With no plans to preserve their Italian plums this year, Don Macklin and Elizabeth Zinser were loathe to let the fruit go to waste.
"We have an abundance," Macklin says. "When they do come in, we have more than we could possibly use."
The Ashland couple, who usually share the bounty with nearby families, decided to expand their definition of "neighbor." Neighborhood Harvest, an organization founded in Ashland last year, picked all the plums free of charge. After the group's volunteers kept a portion of the 30-pound harvest, local food banks received about a third, and a third was set aside for sale at the Rogue Valley Growers and Crafters Market.
"At this point, we're totally funded by the fruit sales," says Josh Shupack, who manages the program.
Shupack, 28, brought the idea from the San Francisco Bay Area, where he picked fruit for two groups, Village Harvest, in San Jose, Calif., and Neighborhood Harvest in Berkeley, Calif. He ran the latter organization for a year before moving to Ashland so his wife could take a job in town. While Berkeley's Neighborhood Harvest donated the vast majority of fruit, Shupack developed a different model: selling locally grown fruit to support the group's charitable work.
"There's value here, and if you could sell a part of it, that could fund ... someone doing it as a job," Shupack says.
Now in its second year, Neighborhood Harvest took the idea one step further, selling community-supported agriculture shares in advance of the local fruit season. For $140, shareholders received 5 pounds of fruit per week for 18 weeks. The season starts in late June with cherries and progresses through plums, grapes, figs and nuts, even quinces, persimmons and pomegranates. The bulk of the harvest — apples and pears — is coming on and will last through November, Shupack says.
"You could harvest 3,000 pounds from one apple tree."
Picking 2,000 pounds of fruit so far this year, the group is on track to top 10,000 pounds for its first two years in operation, Shupack says. All the fruit comes from privately owned trees, most located in residential areas around Ashland. If they haven't had their fill, homeowners receive a quarter of the total harvest from their trees.
"I'm only interested in fruit that's not being used," Shupack says. "(For example) somebody's got a huge fig tree in their backyard, and they really don't like figs."
Unlike the local Gleaning Network, which focuses on salvage from commercial orchards, Neighborhood Harvest is happy to pick from just single trees spaced across an entire city. It pays a "finder's fee" for new sites. "Leasing" the trees allows the group to sell fruit at the growers market Tuesdays in Ashland. Owners sign a contract, pledging that they haven't sprayed their trees with pesticides and won't spray while working with Neighborhood Harvest.
"By and large, they are so happy to have us come," Shupack says. "We're taking a mess and a pest problem, and we're turning it into food."
The project's subsequent phases include holding workshops in pruning, pest management and promoting sustainability and diversity by planting more fruit trees. Ultimately, Shupack plans to work with local businesses and government agencies to develop a "community orchard.
"We're starting to expand up to Talent, Phoenix and south Medford," he says.
The concept also is spreading across the country, Shupack says, adding that he's in contact with similar groups in the Pacific Northwest, California and Texas. A Los Angeles group called Food Forward has donated nearly 30,000 pounds of citrus fruit to food pantries this year while the city's Fallen Fruit focuses on produce growing in public spaces.
Like these groups, Neighborhood Harvest relies on volunteers. Shupack's e-mail list has grown from 35 people interested in lending a hand to nearly 200 over the past year. Workers are compensated in fruit.
Volunteer Roberta Ferrier purchased a Neighborhood Harvest CSA to split with a friend. But when she wants enough fruit to can or preserve as jam and jelly, she works the group's market stall or spends a few hours picking.
"There are many old orchards around Ashland ... and it's a shame to let it go to waste," says the 64-year-old Ashland resident.
"If people have trees that are overloaded, we'll be happy to help them."
For more information or to donate fruit, call Shupack at 708-1807 or 488-8777.
Reach Food Editor Sarah Lemon at 776-4487, or e-mail email@example.com.