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When my out-of-sortness began last Monday, I resolved to try Portland Fruit Tree Project that evening.

I discovered the non-profit group one night after my husband read a newspaper story about a garden benefiting low-income families. Portlanders are so adept at community living – think tool library, seed swaps, co-ops, shared work space and craft rooms – I figured there might be other creative options to supplement our student-sized grocery budget.

Portland Fruit Tree Project popped up after a brief internet search – the beginning of a beautiful thing, considering the abyss I usually circle endlessly online.

The organization’s combination of my love for fruit harvesting, helping others, and free food intrigued me. And that Monday night, I needed to get out of the house and away from tasks like a bird needs wings to fly.

So I jumped in the car and drove 20 minutes away to check out what this group is all about.

As I soon found out, at any given harvesting event, approximately 15 Portland Fruit Tree Project volunteers descend on a designated yard with trees the owner needs help harvesting. Half the bounty goes to a local food bank, and the other, more bruised half goes home with volunteers.

fruit ladderThat Monday evening, we started by collecting fallen fruit, sorting rotten from salvageable. We then set about various methods of picking the remaining fruit.

There’s a bona fide reason bosses encourage workers to go after low hanging fruit. It really is easier and less risky. You just reach up, twist the pear a few times, and find yourself with fruit in hand.

If we’re talking about efficiency, going for the low hanging fruit makes sense. But I like a little adventure, and none of us that night were willing to let a single pear go unpicked. Not to mention your neck starts to hurt pretty quickly after looking up for an extended period of time.

So I grabbed a picking pole and ladder and set myself to finding the pears no one had yet reached.

If you’ve never seen a picking pole (I hadn’t), envision a giant cupping his hand to catch falling pears, then imagine his hand is made of wire, doesn’t have any joints, and rests at the end of a long, wooden pole for an arm. That’s basically a picking pole.

You reach the pole high to grab the stem of a pear between two wire ‘fingers,’ then twist and pull and shake and whatever it takes to get that pear down. Hopefully it falls in the cupped hand wire basket rather than to the ground where it lays bruised. If you’re really skilled, you pick a few pears at a time.

fruit picking pole

When the wire basket’s full – or it seems the one pear you’ve acquired is about to dump out – whichever comes first – you empty the wire basket into your pregnant lady-sized apron pocket. When your apron sags nearly to your feet – but not quite, because you don’t want to trip – you make your way down the ladder and gingerly dump the golden nuggets into a yet-to-be-sorted basket. Meanwhile, three to four people sort the bruised and overripe fruit from the aged-to-perfection harvest.

If your picking pole doesn’t reach high enough to grasp the last of the pears, you can add an extension rod to it, then concentrate fiercely on maintaining enough balance to get the wobbly 12 foot contraption around another pear stem. I recommend situating yourself a step or two below the top rung of your ladder at this point.

When all else fails, your fellow pickers – those who persisted in picking the low hanging fruit – can hold a large, outstretched tarp above the ground and hope they don’t get bonked on the head while you shake the laden branches.

By this time, you’ve of course made a mess with your strenuous and creative efforts, so the group rakes and removes any debris, leaving the yard nicer than when the group first descended.

If one location doesn’t take very long, then everyone gets in their cars and descends on a second location, beginning the process anew.

After volunteers pick all the trees bare, the organizer announces the total weight picked. The day I participated, we picked a total of 400 pounds of pears and apples in three hours. Which meant each of us got to take home 20 pounds of fruit!

Because one woman took only half her allotment, I got to bring an abundance of fruit to refugee friends who live less than a block from where we harvested. With the remainder, I made my first batch of pectin and dehydrated pears.

Picking fruit for three hours, working hard with neighbors I’d never met, blessing others with what I’d been given – it made me sane again. It set me back on course, if only for a night.