Thursday, June 20, 2013

California Apricots: Harvesting For Good

Alta Mesa orchard in Palo Alto, California. Apricot season is early this year.

As the shadows lengthened on this June evening, I had an appointment to meet Susan Osofsky in an apricot orchard not far from my Los Altos home. Osofsky helps organize volunteers to pick the bounty of fruit in the Santa Clara Valley that would otherwise go to waste. 

Imagine. Apricots going to waste. I'll be right there with my bucket!

Volunteers with Village Harvest, a not-for-profit that makes good use of the local orchard crops.

Thanks to volunteers with Village Harvest, the fruit picked in the fading orchards of the Santa Clara Valley--and some in nearby San Mateo County--goes to food banks all over the region. Commodities that once supported small family farms, helped feed the hungry during the Great Depression, and brightened the ration kits of our soldiers in World War II, now helps those in need. What a great idea.

It was a perfect California evening, with the sky as blue as the Pacific, no bugs, no humidity, and the temperature at about 72F degrees. The apricots are really early this year: ready to harvest even before the first day of summer: we almost always get our ripe apricots right around the 4th of July.

There were almost fifty volunteers out picking 'cots on this early evening, in Palo Alto.

This particular venue is an interesting one: it sits at the juncture of so many pieces of California culture and history. The tracks of the Southern Pacific Daylight Line, which once took goods and passengers from the peninsula to San Francisco, used to be just around the corner. That rail line is now the Foothill Expressway and takes people to and from places like Stanford University, Intel, and HP.  A world-famous high tech entrepreneur is buried just steps away--he should be resting, perhaps, near an  Apple orchard--but he did love apricots.  

The orchard is owned by Alta Mesa Memorial Park. My folks are buied in Alta Mesa. I had no idea when we laid my father to rest here, next to Mom, they would be so close to the apricot trees that brought them so much happiness. 

An Alta Mesa statue marks the west end of the memorial park as the cemetery gives way to the orchard. All those cars belong to the volunteers who are picking in the distance.

Alta Mesa has gradually developed its orchard acreage, and perhaps one day these apricot trees, too, will be gone--to make room for me, mayhap, and my friends from Los Altos High. Meanwhile, the cemetery has the orchard, but its "residents" have no need for 'cots. And that's where Village Harvest comes in. Here's a little background from their web site:

"Village Harvest was started in 2001 by founder Joni Diserens as a volunteer project of the Foundation for Global Community, 4H Club and the Master Gardeners, combining interests in fruit preservation, gardening, and making good use of abundant fruit for the community.  When our first community harvest event in Palo Alto, California, yielded 1200 lbs. of citrus for the Food Bank and smiles all around, we knew we were onto something good.  That first year an emerging group of volunteers harvested about 5,000 lbs., and the organization was formally incorporated in March 2002."

A teenager from Kenya said his aunt brought him out to volunteer.

A pretty young woman on a fruit ladder asked me to get a picture of her--with her iPhone, of course. 

This woman brought a friend who said, "Blame her! That's why I'm here."

Last year, Village Harvest brought in 225,000 pounds of fruit in Santa Clara and San Mateo counties, working in the tucked away remnants of orchards like this one, on fruit that would otherwise be left to rot. Some homeowners on acreage in the nearby hills are happy to have the volunteers help them with the abundance. And as Susan Osofsky told me, she never seems to have trouble finding enough volunteers when the harvest involves apricots:

"People love those 'cots," she wrote me today. " That gives volunteers a little more incentive to show up. We had more 'leaders' out there than we ever see. And the cots were in great shape. The mission of Village Harvest really resonates with our volunteers, because harvesting fruit is very tangible. Seeing the abundance within reach, harvesting it, and distributing it to those in need in the community. Working together towards a common good really invigorates people." 

Alta Mesa is a fascinating old place. I remember taking my mother out there one morning as my sister and I contemplated planning our father's funeral. He was ill and we knew his time was short, but, of course, we had no idea our mother would precede him. On that day, she joined us as we went out to see the plots they had purchased many years before, which sat near Adobe Creek, the dividing line between Los Altos and Palo Alto. All this land once belonged to Mission Santa Clara.

This is one of the oldest sections of Alta Mesa. So beautiful on a June evening.

The localtion made our mother happy."It's nice out here," she said. "I had forgotten that." We kidnapped her and took her out to lunch to try and take her mind off Dad's illness. She died about six weeks later. Dad followed just a few months later.

He would be especially happy that the fruit near his resting place is doing some good. During World War II, he was stuck eating "K" and "C" rations for almost five years. Fresh fruit was golden to him.

Susan Osofsky of Village Harvest filled up all the boxes she had on hand on this productive evening.

It is hard work to harvest fruit. People of my father's generation didn't think that was much of a burden, considering what they got in return. But times have changed, as they say. Except here. Except with Village Harvest.

On this beautiful evening in California about fifty volunteers were in sync with that now-old-fashioned ethos. People worked hard because this remarkable fruit was ripe and not wasting it was the right thing to do. And what with the perfect weather, the gorgeous fruit, the touching location, and the penumbra of kindness all around--I found the whole experience humbling. 

It made me proud to be of this region. Proud to be a neighbor of people like this. 

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Jon Gnagy's Portfolio said...

What a nice project, beautifully described. And the confluence of place and purpose is powerful. It was so good to talk with you yesterday!

Robin Chapman said...

It is a new twist on saving food that would otherwise not be used, for local food banks--something your own family has worked on for years. I think this is such a terrific project. People helping people.