It’s a little like the legend of Robin Hood: taking from the rich to give to the poor. Only instead of gold and jewels, it’s fresh-picked oranges, grapefruit, apricots and peaches, plucked ripe from trees in Davis back yards and donated to families in need.
Oh, and there’s no stealing involved — those with more fruit than they could ever eat are happy to share. Happy, too, that the folks from Village Harvest will come pick the fruit, clean up afterward and deliver it all to the Food Bank of Yolo County and other agencies that help feed the hungry.
In the two years that the volunteers of Village Harvest have been working in Davis, they’ve collected more than 66,000 pounds of fruit from hundreds of trees throughout Davis, likely feeding hundreds of people along the way.
Longtime locals Linda and Joe Schwartz and Greg and Pam Gibbs brought Village Harvest to Davis two years ago, after learning about the program in San Jose. The idea was pretty simple.
“You drive down the street and you see all these oranges on trees and all these oranges on the ground,” Greg Gibbs said. “It’s such a waste when there’s so much hunger. And a lot of people really appreciate having someone come out and pick all their fruit.”
It took a few months to get the program up and running with all the proper paperwork and insurance – it’s a 501(c)(3) and operates as part of the San Jose Village Harvest program — but the first harvest took place soon enough, in May of 2009.
Then, as now, harvesters included a number of retired folks — including one 89-year-old —and UC Davis students, volunteering their time when they could. A handful of stalwarts harvest twice a week, on Tuesdays and Saturdays, often meeting in the parking lot near The Graduate and car-pooling to the houses on the list for that day.
Over the years they’ve done a lot of outreach on campus, in The Enterprise and at the Farmers Market, as well as through good old word of mouth, letting the community know what they’re up to. That’s how they find volunteers, as well as trees. The group keeps a database of trees they’ve harvested and adds more more all the time — so much so that they are finding it hard to keep up.
Back when they started, Village Harvest volunteers didn’t think twice about knocking on doors when they saw trees laden with fruit that was destined to rot on the ground. They’d ask residents if they could harvest their fruit to feed the hungry and most would say “yes.” But now volunteers are just trying to keep up with the trees in their database.
When they started out two years ago, they also were able to donate everything they picked to the Short-Term Emergency Aid Committee in Davis.
“But it got to the point where they couldn’t take it all anymore,” Greg Gibbs said.
So the group started delivering to other agencies as well, from homeless shelters to the Yolo County Food Bank.
The latter, of course, is in Woodland, and “the biggest problem is getting the fruit there,” Gibbs said, “especially now with gas so expensive.”
That and the lack of a van or big truck to haul it all. Right now the group is borrowing a truck, but won’t have it much longer, so harvesters will have to cram the fruit in their trunks and back seats.
On harvest day last Tuesday, about nine Village Harvest volunteers gathered in the parking lot by The Graduate before heading off to their first house of the day: a home on College Park with a large, fruit-laden Valencia orange tree in the back yard.
The harvesters arrived in several cars — as well as two on bikes — armed with a pair of orchard ladders, long-handled pickers, work gloves, buckets and milk crates to haul away their harvest.
They set to work immediately and in no time at all had collected an estimated 120 pounds of fruit, cleaned up after themselves and left a receipt for the homeowner.
“It’s a win-win for them,” Gibbs said of the homeowner. “We’re picking their fruit so they don’t have to clean it up, and they get to write it off on their taxes.”
Later, the volunteers will the cull the harvest, discarding damaged fruit. Joe Schwartz will make the usual run to Woodland to deliver what’s left.
Right now it’s all about citrus. The grapefruit harvest is behind them, as is the naval orange, but there’s plenty more citrus to be picked. In the fall they harvest stone fruits like apricots, peaches and plums, as well as pomegranates and persimmons. They stay away from some of the other ubiquitous Davis crops like walnuts and figs — there just isn’t the manpower and demand for those.
And so far they’ve suffered just one on-the-job injury, to Gibbs himself, who recently fell when the orchard ladder he was standing on broke, leaving him with two broken ribs. At recent harvests, he’s been more of an observer, at least until he’s healthy again.
“It’s not all fun and games,” he noted. “Many groups like us don’t make it past the first year. They find out it’s not all that fun. You come home with scratches on your arms and you’re tired, your back hurts … it’s more work than I thought it was going to be.”
But it’s easy to see that he and the others take great pride in what they’re doing, and they don’t plan to stop any time soon.
Said harvester Judy Hecomovich: “A lot of people don’t think there are hungry people in Yolo County, but there are. And every pound we donate gets used.”
To learn more about Village Harvest or to volunteer, visit http://www.villageharvest.org/davis.
— Reach Anne Ternus-Bellamy at [email protected] or (530) 747-8051.