Some good grows from crisis. The idea for The Urban Farmers sprang up in the wake of the 2008 economic crash when Siamack Sioshansi’s son and his college roommate returned home to find their jobs as YMCA counselors eliminated. They decided to design a social justice project. To learn about their mission and how it’s evolved, I joined Siamack for a harvesting in San Ramon where he guides Boys Team Charity Lamorinda League in shaking down some trees. He tells the story:
Social justice and environmental justice are one and the same.
If someone says, I want to feed this group, but I’m going to import food, if they are destroying the environment, the first victims of that action are the poor. So environmental stewardship was a big part of the project. We asked, why don’t we plant a garden in people’s backyards, give them a basket of food, and donate the rest to people that need it?
I was worried that nobody would let us in. The boys wrote a business plan, and what were we guaranteeing? That we will invade your privacy, we will increase your water use and we cannot guarantee that we can even give you a tomato because we’ve never done this before. We explored four to five potential cities, and when we came to Lafayette where I’d never been, other than to stop for gas, we met a school teacher that said yes, we’ll get behind you, we’ll help you.
And the help they provided was invaluable. They put an ad in the school newsletter saying if you have land and water these guys will grow a garden for you — 156 families volunteered their backyards. We had room for about 20 of them so we planted 20 gardens, some were successful and some weren’t. And we harvested 1,800 lbs in the first year and fed a lot of people.
Why Fruit Trees
Any foreigner who comes to the United States, one of their first impressions is how come all these apples are falling on the ground and how come nobody picks them up? My parents would walk around the neighborhoods and ask me this and I’d say, you should knock on the door and see if they’ll let you pick the apples. And sometimes the homeowners would say, yes! Do you want a box, a bag, can I give you a ladder?
But when you think of starting something like this, harvesting people’s food, it’s a complicated process, you need a legal entity, you need insurance, God forbid somebody gets hurt. You need to buy equipment, you need to have some mode of transporting, you need a way of getting the word out to the community. And, once you harvest the fruit, you need to find a place that will take a thousand pounds of it.
So on the surface it seems easy, pick 30 lbs and take it to a food bank, that’s okay. But even that, to me, is not okay. Because if you only pick 30 lbs and you drive it across the county – please, stop. We started in Lafayette and now we are in most of Central Contra Costa – we have limited ourselves to a radius of 25 miles, so if you call us from Brentwood, until six months ago, we would say we would love to help but that’s too far. In Central Contra Costa we have 800 homes and 1,100 trees. [They also harvest on semi-public land where water, land and trees are donated]. For two years we were growing gardens and then one day we harvested one apple tree from a backyard with 400 lbs of apples. What do you do with that? So now, for the past five years we only harvest fruit.
The Playbook to Scale
Gleaning goes back to Biblical times. Ruth was the first to glean on Jacob’s land. She picked up grains because she was hungry and had to feed her kids. All religions of the world say that if you have food you should share it. Our system is so complex now that the poor person cannot come here to get a free apple.
I think we have a responsibility to figure this out, and I think this has huge potential. My work was with IBM and Apple, and then I founded my own software company. It has always been about working together and finding a way of leveraging things and productivity. Right now this is a 25-mile backyard project. Last year we harvested 106,000 lbs and 1,300 unique volunteers helped. In order to make a real impact on the world you have to find a way to create a whole bunch of these pods all of over the country.
For the past year, we’ve been working on a starter kit. If you want to start up in your town, you can have legal protection under our contract, insurance, you are a franchise of Urban Farmers, we give you tools, then we have relationships with distributors, everything you need even if you do it one day a month, which is all you need to get started. They use our system to register volunteers and tree owners. We give you software to track everything and define the territory you want to work in. We also do training. (There’s a woman in Brentwood who started a pod, she distributes to Hope House right there. We have a second pilot in Pleasanton and Livermore distributing to Open Heart Kitchen).
A big way to expand this is by going to corporations that have thousands of employees. We just signed up a company with 70,000 worldwide employees. There will be a training in November. And they go out and leverage their neighbors, friends, their community. And they can create a harvesting competition. Say, “Texas group harvested 2,000 pounds, Albuquerque group picked 3,000 pounds!”
I think it’s kind of ridiculous that we, who rely on food to survive, have become so disconnected from it.
The boys and their parents and special guest star sister, picked about 550 pounds of fruit last Sunday. Siamack explains that according to the USDA, in order to meet a person’s daily calorie requirement, a farmer has to grow 5 lbs of food a day. Sunday’s fruit harvest was enough for 110 people. Through White Pony Express distribution, it would all be in the hands of those in need the following day.