Destination DIY: Nonprofit Harvests Neglected Fruit Trees

By Julie Sabatier, host of radio show Destination DIY

If you’ve got a fruit tree in your yard, you know that a lot of that fruit can end up on the ground. That’s especially true toward the end of the harvest season. Volunteers for the Portland Fruit Tree Project have a solution that works for tree owners and local food banks.

Portland Fruit Tree Project program coordinator Bob Hatton trims a shiro plum tree during the harvest party. Photo by Julie Sabatier.JULIE: On an unseasonably cool summer morning, a small group of volunteers is gathered in SE Portland. This is a harvest party, organized by the Portland Fruit Tree Project. Bob Hatton is the group’s harvest coordinator.

Bob: Ninety nine percent of our harvest parties are at residential tree-owners’ homes, where they have a tree and they’re not harvesting it, whether they’re unable to because of time, money, physical ability, equipment, lack of interest and so this is kind of how the project started, coordinating groups of volunteers to come out and harvest these trees where otherwise the fruit would just go to waste.

Today’s group of about a half a dozen volunteers will harvest Shiro plums at two different sites. The plums are a yellow, Japanese variety. The first place we go to pick them is not residential. The tree is actually in an orchard that belongs to the Learning Gardens Laboratory. 

It’s an expansive educational garden for kids in Portland Public schools as well as nearby universities. We’ll leave half of the harvest here, take a portion to a nearby food bank and divide the rest among the volunteers.

The Portland Fruit Tree Project thrives on the simplicity of its model. The nonprofit has been adding more harvests and more volunteers each year since 2006. Last year, they harvested over 15-thousand pounds of fruit. Today’s group picks 112 pounds of plums at the Learning Garden Laboratory. Then it’s time to move on to site number 2. It’s another Shiro plum tree in someone’s back yard. The homeowners have given the Fruit Tree Project permission to harvest while they’re out of town. Volunteer Gregg Everheart introduces us to the tree.

Photo: Portland Fruit Tree Project program coordinator Bob Hatton trims a shiro plum tree during the harvest party. Photo by Julie Sabatier.

Gregg: This is a double-trunk, well branched, pretty much mature sized Shiro plum tree. Hasn’t been pruned particularly. It’s got a lot of dead wood so its fruit is kind of light and it’s on the outside. So, it’s going to be a little more challenging to reach than the one in the more managed orchard. On the other hand, it’s closer to the more normal form of the tree so it’s just a beautiful, beautiful tree.

Shiro plums ready to be harvested. Photo by Julie Sabatier.While volunteers begin harvesting the fruit, Bob Hatton gets to work pruning dead wood. As he trims, he tells me about the key role collaboration plays in the Fruit Tree Project.

Bob: There’s only 1 full time staff member, one Americorps member, so it’s, most of the hours that are being put into this project are by volunteers.

I put down my mic a couple of times so I could help with the harvest. We picked a total of 235 pounds of fruit between the two trees and each person got to leave with 13 pounds of yellow plums. Forty pounds went to the NE Emergency Food Program. The place was bustling when we arrived. Assistant manager Jenny Broussard ushered us in.

Jenny: Alright, come on down, we’ll weigh this stuff up and write a receipt for it.

Photo: Shiro plums ready to be harvested. Photo by Julie Sabatier.

Crystal Sharinghowsen is one of the people who will take home some plums from the food bank.

Crystal: We put 6 in our bag. We’ve never tried them before. I didn’t even know what they were. We were talking to Roxy who works at the front table and she told us what they were and I’m like, I’m used to the purple things (laughs)...

Julie: If you didn’t get fruit here, would you be able to get it elsewhere?
Um, we can buy it from the store, but like everybody else that has food stamps and stuff, it gets very lean. And the fresh fruits and vegetables add things that we wouldn’t pay the price for at the grocery store.

Once the cooperative work of picking and delivering the fruit was done, I went home to work on a DIY project of my own: canning plum chutney.

[Julie Sabatier curates the public radio show and website, Destination DIY. Find out more at destinationdiy.org]

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