All of them offer the joy of communing with nature.

For some, fruits from their own orchard are the only guarantee of having fresh and healthy fruits. Others intend to make juices, mousse, jams and confitures. Other will plant herbs and vegetables in the orchard, and some will graze their sheep, horses or cows under the trees.

For all of them it is important that this orchard will grow for at least 80 years. It will produce healthy fruits and additional income. It will be an orchard for their children and grandchildren.

Here are some stories from the adventure named “Kosztela”.

There is a shortage of the right plums for the manufacturing of the once famous Krzeszowice jams as old trees are dying out or are being cut down, while new varieties of plums are not suitable for jam. As part of the project, 450 trees of the old varieties have been planted in Krzeszów. All in all, 3800 fruit trees of the old varieties have been planted in the Podkarpacie region. In a few years this region will bloom and produce a wealth of fruit!

One of the first eco-colonies was set up in the Opolnica village (Bardo commune). Eight families planted 650 trees of different and only old varieties on their land. They are intending to make juice and mousse together from their produce!

A square, once a market square, stood abandoned in the very centre of the small village of Wolin. Today, 118 fruit trees of old varieties grow here. All village inhabitants, adults and children alike, take care of them. In a few years’ time, benches will stand under extended tree branches and everyone will be welcome to enjoy the fruits. The redundant fruits will be made into traditional produce and may turn into tourist attraction.

A small Community Supported Agriculture farm in the Wojciechówka village (the Mazowieckie voivodship) produces vegetables for its target group and in a few years it will be able to offer fruits of old varieties and cold-pressed juices. Trees have already produced the first apples.

In the Strzyżewo village (the Małopolska voivodship), in a few years an orchard planted on a slope will look over the surrounding area. Its owners (a Mexican-Polish couple) run a small family company that manufactures tortillas from cornflour according to traditional Mexican recipes. Fresh fruit old varieties grown in orchards  and its produce will be an additional attraction.