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Students and community volunteers harvest fruit for the poor through the Town Orchard Project in Pullman and Moscow

By Carol Price Spurling

Volunteers with the Town Orchard Project in Moscow and Pullman have created a way for people with fruit trees, grape vines and berry bushes to turn fruit and berries that might otherwise rot on the ground into food for people in need.

Like many volunteer-staffed organizations, the Town Orchard is a collaborative effort, connecting the Palouse-Clearwater Environmental Institute (PCEI) Backyard Harvest program, the Pullman Presbyterian Church Mission and Washington State University’s Common Ministry.

Town Orchard Project in Pullman
Volunteers from the Common Ministry at Washington State University in Pullman

It connects volunteer harvesters—or “gleaners”—with people who have fruit and berries to give away.  Fruit gathered through the program is distributed to local food banks and nutrition programs to supplement their non-perishable offerings.

Some volunteers are students involved with the Common Ministry at Washington State University.

They have assisted the Palouse Food Project for several years by preparing gardens in the spring and harvesting throughout the summer and fall, so it was “natural” for them to help expand the Backyard Harvest and Town Orchard programs from Moscow to Pullman, said Gail Stearns, director of the Common Ministry at WSU.

“Our students are involved in growing in their faith.  Reaching out in service is as important to our spiritual lives as programs and worship,” she said. “We see providing fresh foods to those who could not otherwise afford them as a huge service.  Helping people locally to live healthy lives is a great step for our students.”

Amy Grey, coordinator of the Backyard Harvest program, has found that involvement in the Town Orchard fosters healthy living in more than just the physical sense.

“While I was initially driven by a desire to offer fresh produce to people in need, it led me to consider how the growing and sharing of food can help build a sense of community,” Amy said. 

“For instance, many of the trees that I personally harvested last summer were owned by seniors who no longer wanted to risk climbing up on ladders, but wanted to contribute to the project in some way,” she said

Amy would visit with them for a while before picking their apples, pears or grapes.  Sometimes they would ask that she take some over to the next door neighbor.  Sometimes they would give her a favorite recipe for apple crisp or tell her the best way to put up grape preserves.

“In the end, these gleaning experiences would end up being not just about the fruit,” she said,  “but about talking with people and learning who my neighbors were.”

The program fulfills a need that became obvious to Amy last year.

“The inspiration for the Town Orchard project came from my experiences running Backyard Harvest last summer, where we pick up people’s extra produce and distribute it to the food banks. Some people would say that they did not garden, but had an old fruit tree in their backyard that I was welcome to pick,” she said.

“By the end of the summer, offers such as this led Backyard Harvest volunteers to glean more than 300 pounds of apples, pears, plums, cherries and grapes from backyards in Moscow and Pullman.”

Amy said that the gleaned fruit was popular, both with seniors who were able to take it home after their weekly lunch and for families visiting local food banks.

“Our efforts to harvest fruit last year were stop-gap,” she said.

When she received a call in July from Moscow resident Marilyn Johnson, wondering whether they would like to harvest some cherries before the heat got to them, Amy and her family went straight over to harvest that afternoon.

“We arrived at the hillside just south of town and there before us stood more than 30 beautiful Bing, Lambert and Queen Anne cherry trees laden with fruit. Needless to say we made only a dent as the sun crept below the horizon,” she said.

“I asked the woman if I could call her again next season and this time bring enough people to harvest all the fruit. She graciously agreed, and so the tree directory that is the basis for the Town Orchard project was started.”

Amy did some research and found that in the past, town orchards were common. Communities would plant some fruit trees, from which all residents could harvest. So this program just adds a new-fangled twist to an old idea.

Currently, the Town Orchard project has 51 trees in Moscow and Pullman on its database, and they are ready to register more.

People who register their trees or bushes will be called about a week before the fruit is ready to confirm that the fruit will still be available for gleaning.

Then, the volunteers arrive to harvest the fruit, leaving some for the donor’s use.

Martha Klontz, a long-time Moscow resident, heard about the program through her work with the PCEI. She picked apples from her own tree until she had all she needed, then let volunteers harvest the rest.

“I was tired of picking apples and then throwing them away,” Martha said. “It was wonderful to have them come. If everyone that had extra fruit would register with the database that would be great.”

Kim Cole, also of Moscow, was impressed with how quickly Amy was able to respond to her call last summer.

“We had two Bing cherry trees ready, and if you don’t pick them quickly the birds will. They dropped everything and came right over and were so cheerful and accommodating. We’ll definitely be participating again this year,” Kim said.

Bill Johnston is recording names of volunteer gleaners, fruit donors and garden-produce donors.

For information, call 334-5717 in Pullman or 669-2259 in Moscow or visit www.backyardharvest.org.



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