plum tree illustration

The Fruits of Labor

A plum-plucking group of fruit tree gleaners is feeding Portland’s neediest residents.

Summertime in Portland, Oregon, means that waves of homeowners are inundated with more fruit than their stomachs can handle. The city’s lush winters and warm summers lead to fruit-fat backyards: A small semi-dwarf apple tree can create up to 500 glossy apples during a season, while a full-sized apple tree can yield up to 800 pounds of fruit. That’s enough to make you never want to eat an apple pie or drink a glass of cider ever again.

Meanwhile, because of its limited shelf life, fresh food is often hard to find at food pantries and expensive to buy in stores. So, since 2006, the Portland Fruit Tree Project has been rescuing fruit from homeowners whose backyard bounties have become too fruitful, as well as from farms with unpicked fruit to spare. Its aim is to reduce food waste and increase access to healthy, fresh food. From mid-June through mid-November, small groups of volunteers snatch up everything from early plums to quince, persimmon, and kiwi near the end of the growing season. Harvest program manager Nicole Weinstock remembers helping to harvest 600 pounds of shiro plums, a yellow variety that clusters tightly to the branches. To see and harvest so much fruit “was a great joy, a great shock, and a great sticky mess in all equal parts,” Weinstock says.

To participate, homeowners add themselves to a volunteer list, and their trees are vetted for access and health. Then they contact PFTP two weeks before their fruit ripens. Half of the fruit picked at each event is divided among the volunteers, and the remaining half is donated to local food pantries, food banks, and health clinics. Some of their events are family-friendly, allowing kids to get up close to their food. PFTP also provides Spanish-language harvests to support the increasing number of Latino residents in Portland. In 2016, the PFTP hosted 117 harvest events, gleaning 63,000 pounds of fruit that would have likely gone to waste otherwise.

Tshombé Brown, PFTP’s communications and office coordinator, started volunteering as a harvest coordinator in 2008 as a way to make friends in his new city—not surprising, considering that people frequently bond over food (as well as hard labor). A few years ago, Brown says, a woman met someone at an orchard party; the two eventually became good friends. Now they make sure to sign up for the same harvest every year, as a “friendiversary” celebration.

The project is a reminder that not all the fruit in Oregon comes from orchards outside the city limits. Just knowing how many homeowners are hiding juicy blueberries, pears, and peaches in their backyard makes it that much more intriguing to explore the city, hunting for edible treasure.

Tove Danovich writes about food and agriculture for Eater, The Ringer, Lucky Peach, and NPR. She lives in Portland.

Illustration by Melinda Josie

Originally Published July 2017