Glean teams help keep sanity while feeding residents, not bears
If you haven’t been able to tell by all the squishy apricots on the sidewalks, it’s harvest season in Durango, which also means: it’s fruit gleaning season.
Every year, the Good Food Collective, a nonprofit dedicated to strengthening the regional food system, helps organize volunteers to visit producing trees around town to pick fruit before it hits the ground and rots. And, in recent years, the program has exploded in popularity.
“This is such a cool way to connect with our history and do something good for the community,” Rachel Landis, executive director of the Good Food Collective, said. “And with that cool, wet spring we had, it led to proliferation of cherries, apricots and apples. It’s a banner harvest year.”
The Good Food Collective’s gleaning program has seemingly endless beneficial impacts in the community. For starters, it saves food that would otherwise go to waste, thus lowering carbon emissions. Also, by removing fruit from yards and sidewalks, it also reduces the risks of bears coming into town and getting in trouble. To top it off, most of the food harvested is donated to local food banks that distribute the produce to people in need.
Southwest Colorado, with its high elevation and abundant sunshine, is a prime climate to grow some amazing fruit, Landis said, especially stone fruit, like peaches, plums, cherries and apricots.
As a result, the region has always been an agricultural hub. Early homesteaders, for instance, set up orchards all throughout the region, bringing upwards of 300 apple varieties and fruits of all kinds, Landis said.
Then, in the late 1800s to early 1900s, farmers across Southwest Colorado and even down into New Mexico served as a sort of lifeline for the miners around Silverton, sending produce up with the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad.
Even into the 1990s, farmers and ranchers continued to churn out large amounts of produce. Much of the fruit would go to the largest organic apple factory in North America, the now-defunct Mountain Sun Organic & Natural Juices in Dolores, Landis said.
Over time, the homesteaders and miners left the region or turned to different pursuits, and even the Mountain Sun factory closed down in 2012. The trees and orchards, however, remained on the landscape, producing tons of fruit each year, with nowhere for it to go.
Landis estimates that 2.3 million bushels of apples alone drop to the ground in the area each year, which, left unattended, go to waste, draw bears and contribute to greenhouse gas emissions.
Around 2007, local ag growers started to mull (pun point!) over some ideas to put all that food to good use. That brainstorming session led to organized fruit gleaning days, which would help both landowners, as well as people interested in picking their own fresh local food.
Quickly, organizers also realized they could help members of the community suffering from food insecurity. Landis said one study shows 11% of people in La Plata County struggle with access to healthy food and nutrition.
“Not everyone has all the food or calories they need to support a healthy lifestyle,” she said. “So wouldn’t it be so great to collect that excess food to help?”
As a result, gleaning efforts set aside a good portion of harvested fruit to be donated to local food banks, not just in La Plata County, but across the region, Landis said.
What’s more, harvesting food from the ground helps remove a major attractant for bears. In the fall, when bears are in their feeding frenzy before hibernation, wayward fruits are, of course, easy pickings.
However, those fruits are not part of a bear’s natural diet. And when bears are lured onto people’s property, the animals are more likely to run into conflicts with people. The end result, most times, is not in the bear’s favor, with many being put down or relocated by wildlife officials.
“A lot of residents think domestic food is a natural food for bears, and it’s not; it needs to be treated like any other attractant,” Bryan Peterson, executive director of Bear Smart Durango, said. “And it’s great to have the Good Food Collective’s gleaning program that can help our community and help save bears.”
The fruit gleaning project has been in place for a number of years but didn’t really take off until around 2017, thanks to a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. (Landis said today, gleaning efforts are supported by private donations and funding from the City of Durango and Colorado Parks and Wildlife.)
The gleaning program has become wildly popular, a product of staff outreach, community effort, word of mouth, and people moving to town who have an interest in local foods, Landis said.
Landowners wishing to get rid of excess fruit can list their property on the Good Food Collective’s website (www.goodfoodcollective.org), and people who are interested in gleaning can stop by anytime to pick fruit. The Good Food Collective offers equipment for people to borrow, if needed.
Likewise, would-be gleaners can select from homes listed on the collective’s website and go it on their own or join in the community harvest every Thursday (check the website for location).
Additionally, businesses, nonprofits and the like, can contact the collective, which will set up a day and time for a group glean (you bring the muscle, they’ll bring the equipment, Landis said). What better way to team build than hoisting your coworker into a tree?
At a recent community harvest in north Durango, Jessica Korley opened her home up to volunteer gleaners. Korley, who has lived in her home for 10 years, said it wasn’t until the past couple years that a tree in her front yard started producing ridiculous amounts of “peachcots” – yep, you read that right, peachcots. A cross between a peach and an apricot.
“We started drowning in it, and there was just no way we could stay on top of it,” she said. “So we reached out to the Good Food Collective, and it was amazing. And it’s great to know it’s going to people and families in need and not go to waste.”
One of the main organizers, Anne Poirot, a community harvest coordinator for the Good Food Collective, said volunteer interest has been strong this year.
“Many people finish up with work at 5 p.m. and like to come harvest fruit with fellow community members,” she said. “And they’re obviously hungry for peachcots.”
Last year, Landis said 17,159 pounds of produce was harvested from the gleaning project. That, she said, is the equivalent of 3.62 years of average household electricity usage in terms of CO2 savings.
As for the future of the gleaning program, Landis said the Good Food Collective is working to reach out to a broader swath of the community. Also, the collective received a grant from the City of Durango’s Creative Economy Commission to pilot and experiment with a line of fruit ribbons (not fruit leathers!) to possibly include in the collective’s Fruit for Good product line. Launched in 2020, Fruit for Good packages local dried fruits that are given away to food insecure residents or available for purchase at local independent stores.
And, when all else fails and fruit inevitably goes bad, Landis said there is one final, fail-safe option – feed it to the pigs, goats and chickens. Which, of course, ends up in the ground and, you guessed it, starts the whole darn process over again. ?