A SMILE spreads across the face of Jordan Cavanagh as he speedily pours handfuls of apples into the top of a machine, called a “scratter”, and sees them emerge as mush from the bottom.

Jordan is part of a groundbreaking initiative by a North-East charity to make its own brand of apple juice and cider, employing autistic people as the production team.

And, what makes this blossoming cottage industry in the beautiful County Durham countryside even juicier, is the fact that every bottle is now a work of art.

After becoming patron of the North East Autism Society (NEAS) last December, world-famous artist, Mackenzie Thorpe, donated two designs for the labels. A new pastel work, called Picked With Love, was created specifically for the charity, and an existing piece, called Love Picker, was also made available.

And now, the charity is celebrating the first labelled bottles coming off the production line at New Warlands Farm, at Burnhope, in County Durham.

As he watches the happiness on the faces of Jordan, and fellow service-user, Laura Almond, the charity’s chief executive, John Phillipson, can’t hide his satisfaction. There were those who thought the idea of an autism charity producing cider and apple juice was fanciful to say the least, but, a year on, there is already talk of expanding.

“When we started, I thought it would be an interesting project that gave the service-users a set of tasks, but what I hadn’t anticipated was how much they would love it,” he says.

“Some people thought it was bonkers, but we can now see it has the potential to be a viable social enterprise, and it already looks like we’ll have to scale up.”

The idea took root when NEAS bought a community interest company called Fruitful Durham, acquiring its specialist equipment, and benefitting from the expert advice of its director Julian Godfrey.

The charity embarked on growing hundreds of apple trees at the farm, with 1,000 being John Phillipson’s target over the next year. In the meantime, NEAS appealed for donations of apples – and the response has been overwhelming.

“They’ve come from all corners of the North-East – it’s been amazing,” says Ian Patterson, programme manager at the farm, which was bought by NEAS because of its potential as a pioneering training centre for autistic people.

The apple juice sells at £3 for a 750ml bottle, and £1.50 for a 250ml bottle. In challenging times for charities, the revenue certainly comes in handy, but John and Ian agree that by far the biggest value is in the jobs the project provides for autistic people.

As well as Jordan and Laura, the service-users’ production team – operating under the guidance of programme support workers, Jeff McKenna and Gareth Hopkins – includes Adam Gluck, Connor Hodgson, Andrew Reid, Georgia Bennett, Ross Boyle, and Peter Gray.

“The money’s always welcome, but it’s seeing the pleasure and satisfaction that having a meaningful job gives the service-users,” says Ian. “It’s working with the machines, and seeing something through from start to finish – it’s really special.”

And this isn’t just a case of going through the motions – it’s a ‘core business’, already threatening to outgrow the workshop that’s been created from a converted classroom.

A number of local retailers have placed orders, table-top sales add to the profits, and the charity is actively looking for new outlets, with plans to turn it into an all-year-round business.

For now, the focus is on the pure apple juice, but progress is also being made on the next stage of the business – cider production. NEAS has formed a partnership with Sunderland-based specialists, Brewlab, to perfect the taste of dry, medium, and sweet ciders.

“The potential is huge and we couldn’t be happier with what’s being achieved – it exceeds everything we’d hoped for,” says John.

Between September and December last year, 400 large bottles and 100 small bottles of apple juice were sold, but the charity is on schedule to comfortably double that this year, with Mackenzie Thorpe’s artistic labels making the product even more appealing.

“When Mackenzie offered to come up with designs for the labels, we couldn’t believe it, and now here we are with the first labelled bottles coming off the production line,” says John. “It’s made something that was already really exciting even more special. All we need now is the cider.”

Towards the end of the four-hour production process, Jordan Cavanagh, below left, smiles again, as he points to the golden juice flowing into a bucket. “I love it because it’s all so natural,” he says.

It really is a joy to see – a pure joy.

SOONER or later, every athlete reaches their pinnacle, and I think I may well have reached mine.

A call came in last week from Darlington Harriers, inviting me to take part in a special athletics event this Saturday.

The remarkable Ian Barnes, who has featured in my column more than once, will be attempting to set the British Masters record over a mile for the 85-plus age group.

The event will be staged, under strict Covid-19 restrictions, at the Eastbourne track, and I’ll be one of those running in the race.

This is not, I hasten to add, because of my athletic prowess (I’m lucky if I break 30 minutes for the Parkrun over 5km).

I have to confess to initially being concerned that the Harriers may think I look older than 85. However, on reflection, I’ve come to the conclusion that it has more to do with them wanting to make sure that what will, hopefully, be a little piece of sporting history is properly reported.

At 58, I’m nearly 30 years younger than Ian (pictured below), who is the driving force behind the Darlington Parkrun, and an inspiration for everyone who took part before coronavirus got in the way.

Nevertheless, I’m a competitive soul, so I’ve stepped up my training regime significantly, and cut down on the red wine, in the hope that I can avoid finishing in the great man’s slipstream.

Whatever the result, I wish him well.

The Northern Echo:

FINALLY, my favourite headline of the past week comes from Scotland, where the American President’s positive coronavirus test was leading the website of the Ayr Advertiser.

“Turnberry hotelier tests positive for coronavirus,” was how the news of Donald Trump’s infection was announced.

That’s what I call keeping it local.