Dianne MacLean remembers the first time she pulled her car into a stranger’s driveway on Vancouver Island, went and knocked on the person’s door and said, “If you’re not going to eat those ripe cherries on that tree, may I pick them?” MacLean used to be a nurse but, back then, she was a single mom on welfare disability, and she knew other struggling moms, and here they all were, as she saw it, living in the fertile Comox Valley where pear and apple and cherry trees grow on every street, and all this fruit was rotting on the ground.
The stranger with the cherries invited her in enthusiastically, says MacLean. “We’ve got tons of stuff here,” the woman said. “It was like the Garden of Eden,” MacLean recalled on the phone last week from her home in Courtenay, B.C. “She had kiwis, walnuts, apples and pears. She was totally overwhelmed. She couldn’t deal with it all. A friend of mine and I borrowed a ladder and we picked the cherries first.”
It’s been 10 years since MacLean climbed that first cherry tree and with local resident Jean duGal started what’s become known as the Fruit Tree Project. The program enlists a network of volunteers who pick fruit off the property of willing homeowners. The volunteers keep a third of the fruit for themselves, give a third to the homeowner and a third to the needy.
Since its inception, the Fruit Tree Project has “snowballed.” MacLean is on the board of the local LUSH Valley Food Action Society. “LUSH stands for ‘let us share the harvest,’ ” she says. In the Comox Valley, homeowners with an overabundance of fruit can call LUSH and have a team of pickers show up who will pick fruit off every tree on the property. “That first year we did it, we moved over 6,000 lb. of fruit,” says MacLean. “Sometimes it was leaving mystery packages with people. We hung bags of cherries on doorknobs; anybody we knew who needed food or who had kids. We didn’t ask questions and we didn’t embarrass them. We just went to their place and said ‘Here.’ ”
On a recent blue-sky Saturday in October, Daphne Stuart and her two young sons arrived to pick apples and pears from the property of Al Smith, whose house sits on 1.7 acres. Smith is blind with glaucoma. “I can’t see to pick it,” he explains, as he stands under one of his apple trees. “My eyes got really bad to the point where I couldn’t see the apples about a year and a half ago.” Smith called the local food bank, which put him in touch with LUSH, which then notified Stuart, who’s arrived in a truck with empty laundry baskets.
“Off an apple tree,” says Stuart, “you can get anywhere between 60 to 700 lb. Each laundry basket can hold 60 to 100 lb. of apples. I don’t even bother with buckets anymore.” She typically prepares and stores her portion of the apples. “I make apple sauce. You freeze it. You juice it. You make pie filling. You dry it. You make apple butter.”
Stuart heads toward one of the pear trees on the property. Smith, meanwhile, is on his hands and knees, groping in the grass for fallen hazelnuts, which, he says, “I’m gonna sit and munch.” Another volunteer balances high up in a pear tree, shaking the branches as pears drop by the dozen. Stuart lowers her voice: “This is the most common thing: some sweet old guy who loved gardening, who’s taken care of everything but who can’t pick it himself anymore. They called last Friday,” she says.
If Stuart sees fruit on someone’s property, even if LUSH hasn’t called her, she stops her truck. “I am ruthless! Yeah, I’ll go knock on someone’s door and politely say, ‘Hi, I’m with LUSH Valley. I just wanted to let you know if you don’t want to pick your fruit there is a charity volunteer organization that will make sure it gets to people who need it.’ I leave them my number. Also, it keeps the bears away.”
This week, MacLean says she acquired, for free, some rare, delectable local quince for making marmalade. The quince tree woman told her, “You know, a friend of mine has walnuts and hazelnuts, would you like some of those?” “So I went over and got walnuts and hazelnuts, and then the woman at that place said, ‘You know, I have apples I haven’t been able to pick. Do you want some apples?’ That was yesterday,” says MacLean. “Then while I was picking the apples, a neighbour looked over the fence and said, ‘You know, I’ve got all these grapes. Would you like grapes?’ So in one day, I got quince, grapes, apples, walnuts and hazelnuts. This is how easy it is. Anybody can do it. You can do it without money and without an organization. It’s important for people to know that.”