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Harvesting the urban orchard

Dusty Towler gives a whole box of figs. Credit: Eric Scigliano

Dustin Towler knows how to stay cool in Seattle’s brief eruption of summer sun: He wears a white T-shirt and shorts and stays in the shade as he lifts his wire-basket pole picker to tease Japanese pears and green figs out of groaning trees in a Seward Park back yard. Nothing unusual about that in August — except that Towler has never seen this back yard before and may never see it again. This is his job: mobile fruit picker.

“I worked in business banking,” he explains, “but I had to get out. The pay’s lower now, but this is much more satisfying.” Towler tools about southeast and West Seattle in an aged pickup with ladders strapped atop the camper, harvesting a neglected bounty of homegrown fruit. Most of it goes to food banks and other charities; the most delicate and desirable pickings, such as the figs he’s harvesting today, may go to Tom Douglas’ restaurants. “What I really like is taking crates of apples into the Rainier Valley Food Bank. They’ll ask, ‘Where did you get it?’ and I’ll say, ‘Right down the street.’”

Towler works for City Fruit, a small Seattle nonprofit dedicated to some big goals: nutritional equity, community cohesion, urban sustainability and even locavorism. The name says it all — almost. While the City of Seattle and an army of volunteers labor to build, plant and nurture a visionary Food Forest on Beacon Hill, Towler, City Fruit’s own volunteers and other community foragers gather the harvest that already erupts citywide each summer — and would otherwise rot on the vine.

It was that wasteful spectacle that led Gail Savina, a Mount Baker resident, retired King County environmental worker and veteran community organizer to join the emerging urban harvest movement. Savina grew up in Wenatchee, the ‘apple capital of the world,’ and started working in the orchards at 13. “It was really painful to see all the fruit lying on the ground here,” she says. Anybody living beside or with an overgrown pear tree knows the feeling.

Savina started out in 2007 managing a fruit-harvesting program for Solid Ground (formerly the Fremont Public Association), a wide-ranging social-service nonprofit that also operates urban farms in South Park and Rainier Vista. Solid Ground drew inspiration from fruit harvest programs in Portland, Victoria, Los Angeles and the Bay Area, and from local neighborhood groups' efforts to put neighbors’ fruit to use.

In 2008, hoping to expand beyond harvesting into fruit-tree care, planting, education, even lobbying, Savina launched City Fruit, with help from the Phinney Neighborhood Association. Today, City Fruit and Solid Ground have largely conquered the city, and divided it: Solid Ground harvests across most north and central neighborhoods, down to I-90, and City Fruit covers Southeast and West Seattle, plus Phinney Ridge and Crown Hill. Last year Solid Ground harvested about 13,000 pounds of otherwise unwanted fruit and City Fruit gathered 20,000. Together, Savina estimates that’s about a third of the surplus apples, pears, cherries and other treasures drooping from Seattle’s vines and branches. Still, she admits she’s just guessing: No one knows how much fruit grows in Seattle. “The city doesn't keep an inventory of fruit-producing trees. It just counts them by genus, so they could be ornamental or fruit plums, cherries, crabapples….”

Neighborhood groups gather and donate yet more. “Friends of” groups labor to restore and harvest the old, neglected orchards at Martha Washington, José Rizal, Meridian and other city parks.

Everything Solid Ground picks, aside from bonuses for the volunteer pickers, goes to food banks, shelters, senior centers and other meal programs. They welcome all they can get, says harvest coordinator Mariah Pepper. Produce, super-fresh and typically unsprayed, is not a standard surplus food item.

Nearly all of City Fruit’s bounty goes to the same recipients. But City Fruit helps pay its expenses by selling about 5 percent— the most valuable and, often, fragile fruits — to local restaurants. “The food banks don’t want figs and crabapples,” Towler explains. “They’re too hard to handle.” Tom Douglas, naturally, is an esteemed patron. 

Selling some fruit versus giving it all away is one of several differences in the two organizations' approaches — differences that point up some vexing questions about urban harvesting generally. Solid Ground relies entirely on volunteers, but Pepper and Savina admit that it can be expensive to insure and manage them, not to mention draining. The momentum “runs down,” says Savina. “People get tired.”

City Fruit likewise uses volunteers but also hires pro pickers like Dusty Towler, who operates a landscape business. That might be more efficient, but Pepper insists efficiency’s not the point. After all, urban harvesting itself is inherently inefficient. City trees come into fruit one by one, all over town, rather than in nice, neat synchronized orchard blocks. Quality varies greatly, though even wormy Seattle apples find a use at fundraising cider pressings.

“It might not be the most cost-effective way of getting produce,” says Pepper, “but it’s more about strengthening the community, filling the need for fresh produce, connecting people with their neighborhoods and with the sources of their food. It encourages people to grow more food and to share what they’re not going to use.”

Savina, by contrast, tries to both defend  and improve the cost-effectiveness of city harvesting. “It’s still probably cheaper than flying pears from Argentina, and Eastern Washington farmers won't sell theirs now — the price is too low, so they would rather stash them away till winter.”

Urban harvesting has other benefits, she argues. It reduces the treefall that supports vermin (like the rats that started on my downed apples and now attack my tomatoes). It leads people to care for their trees, improving the urban canopy. City Fruit contributes by offering free pruning and tree-care classes and training fruit tree stewards (about 65 so far) for parks and other public orchards. It even lends its extra-tall professional stepladder to home stewards during the off season. Solid Ground publishes a fruit harvest handbook to aid anyone else wanting to get in on the act.

But it still comes back to money and efficiency: “Who funds this local harvest?” asks Savina. She scrapes together grants here and there, but thinks the city should support it in steady fashion. She had an initial conversation with Mayor McGinn, but refrained from pressing the ask. “He has fruit trees. He said, ‘You can harvest my fruit, and can you help me with my pests?’”

There may be another way. Last month City Fruit, in collaboration with the cycling stalwarts at Bike Works, debuted one way to make that fun: a Fruit Cycle, like the ice cream cycles of yore. It collects residents’ fruit during the Columbia City Farmer’s Market each Wednesday and ceremoniously pedals it over to the neighborhood food bank.

Centralized harvest schemes like City Fruit’s and Solid Ground’s may be transitional stages in urban harvesting. The solution may ultimately lie in their encouraging, training and helping Seattle’s many thousands of accidental orchardists to tend and share their bounties.

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