Volunteers hope to harvest South Whidbey's neglected fruit

Margaret Moore of Clinton shows some plums from her backyard tree. She and others are forming a group to pick donated fruit and give it to Good Cheer Food Bank.   - Roy Jacobson / The Record
Margaret Moore of Clinton shows some plums from her backyard tree. She and others are forming a group to pick donated fruit and give it to Good Cheer Food Bank.
— image credit: Roy Jacobson / The Record

Four high-minded South Whidbey women have their eyes on the island’s low-hanging fruit.

They want to harvest often-wasted apples and pears and donate them to the hard-pressed Good Cheer Food Bank in Bayview — and to have fun doing it.

“I don’t like to waste our natural resources,” said Margaret Moore of Clinton. “When I drive around every fall, I see lots of fruit falling to the ground.

“At a time when food is getting more expensive and Good Cheer’s donations are down, we wanted to find a way to capture that precious asset,” she said Thursday. “But it’s not just work; it’s also getting together to have a good time.”

The result is Gleeful Gleaners, a fledgeling community project dedicated to finding neglected fruit trees on South Whidbey and picking the produce before it hits the ground.

The program has been enthusiastically endorsed by Good Cheer.

Food bank executive director Kathy McLaughlin said Thursday that Good Cheer has tried in the past to respond to offers of donated fruit, but has had difficulty mustering the manpower to do the picking.

“We’re always grateful when community members have a good idea, and then do all the legwork, too. That’s what they’ve done,” she said.

“Healthy eating is our main focus,” McLaughlin added. “Now we’ll have more fresh fruit to give to our clients.”

Moore, a 12-year South End resident, came up with the idea for the local program after researching similar projects throughout the state and around the world.

Port Townsend, for example, has a three-year-old gleaning group that in its first year collected about 5,000 pounds of fruit that might otherwise have gone to waste, Moore said.

Last year, it collected more than twice that amount, she said.

Seattle also has a productive fruit-gleaning program.

On South Whidbey, Moore was joined by Nancy Snow and A.T. Birmingham-Young of Langley, and Kathy Deveau of Freeland, and the four set about developing their concept.

“It’s baby steps so far,” Deveau said Thursday, “but we’re having a lot of fun doing it.”

Snow said there may be hundreds of fruit trees on the South End each year pumping out apples, pears and plums that go to waste.

“We’re looking for the more durable fruits this year, while we figure out how our transportation and distribution systems will work,” she said. The plan is to tackle apples and pears this season — perhaps adding plums, if the general harvest is scanty.

Moore said that a check around the South End indicates that there may be less fruit on the trees this year than last, possibly as a result of a cool spring and diminished bee pollination.

“It looks dubious,” Moore said, “but I hope I’m wrong.”

She said the group first plans to find fruit that needs picking, then to find people to pick it, box it and drive it to the food bank. They also plan to teach volunteers how to harvest fruit, and about using the proper clothing and equipment, such as a sturdy ladder.

Early next year, the group also plans to conduct pruning clinics, so the next harvest can be even more productive, Moore said.

“We’re part of the problem,” she said, noting that the lack of proper clipping and thinning results in lower-quality fruit. “We don’t know how to prune.”

The group has been recruiting tree donors and volunteers since June, Moore said.

“We’re hoping we can pull it all together.” she said.

The gleaners say their program not only would get healthy local food to people in the community who need it, but also provide a convivial atmosphere for like-minded volunteers sharing the workload.

The program also would help prevent sanitation and rodent problems created by scattered, rotting fruit. The gleaners will offer to clean up fallen fruit as they pick, Snow said.

“There’s been a big rat problem in South Whidbey,” Deveau said. “We could be better caretakers of our trees and our planet. Every little bit helps.”

The first of two Gleeful Gleaners kickoff meetings will be next week in Freeland. The first is 10 a.m. Monday, Aug. 9, at the Freeland Library, 5495 Harbor Ave.

The second meeting will be at 7 p.m. Monday, Aug. 23, also at the library. Volunteers are urged to attend.

Snow said the group is looking for worm-free fruit from non-sprayed trees, and will gladly accept donated harvested fruit to go along with what the volunteers pick, Moore said.

“If we don’t get many calls, we’ll scout the neighborhoods and knock on doors,” Moore said. “It’s all trial and error right now.”

Snow said the program is ambitious, but the goal is simple.

“We envision a future in which all fruit trees are cared-for and harvested, and where fruit withering on the tree or rotting on the ground is a thing of the past,” she said, adding:

“We’ll have some fun by doing some good.”

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