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story.lead_photo.caption Dustin Lavender of Searcy stands in front of the Orchard Project on Vine Street. The project was started by Lavender and his wife, Rachel, to help people who need food. The Orchard Project will host its second Apple Pressing Day on Oct. 27 to make apple cider for people in the community. - Photo by Staci Vandagriff

— In the spirit of their Christian faith, Dustin Lavender and his wife, Rachel, wanted to do something to help feed the people in the area.

The Lavenders bought some houses on Vine Street and took the vacant lot behind them to start an orchard to help feed people in the community.

“I work with the Mission Machine, which is an organization in White County that helps the homeless,” Dustin Lavender said. “We see a lot of food insecurity and things like that. A few years ago, we purchased a row of houses on Vine Street here in Searcy. They say you should buy the worst house in the best neighborhood. We bought the worst houses in the worst neighborhood.”

Despite that, the houses had a 1/2-acre vacant lot behind them. That led to the start of the Orchard Project.

“There’s about 60 trees back there and in the neighborhood of 50 blueberry plants,” Lavender said. “The reason that it’s there is to build community so we can invite the neighbors and anyone else over there who shows up from the community to hang out and get to know their neighbors.”

Lavender said the orchard is about 2 years old. They’ve had peaches, but the main fruit growing is apples.

“The whole premise is that it’s free food,” he said. “Even if I sell the food, or it fails, and no one shows up or shows interest in the Orchard Project, 50 years from now, those trees will still be there, producing fruit.”

Lavender said children walk by the orchard on their way to and from school each day.

“Just the thought of them being able to walk out there and grab an apple off a tree on the way to school is what it’s all about,” he said. “Or maybe someone who doesn’t have enough money to buy breakfast for their kids can go over there and get some apples. This just helps people out with a sustainable food source. It’s something that is going to produce food every year, whether we do a whole heck of a lot or not.”

Because of the abundance of apples, Lavender said, he had the idea of building an apple press to make cider. This led to the first Apple Pressing Day a year ago. This year’s Apple Pressing Day will take place from 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. Oct. 27 at the Orchard Project, 1211 1/2 W. Vine St.

“Every year, we do three or four events,” Lavender said. “If you have an apple orchard, what else do you do with the apples besides eat them? You make apple cider. Last year, we kind of got interested in that. We built a homemade cider press at the house and pressed some cider.”

Lavender said he came in contact with other people who were interested in making cider because it’s a fun thing to do.

“We built a bigger press,” he said. “This year, we’ve made some improvements to it. We’re going to have the second annual Apple Pressing Day over there. We’ll press a bushel or so of apples and make some fresh apple cider.”

Lavender said barbecue will be served, and there will be games for children.

“We’ll hang out and have some barbecue,” he said. “We’ll set up games out there for the kids to play. It’s really a community thing. We want people to come and hang out and just have a good time. There’s no point behind it other than a fun family outing.”

Lee Steffey, director of operations for the Mission Machine, said the Lavenders have a heart for people.

“Dustin volunteers with the Mission Machine a bunch,” Steffey said. “He does my weekly evaluations and takes people to eat at the Pizza Project, different things like that.”

Steffey said the Orchard Project is in its infancy.

“When the fruit really starts to produce, it will be amazing,” he said. “Apple Press Day is being done to get the word out about the Orchard Project and get community involvement.”

For more information about the Orchard Project or the Apple Pressing Day, visit www.facebook.com/SearcyOrchardProject.

Staff writer Mark Buffalo can be reached at (501) 399-3676 or mbuffalo@arkansasonline.com.

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