Laura Reinsborough of Not Far From The Tree.
Waste not, want not—so the old saying goes. Taking the adage very much to heart is a fledgling non-profit and its several hundred volunteers, who have been plumbing our city for hitherto forgotten bounty for the past couple of years. The organization is called Not Far From The Tree, and its mission is to rescue fruit growing in Toronto that would otherwise go to waste.
Not Far From The Tree’s main activity is a residential fruit-picking programme. Volunteers go out to the homes of people who are lucky enough to have a fruit-bearing tree on their properties and pick all the fruit when it ripens—no small task when a single tree can yield over a hundred pounds of fruit. The harvest is split three ways: a third goes to the homeowner, a third to the volunteers, and a third to community organizations with food programs, like Na-Me-Res and Wychwood Open Door.
As harvest season comes to a close, we sat down with NFFTT co-ordinator Laura Reinsborough for a chat about the food we didn’t even know we were growing.
Torontoist: Where did you come up with the idea for NFFTT?
Reinsborough: I’d heard about an art project in L.A. where a bunch of whacky art profs go and pick fruit by night—they wear sanitation suits and harvest into shopping carts. They do these as sort of public spectacle pieces but are really trying to engage with the idea of harvesting public fruit. And then an opportunity kind of fell into my lap to harvest the apples at Spadina Museum—never having picked fruit from a tree before—but I went with it and was inspired by it as performance, as spectacle. Then I learned about other projects, because there are lots. We’ve learned from groups in B.C., and the Hamilton Fruit Tree Project had started a year before us.
We focused on residential fruit trees because that’s where so many of them are not being used and people don’t feel as though they have the access to address that themselves—people don’t feel comfortable just going and picking from somebody else’s tree.
You’re just finishing your second year. How have things been going?
Last year we picked three thousand pounds of fruit, entirely volunteer-based with no funding, and that was in one neighbourhood. This year we’re picking a couple more neighbourhoods and we’ve just passed eight thousand pounds. At the end of our first year we had 150 volunteers and we’re up to about four hundred now, so there’s no shortage of eager people to help out and lend a hand to this. It’s a really strong community-building project because of that. There’s no shortage of fruit trees—we have over three hundred in our database right now—and that’s with very little soliciting. There are so many other neighbourhoods with fruit trees where we could expand, and of course organizations that could make good use of the fruit, so the key is just trying to build our capacity.
You’re looking at a tree-mapping project now too, we hear?
Yes! It’s in its really early stages, but we’re hoping to work also with public trees. Right now it’s all residential trees on private property, but there are a lot of trees on public property… [W]e want to make the information available about where those trees are and what are the cautions about those trees—the specifics you should know in order to harvest that tree best.
And if the trees are on city property anyone is free to just go and pick the fruit?
There aren’t any bylaws written up about this, but generally the feedback I’ve gotten is that there are quite a few trees—some that the city will plant, most that happen by accident or are remnant trees from old orchards—and of all of those the city really doesn’t have the capacity to tend them. So, any sort of harvesting would be making good use of them.
What kinds of fruit are you picking?
We’ll pick any fruit that grows on a tree: sweet cherries, sour cherries, serviceberries, mullberries, apricots, plums, crabapples, elderberries, sumac, pears, apples. We just did ginko nuts; we did black walnuts—those were two firsts for us for this year.
We seem to be having this cultural moment that is part return to the land, part homesteading, part environmentally driven: people are talking about their food in a way that they weren’t even ten years ago. What do you think that’s about?
It’s huge and it’s exciting and I think it has to do with a collective understanding of just how screwed up our food system is—so much so that we have a difficult time imagining what a sustainable food system looks like. But slowly examples of that, pieces of the puzzle, are starting to bubble up here and there, and I think that what is especially exciting about urban agriculture is that it’s…challenging the division of city and country. It shows so much potential, and it also helps to bring the city alive in a different way.
There’s this one cherry tree on St. Clair: it’s in a Green P parking lot, and I don’t think it’s there on purpose—it has just sprouted up in a crack in-between asphalt. From that soil that’s underneath the concrete a friend made a few pies this year. To know that a tree is coming from that soil makes you think differently about what constitutes that soil and what’s underneath our feet. To know that food can be produced from that—that you can actually eat this, that this is delicious, that this is actually fruit, that it’s sweet, that it has come from something in the city—it shows the potential for what can be grown in the city and it shows the potential for what we can be doing in what looks like some of the most dire circumstances… It’s doing a number on how we perceive the city. That soil is there anyway; it’s just that if we see it as food-producing or life-giving soil then that potential can be realized.
Not Far From The Tree’s End-of-Season Celebration will be held at the Wychwood Barns this Thursday, November 5, from 7–10 p.m.
Photos by Ayngelina Brogan/Torontoist.