Hugh and Kelly Burnell harvest apples at a recent Neighborhood Harvest event. Under the auspices of Friends of the Salem Saturday Market, the group is picking produce that would otherwise go to waste. (Submitted)

By JASON COX
Of the Keizertimes

It’s an almost cruel contradiction.

While more and more Oregonians face financial troubles and seek help from their local food bank, many have more produce

than they know what to do with.

Some may simply have an apple tree in the backyard; perhaps it’s a remnant of the orchards that dotted the Willamette Valley before the age of subdivisions. Some even have a full farm full of crops that, for a variety of reasons, the owners can’t or aren’t selling.

“So many people have lovely, mature fruit trees in their backyard and they may not know what to do with all that fruit, not to mention rural areas so close,” said Lisa Clark-Brunell, who is project manager for Neighborhood Harvest.

She and a group of friends and neighbors thought something should be done.

They contacted Friends of the Salem Saturday Market, and made Neighborhood Harvest a program under its non-profit umbrella, meaning crop and equipment donations are tax-deductible.

With the market’s dedication to increasing access to local, sustainable food, Clark-Brunell said it was a good fit.

Nadene LeCheminant, who is on the harvest’s steering committee, had been picking fruit in Salem-area parks with friends already.

“We noticed there was a lot of food going to waste, and we also knew there was a real problem with hunger in our community,” she said. “The Marion-Polk Food Share delivers four semi-truck loads a week to hungry families in Marion and Polk counties.

“We wanted to create a group for harvesting – fruit from our edible landscape,” she added. “A lot of people in cities throughout the United States are starting to do this.”

Marion-Polk Food Share gets food from a variety of sources – the Oregon Food Bank, private donations, occasionally from grocery stores and local agricultural producers. But fresh produce can be hard to come by, LeCheminant said.

Anyone with a fruit tree – or 500 trees – can register their site at Salemharvest.org. A volunteer scout will visit the site and inspect the crops, determining whether they would be suitable for harvesting and when they will be ready.

“We just look at all the possible challenges, and we also look at ways we can treat the property in a respectful manner,” LeCheminant said. “And we train our volunteers … so they know how to harvest in a safe manner and in a way that it’s a good experience for the property owner.”

Volunteer groups visit the site and pick. They have special harvesting ladders for reaching tall trees. The property owner gets a tax deduction for the value of the crop, while volunteer pickers can keep half of the bounty (although, Clark-Brunell notes, many take less than that). The other half goes to the Food Share, the Union Gospel Mission or directly to local food banks.

Volunteers and the property owner are asked to sign a liability waiver, but the group does have insurance “to make it a safer experience for both the tree owner and the pickers,” LeCheminant said. Property owners also have protection via the federal Good Samaritan Act, Clark-Brunell said.

They’ve harvested crops like cherries, apples, pears, blueberries and plums. More offers, like a field full of broccoli and cauliflower, are in the queue.

Lots of Keizerites have fruit trees in their backyards, so it’s easy to see how boxes of pears could overwhelm even those who crave fruit. But even large farmers can get into the act. It’s different than gleaning, where volunteers take leftovers post-harvest, Clark-Brunell said: Some owners of large orchards or farms have given away their entire bounty.

In one case, a farmer had died. His children worked full-time and couldn’t dedicate the time necessary to harvest the blueberry crop. They called Neighborhood Harvest, who got nearly 7,000 pounds of blueberries.

“They didn’t want to hire commercial pickers; they were just in transition,” Clark-Brunell said.

Another farmer had a small vineyard of blueberries and had sold to local canneries in the past. But, LeCheminant said, many canneries now require farmers to guarantee a certain poundage of fruit per day – something this farmer couldn’t promise. So the canneries shut her out.

“The system really favors large growers and makes it really difficult for small growers who used to make a living off smaller acreages of blueberries,” LeCheminant said. “They like the idea of having their blueberries not go to waste, and they can get a tax write-off, and they feel good about knowing half their crop is going to the Food Share to feed hungry families.”

There aren’t health regulations per se about harvesting in this manner, but they do take precautions: No fruit from off the ground, due to e. coli risk, “and if it’s not good quality, we don’t pass it on,” LeCheminant said.

The act itself of picking also helps to build the sense of community, the two women said.

“We’ve had great-grandparents and a four-month-old in the same field,” Clark-Brunell said. “It’s very communal.”