As one of the oldest cities in the USA, Philadelphia has made an indelible imprint on American history. Yet with all my Philly history lessons, I never knew the far-reaching impact of one of its rural resident farmers.
John Hershey was a nurseryman focused on trees and their benefit to humans and livestock. In the 1920’s, well ahead of his time, Hershey proposed planting crops like wheat or corn interspersed with rows of trees. The trees would anchor the soil, provide shade for the crops and feed the chickens, cows and pigs. Hershey felt this method of farming would help to reverse the climatic change being caused by humans as they destroyed forests and the soil in the name of progress.
According to an article by Sandy Hingston in Philadelphia Magazine in 2018, “Hershey’s vision was for a better kind of American farm, one that took full advantage of what he called the ‘Orbit of Nature.’ He wanted to optimize what God in his glory had provided and teach America to make the most of it. He foresaw farmers chilling on their front porches while all around them, nut and fruit trees rained down their bounty on the land, fattening livestock even as they replenished the soil.”
I had the pleasure of visiting Hershey’s homestead in Downingtown, Pennsylvania recently and immersing myself in America’s oldest intact food forest. The homestead is now under the stewardship of owners Cheryl, Pat and George, who are committed to preserving the property and its remarkable plantings to the best of their ability.
While surrounded by residential developments, the homestead stands strong amid a number of Hershey’s fruit and nut trees which proudly display their scars showing where a cutting was grafted onto rootstock to create the ‘best of the best.’ Committed to finding the best trees in existence, John Hershey placed advertisements in newspapers asking people to respond if they had an amazing hickory or honey locust or a favorite persimmon. He rewarded winners with a $50 payment and then utilized that stock as the basis for his food farm.
Today, most people think of nut and fruit trees as dirty trees, depositing their litter on the ground and disrupting pristine landscapes. But to Hershey, these were cherished specimens meant to be celebrated and used for a positive environmental impact.
In addition to being a ‘doer’ and leading by example, Hershey was also a writer. In Nature’s Orbits, he said, “Ever cross your mind, the violence and the violent struggle, needed to get into the stream of life? Think about the force of an acorn, walnut, or any seed that bursts forth from its shell, furiously sending down roots. … I nose-dived into the stream flow of life — plunged from the matrix, hands forward, head down, nose projected out, ready to plunge through life like a diver and will continue so until I die.”
I’m thankful for the doers out there like John Hershey and his homestead’s current owners. These people are committed to diving in head first to change the future and preserve the past.