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Harnessing the abundance of urban orchards

They ride in on Dutch cargo bikes, carrying reusable bags, ladders and old bed sheets to catch the spill of berries they learned how, through Internet videos, to shake from drooping trees.

When their bags are full and the tree branches naked, they pedal the yield off to food banks and shelters, rewarding themselves with a small take-home portion of crabapples, quince or serviceberries to use in experimental recipes.

As fruit trees come into season across Canada, expect these crop followers to pop up in several major cities: An international movement to make use of urban-grown fruit that is normally left to rot has burst into full bloom. Spurred by the success of , a Toronto non-profit launched in 2008 to harvest unwanted fruit from forgotten trees in backyards, alleyways and on public property, volunteer not-for-profit picking groups are organizing from Winnipeg and Calgary to places as far off as Perth, Australia, Puerto Rico and Scotland.

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"City dwellers go far outside city limits and pay to pick apples elsewhere. It's a novelty to be able to do that within the city," said Laura Reinsborough, founder of Not Far From The Tree.

More motivating than a nostalgic climb through neighbours' trees, though, is the opportunity to discover the unexpected urban orchards that dot cityscapes while transforming a problem – rotting fruit most homeowners have no interest in picking – into a solution for hunger and community building.

"The stories we are told so often are about food scarcity and the need to engineer food because we'll never have enough to feed everybody," Ms. Reinsborough said. "There is an abundance where, before, we may have just seen a barren city."

Most picking organizations have started out using one neighbourhood as a pilot; as word spreads, homeowners get in touch to register their trees and volunteers sign on to reap their bounty.

The Winnipeg harvest organization launched last year with 10 volunteers and 20 picking locations in one neighbourhood; this year, 125 volunteers have already signed on, as have 50 locations.

"Our goal is to rescue that … cheap, local, nutritious, delicious fruit," said Fruit Share founder Getty Stewart. "I read the stats on how many people use food banks … and this is being thrown away. It's a missed opportunity."

In Toronto, nearly 20,000 pounds of fruit was harvested last year, each haul divided among volunteers, homeowners and community partners, including shelters and food banks. But figuring out what to do with the abundance, much of which accumulates during a couple of short months, is an ongoing preoccupation every harvest organizations faces.

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Some fruits are conventional – apples, for example – and can easily be donated to food banks. Others, such as elderberries, which need to be processed before they are eaten, or flying dragon, a lemon-like citrus fruit with a piney aroma that is harvested by an organization called Concrete Jungle in Atlanta, are tougher to figure out what to do with.

Adrian Buckley, co-ordinator of said his organization is looking into purchasing a cider press this year to juice crabapples, a fruit that is particularly abundant in the Alberta city but unpalatable in its raw form.

"Lots of people don't pick crabapples because they're so small and hard to work with," Mr. Buckley said. "We want to show how useful crabapples can be."

In Winnipeg, Ms. Stewart is co-ordinating some fruit canning and preserving workshops throughout the summer to improve local knowledge of uses for native fruits; she's also in the midst of writing a guidebook on uses for backyard fruit.

For other organizations, it's too early for a foray into fruit education. At in Atlanta, organizers are focused on building mobile apps to co-ordinate volunteers and trees. The goal is to steady the logistical imbalance that comes during harvest season, when hundreds of trees seem to ripen in a period so painfully short it sets off a manic juggle to pick and distribute fruit before it spoils.

In Toronto, Not Far From The Tree is refining its plan for a citywide expansion. The main barrier for this is funding – the average cost to co-ordinate equipment and pickings in one neighbourhood is about $15,000 a year. Second on the organization's list of priorities is figuring out a storage solution for harvested fruit, which will ultimately help manage the flow of fruit to grateful recipients and take pressure off overwhelmed pickers.

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"By the end of the first season … there was fruit filling my living room," Ms. Reinsborough said.

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About the Author
Global food reporter

Jessica Leeder is the Globe’s Atlantic Reporter, based in Halifax, Nova Scotia. In previous roles, Jessica has reported for the Globe from Afghanistan and post-quake Haiti, assignments for which she won an Emmy and a National Newspaper Award, respectively. She has also written about the politics of global food, entrepreneurialism and small business, and automotive news. More

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