Are you one of the thousands of Torontonians dealing with an unruly fruit tree? It may be beautiful to look at, but the clean up—and food waste—aren't such pretty tales. While this city's feisty squirrel population helps keep acorns under control, there's still a significant volume of unaccounted-for fruit, including apples, pears, plums, elderberries and cherries, to name just a few. If you've got a surprise harvest on your hands, Toronto-based Not Far From the Tree can help.  

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Not Far From the Tree is a non-profit organization that gathers fruit from Toronto backyards. Since 2008, they've picked over 120,000 pounds of fruit, with a record of over 37,000 pounds picked in a season. Their ultimate goal? To rescue unpicked fruit that will go unused and share it with food banks, community kitchens and shelters. We chatted with Sue Arndt, director of Not Far From The Tree, about the importance of urban harvesting and what happens with the fruit they collect.

Why is it important to reuse fruit from people's backyards?

It's estimated that Toronto's trees produce about 1,000,000 pounds of fruit each year. It's important to pick and share the fruit, since in most cases, it would otherwise go to waste. Through our project, we're able to distribute it to people with limited access to fresh fruit, all while creating opportunities for community to come together. The act of harvesting fruit builds relationships between volunteers and neighbours, and offers a chance to educate the public about issues ranging from food security to how fruit grows, all while having fun.

What are the environmental benefits?

Because we help manage the fruit on trees, it prevents homeowners from cutting them down. [This keeps] the tree count up in the city. We also help reduce the amount of fruit that would otherwise rot, get swept into the garbage, create unpleasant smells, and create homes for unwanted pests and bugs that can be hard to deal with on a large scale. By picking the trees annually during peak ripening times, it also encourages the trees to keep producing more fruit for the coming years. As a bonus, our model uses cargo bikes to transport equipment and fruit, so we do not leave a carbon footprint! Essentially, we keep the city a little bit more clean, and [share] healthy food.

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How many types of fruits and nuts are available in Toronto?

There is a surprising diversity of fruit growing in Toronto! We most commonly pick 11 types of fruit, including: sweet and sour cherries, mulberries, serviceberries, apricots, plums, pears, peaches, grapes, crabapples and apples. There are less common fruits we pick as well, such as quince and paw paw. We do pick two types of nut trees as well: ginkgo and walnuts.

What happens to the fruit that's collected?

The fruit gets distributed into three equal parts. One third goes to the homeowner if they wish (sometimes they want less), one third gets split among the volunteer group who helped pick it, and one third goes to a nearby partner agency, such as a shelter, food bank, or community kitchen. What happens to the fruit next is up to those who receive it. Some volunteers say they bake with it, jam it, freeze it, or eat it as is. Our partnering food agencies do the same, and distribute it to their community members in need.

When are the best seasons for picking?

Cherry season starts in mid-June. We often call it the cherry blitz, because all the cherry trees ripen within a two week window, so it's a pretty hectic time. Following cherries, the other berries, plums, and apricots ripen. A lull occurs mid-season, then grapes, pears, and apples come in the fall, which is also busy.

How many volunteers does it take to run Not Far From the Tree?

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We have several types of volunteers: two to four that help out in the office, about 50–75 specially trained volunteers who lead picks, approximately 115 that come out to events such as City Cider, and a database of about 2,000 plus registered fruit pickers. So quite a lot!

Have you worked with any organizations, restaurants or chefs who have used your fruits and nuts in their dishes?

We've done many collaborations with organizations and restaurants. In the past, we partnered with ChocoSol and they created a chocolate bar by drying and adding in some of the grapes, apples, and pears we gave them. At our biggest event of the year, City Cider we work with Ontario Craft Cideries and local restaurants to celebrate the harvest and create dishes for attendees to try. Additional partners we work with include Belong Cafe, Richmond Station, Spirit Tree Cidery, West End Food Coop, Manning Canning, Ryerson Eats, Burdock Brewery, and more...