Backyard reapers

Nonprofit group Village Harvest distributes fruit from residential homes to local food shelters

Yes, this is an eating persimmon, not a baking one.

Yes, this is an eating persimmon, not a baking one.

A daily part of life for many Californians is passing by trees heaving with fruit—oranges, apricots, cherries, plums—and seeing pounds and pounds of that fruit rotting around the base of the tree and thinking, “Wow, what a waste when there are so many hungry people.”

The co-founders of Village Harvest had this same reaction, but they actually did something about it. They started a volunteer-driven nonprofit that collects fruit from residential homes and distributes it to local shelters and food pantries.

The original Village Harvest began in 2001 and is headquartered in San Jose, Calif. There are now volunteer teams in Yolo, Santa Clara, San Mateo and Santa Cruz counties.

Village Harvest in Davis began in the spring of 2009. Since then, the Davis group has collected more than 120,000 pounds of fruit. In 2012, the Davis team held 53 harvests at Yolo County homes and orchards and collected more than 42,000 pounds of fruit.

The group held its last harvest of the year—persimmons—on December 30, 2012, at Dianne and Mike Madison’s Yolo Press near Winters.

Across from a row of olive trees, about 10 volunteers had their hands and heads deep among persimmon branches, which were bare except for the globes of bright orange fruit. The visual effect of the fruit on the leafless trees was rather Seuss-esque.

A persimmon’s flavor is a little like candied yams. To me, if a pumpkin were a plum, it would taste like a persimmon. Got that?

There are two main popular varieties: the slightly crunchy, applelike Fuyu, which we were harvesting that day, and the Hachiya, which is best used for baking or even eating with a spoon when it’s nearly overripe and squishy soft. Some regular Village Harvest volunteers have a dehydrator at home, and they say dried Hachiyas taste like candy.

Dianne Madison, who was getting ready to start a batch of marmalade, said, “We just like to see all the fruit used. People should be able to eat good food. We sell as much as we can but are happy to donate, too.”

As volunteers snipped persimmons from branches, Village Harvest co-founder Linda Schwartz and a volunteer were busy sorting through boxes of the harvest, throwing fruit that was cracked or too ripe into a “cull box” for volunteers to divide among themselves.

The fruit deemed worthy was packed into boxes for distribution to Short Term Emergency Aid Committee, to a women and children’s shelter, and to a men’s shelter in Davis. Village Harvest also takes fruit to the Davis Korean Church; the Episcopal Church of St. Martin for its community meals, also in Davis; and to the Food Bank of Yolo County in Woodland. Sometimes, big harvests are also distributed to the Sacramento Food Bank & Family Services.

“We’re very careful that we give our agencies good fruit,” said Schwartz, while examining a persimmon for cuts or blemishes. “We don’t want people to feel like they’re getting something secondhand.”

Biting into a persimmon herself—“Oh, this is good”—she explained how the Village Harvest process works.

Homeowners fill out the home sign-up form on the Village Harvest website to arrange a harvest. The owner can claim a tax deduction for the number of pounds of collected fruit, priced for market rates.

Village Harvest also keeps a database of trees and checks it each season to schedule harvests. There are currently about 250 homes and more than 500 Yolo County trees (not counting orchard trees) in the registry.

Interested volunteers can learn about upcoming harvests by filling out the volunteer-registration form on the website to get on the group’s Listserv.

Harvests range from one tree to 100. A big one was this past weekend: a navel orange harvest in Winters on Saturday, January 13. At that harvest, some 100 volunteers picked oranges to the sounds of live music in the orchard and the sight of sweeping valley views. A similarly large tangelo harvest is in the works for February.

Most Village Harvest collections are held in people’s backyards, with just a few trees and a handful of volunteers.

“Some of the most satisfying harvests for me are the ones where the homeowners planted the trees when their kids were young, and they feel like stewards of those trees,” said Schwartz. “It saddens them that they can’t pick that fruit anymore. They’re just beaming when we’re telling them how great their fruit is and how it will be appreciated at the shelters.”