Crowd sourcing the harvest. Photo: eLaboreur/flickr.

Have you ever noticed unharvested fruit rotting in people’s yards and thought, “What a waste. Someone could have used that.”

Well, you’re not alone. Katie Kolker, in Portland Oregon, this episode’s guest on Peak Moment TV, had the same thought and decided to do something about it. She formed the Portland Fruit Tree Project (PFTP) a small non-profit organization which coordinates and carries out the harvesting of fruit from private properties who register one or more trees with them.

“The mission of our organization is to increase access to healthy food and to strengthen communities by empowering neighbours to share harvest and care for city grown food” explains Kolker. “But yeah, really our focus is on increasing equity in access to healthy food, so recognizing there’s so many people in this city who really can’t afford to purchase fresh produce, especially organic fruit and locally grown fruit.”

Kolker is passionate about the great opportunity to form a connection to food and the many community connections that happen when people come together to harvest fruit, in the frame of sharing.

People take part for a variety of reasons, she says. Some really need the fruit for their families; some hardly take any fruit for themselves, but come for the contribution and community; while others want to gain experience in the care and harvesting of fruit trees. But no matter why they are there, there’s a wonderful coming together of people from different backgrounds, and community building.

Currently, the group has about five hundred fruit tree site registrations, probably representing more than a thousand fruit trees of various kinds. They expect to have around 400-475 volunteers involved in the harvest during the harvest season, with around three harvesting “parties” per week and to have picked from 20,000 to 25,000 pounds of fruit. Half of the fruit (the best fruit) goes to local food banks, while the other half is divided up between the volunteers, with some being left for the tree owner, if desired.

The PFTP also runs other projects, such as:

  • Tree Stewardship Program, which involves workshops on organic fruit tree care such as pruning, pest and disease assessment and control and fruit thinning.
  • Tree Care Teams, which are small teams of volunteers caring for trees in their neighborhood, where the owners are either physically unable or don’t have time to do so themselves. It is a year long program, where the volunteers get to follow through a whole seasonal cycle of care, including classroom sessions and the practical work on-site.
  • Community Orchard Program, the object of which is to plant and maintain small orchards on public land, with the purpose of providing food for the community and providing demonstration and educational opportunities.
  • Food Preservation Program, which includes workshops on methods of preserving harvest for future use, such as canning, drying, freezing and cold storage.

A more resilient future

So, what is Kolker’s vision for the future of the Portland Fruit Tree Project?

“Definitely a big picture dream is to just try and make what we’re already doing really sustainable, so we then definitely see a time when the city has a lot of fruit trees, both in private properties but also in the public ground.”

Isn’t this an idea whose time has come?

We need to see this kind of project rolled out across the globe. Local communities sharing, putting to use food that otherwise would just be left to rot on the ground. It could also be expanded to include more than just fruit trees. And how about revamping street tree plantings to include many varieties of fruit and nut trees, which can then be harvested in a similar manner… or by anyone in the community who has a need for their produce? If we can make this all really local, within walkable neighborhoods, then the energy expended to do this can basically just be ‘people power’, except maybe for delivery to a local food bank or other similar organization.

One of the best things of all is the strengthening of community that comes with this joint venture of care and harvest.

In times gone by, the harvest season was full of community cooperation, harvest festivals and good times shared, where neighbors pulled together to make sure the food to feed the community for the coming months was harvested in a timely manner.

We can recreate this “village” of neighbours now and once again make sure that all of us, especially our at-risk community members, have food security and a true sense of belonging and being an important part of the community, whether their contribution is by growing a tree or offering space where one can be grown, harvesting, sharing of skills and knowledge, or maybe even by cooking up some of the harvest for a community potluck.

This Peak Moment TV episode, “Portland’s Backyard Fruit – From Waste to Feast” is well worth seeing. Watch it below and let it inspire you. What will you do with the ideas it puts forward?

– Anthea Hudson, Transition Voice