The Santa Cruz Fruit Tree Project’s urban gleaning effort grows
It’s impossible to gauge the exact amount of fruit and vegetables that go to waste every year in California, but a 2010 University of Southern California study estimated it to be millions of tons. Most of our rotting fruit lies on the floors of orchards and fields, but plenty also goes unused in yards and public spaces in urban areas.
Given this fact, local Steve Schnaar and his group The Santa Cruz Fruit Tree Project have their work cut out for them.
Part scavenger hunt, part sustainability educator, and part community builder, The Santa Cruz Fruit Tree Project is a volunteer-run effort to find untended fruit trees in local neighborhoods and help to collect unused fruit.
The group’s driving philosophy—imbibed with locavore ethos and a dedication to sustainability—is to capture the perfectly good fruit at Santa Cruz’s fingertips before buying fruit with a huge carbon footprint at the grocery store.
“It’s a mess,” says Schnaar. ”All of the [unused local] fruit gets really mushy and rotting. It’s part of this whole agricultural system—you [buy] apples shipped from thousands of miles away, and the same fruit is sitting in our backyards, being wasted.”
Schnaar founded the group in 2010, basing the loosely organized project on similar urban gleaning movements that have sprung up around the globe in recent years.
“I’d been doing this stuff for years anyway,” says Schnaar. “I’d knock on people’s doors and ask about their trees, so when I heard about The Fruit Tree Project, I decided to start one here in Santa Cruz. We’re lucky enough to have fruit available year-round.”
He has looked to efforts in Portland, Ore., Seattle, Wash., Canada and even London. “The idea exists everywhere,” he says.
“The idea,” as Schnaar calls it, is simple. Collecting the fruit is step one. Step two is to host events that involve processing the harvest in some way; pickling, preserving, or pressing are all common fates for the found fruit. All year long, but especially during the peak harvest season of August through December, the group hosts at least one event per month, such as cider presses and persimmon preservation. Persimmons will be the group’s focus fruit for the month of December, but apples, pears and pomegranates are all in season in Santa Cruz this time of year.
Schnaar says that turnout usually averages about 14 volunteers per fruit-picking expedition, but larger events, like cider presses, can draw up to 30 or more.
For some volunteers, the project is a way to bridge the gap between urban and rural experiences.
“I moved to Santa Cruz after living on a small organic farm for two years,” says Kristie Karloff, a prominent volunteer and familiar face at Fruit Tree Project events. “[The project] helped bring some of what I value about farm living into town life.”
Schnaar and other Fruit Tree Project volunteers hope to expand the reach and scope of the project to include an educational aspect. Schnaar, in particular, is looking to expand the tree-care aspect of the group, which would involve teaching tree owners how to prune and care for their trees.
“We’ve done a little bit of tree-care,” says Schnaar, “but we’re hoping to get into planting trees as well. I’d like to see the whole pruning program start to focus on the resurgence of skills that have been lost—pruning, making cuttings, giving away saplings.”
Blaize Wilkinson, another project volunteer, has a similar vision.
“I’d love to be able to offer tree maintenance at the sites we’re harvesting at,” says Wilkinson.
However, at its most basic level, the project remains about curbing waste.
“I look for ways to tread lightly on the earth, and I feel that The Fruit Tree Project events are one way to do that,” says Karloff. “Some buy their fruit from the grocery store— fruit that may have been grown with pesticides and flown across the world. The Fruit Tree Project gives us the opportunity to glean fruit from our neighborhoods—fruit that our neighbors are happy to share. We merely have to walk or ride our bikes to their yards.”
To get involved with the Santa Cruz Fruit Tree Project or to offer fruit from your trees, visit their website at fruitcruz.org. A persimmon harvest is planned for Sunday, Nov. 25 and for Sunday, Dec. 9, with an accompanying workshop that teaches volunteers how to dry persimmons.