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Gleaners make the most of forgotten SDC orchard

The trees were short, gnarled, spaced evenly about 30 feet apart but apparently ill-tended. Their weathered trunks were gray, split and twisted with age, but buried in the crowns of greenery were jewels of carmine plums – prune-plums of four different species, survivors of this century-old orchard.

The orchard once produced tons of fresh fruit, not only plums but peaches, cherries, apples, pears and apricots. But in the mid-1980s, the orchard was allowed to go fallow – though hikers and locals have long known a summer visit to the trees could still provide a bounty.

Like peeling away the varnish of time from a painted landscape, Jack London Park Partners Director of Operations Eric Metz explained the history of this remnant 40 acres of what was once over 100 acres of fruit trees, and how it came this morning to await the hooked baskets of half-a-dozen volunteer gleaners recruited by Farm to Pantry.

It was planted by the state in the early 1900s, and residents of the Sonoma State Home tended the orchard and their kitchens and local markets benefited from the seasonal fruit. Records at the state hospital show fruit was harvested as early as 1908. The staff of Sonoma State Home (later known as the Sonoma Developmental Center) believed the orchard gave the residents of the facility a means to be engaged and self-sufficient.

“You can imagine in the early 1900s, the country was still kind of in this industrial, growth phase – it was all about louder, faster, more, bigger,” Metz told the assembled gleaners before the work began. “And they felt like that was not a good environment for people with developmental disabilities to be in. So they wanted to create kind of a little haven, a little self-sufficient haven that they could stay in and support themselves.”

It was a great success, Metz said.

“I think in 1953, they had a surplus of about 15,000 pounds of apples (they sent) over to the Napa State Hospital because they just had too much to deal with,” he said.

A cannery may have been up at this site, Camp Via, at the height of the orchard’s production. But over time the facility withdrew from managing the orchard, and commercial tree keepers took over in the 1960s. By the 1980s, the orchard had been abandoned as it cost the state too much money.

As the Sonoma Developmental Center began to downsize – it was officially closed at the end of 2018 – portions of its extensive property were sold off, and in 2002, Jack London State Historic Park took over 600 acres, including the remaining 40 acres of orchards.

The gleaners, who hailed from as far away as Corte Madera and as close as Glen Ellen, were alerted to this rustic opportunity by their registration with Farm to Pantry, a Sonoma County nonprofit currently headed by chef Duskie Estes. Since 2008, the Healdsburg-based organization has been helping farmers and ranchers get their products harvested and distributed to food support kitchens around the county, such as the Sonoma Overnight Support (S.O.S.), Redwood Empire Food Bank, Food for Thought, Catholic Charities and the Council on Aging.

The volunteers caravaned up to Camp Via on the original Sonoma Developmental Center property. The orchard can be reached by a 3-mile hike from the London Cottage, or an equally long drive through SDC past a locked gate.

After Farm to Pantry’s Brett Leduc’s orientation, they all grabbed a box, a tarp and a fruit picker, and fanned out across the orchard, keeping an eye and ear out for rattlesnakes.

“In most of the park we catch the snakes and relocate them out of high-use areas. This unfortunately is not a high-use area,” said Metz.

The gleaners distributed themselves through the orchard, generally working in pairs, occasionally pausing to chat or sample the freshly picked fruit. But in about 90 minutes they filled over a dozen boxes with fruit – probably destined for Sonoma Overnight Support or the Burbank Housing projects in the Valley.

“This food makes such a big difference,” said Leduc, the ebullient operations manager for Farm to Pantry. “People are so excited to get yummy things like plums and fruit. It’s just really a treat to get to be here and be part of that solution.”

Farm to Pantry has over 80 nonprofit organizations and distribution partners that help ”get the fruits and vegetables to those facing food insecurity,” said Kelly Conrad of the organization. The small nonprofit is justly proud of their out-of-scale success: in 2020 alone, they “rescued” over 200,000 pounds of produce from 300 volunteer gleaners, 250 property owners and 70 partners.

Leduc goes about her work wearing a long-sleeve T-shirt whose back reads, “Over 3 million servings since 2008,” in a nod to McDonald’s marketing boast. She offers encouragement and advice, coordinating the collection of the full boxes and distribution of new ones.

She says this is one of the first gleaning operations in the Sonoma Valley – the organization has just started working with Haystack Farm, in east Sonoma, but is looking for more opportunities.

“We’re new to Sonoma Valley but it’s so gratifying to see such interest,” she said.

She quickly added, “We need volunteers!”

The gleaners on Aug. 13 were alerted to the opportunity by a weekly gleaning email, delivered when they registered on farmtopantry.org/gleaning. For some, it’s the first time – others are more experienced.

“It’s a great experience – every location is quite different,” said Peg Fitzgerald of Santa Rosa.

This location is not only different but unusual for its size, its connections to history, and the synchronicity that led to these gleaners being in this orchard on this day. It was less than a month earlier that Metz and Park Partners board member Sandy Leonard got in touch with Estes and Farm to Pantry when they realized they had the opportunity to turn this long-forgotten orchard into another contribution to solving food insecurity for the county’s residents.

“The stars aligned with us, it’s the right thing to do – it was just so easy,” said Leonard between her own forays into the crown of the fruit-bearing trees.

Peaches used to grow in this orchard, too, but their lifespan is a couple decades shorter than plums, so they have all died out. Metz and Parks Ranch Manager James Hinchman have attempted to graft the historic peaches on available rootstock, and interplant newer pear trees in the Comice and Bartlett grove, just up a dry dusty track a quarter mile from the plum orchard.

On the opposite side of the road two Winesap apple trees produce their small fruit in substantial clusters. The almost-tiny tart fruit is crisp and eye-opening in its brilliance, fresh off the tree.

The Winesaps and pears will be gleaned next week, by volunteers from Glen Ellen’s Benziger Vineyards, said Metz.

“I’d love to get the fruit, too,” said Leduc, as they begin to coordinate a joint gleaning effort to benefit Food to Pantry’s partners.

Gleaning, gathering, reaping, harvesting – all are synonyms, and each carries a symbolic weight as well, rooted to the basic task of picking the fruits of the field for survival. It’s as old a human hunt as there is from the time of arboreal apes, and still brings a primal satisfaction of being part of the process of growth, harvest and community

Contact Christian at christian.kallen@sonomanews.com.

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