Fidalgo Island & Guemes Gleaners

Imagine being at the supermarket and overhearing this conversation between a mother and her son: “Mom, can we get some apples?” “No honey, they’re too expensive, maybe next week.”

Head gleaner of the Fidalgo Island & Guemes Gleaners (FIGG), Sylvia Cooper, recounted that story as told by her friend. Thanks to the work of Cooper and FIGG, local community members have access to free, fresh fruit a few months out of the year.

FIGG is part of the non-profit program, Transition Fidalgo and Friends, which, among other things, strives to shift the community towards local food production. Cooper heads Transition’s food program, naturally putting her in charge of FIGG. A previous gleaning program was disorganized and fizzled out, so logistics were important this time around. The non-profit organization began practicing logistics — how long it took to glean a tree, how to best organize volunteers — in fall 2015. Two years later FIGG has nailed their logistics and is picking fruit all over the local area.

Fidalgo Island used to be dotted with orchards. When neighborhoods rose up, homes were built alongside apple, pear, plum and even fig trees. Now, decades after suburbia took over, these old trees are still producing fruit, but homeowners can’t consume it all themselves. Cooper said, “There’s an abundance of food here. We realized we can feed a lot of people.”

The process is simple. A homeowner contacts FIGG to set up a gleaning date and time. Cooper sends an email to her list of 65 volunteer gleaners, specifying how many people she’ll need (small trees require 3–4 people while larger ones may require up to double that). The first volunteers to respond are given the gleaning address. Once on site, the entire process takes less than an hour, with smaller trees taking about 20 minutes.

The time depends on the size of the tree and how much fruit should be harvested. The gleaners don’t always harvest all the fruit. Sometimes they just thin out an overladen tree to help the fruit grow bigger. There is as little waste as possible. Gleaners pick up fallen fruit from the ground and donate those bushels to animal farmers. Once all the fruit is harvested, the homeowners take as much as they want, then the volunteers, and the remaining lot is donated to local charities including food banks and No Kid Hungry.

In 2016, FIGG harvested 8,900 lbs. of fruit, garnering an average of 150–300 lbs. from smaller trees, and 500 lbs. from bigger trees. Suffice to say there was plenty of fruit to go around, so much so that Cooper, who lives near Anacortes High School, is nicknamed the “Fruit Lady” for the boxes of fresh fruit lining her driveway. She invites the students to take as much as they like.

Wanting to help the community even more, FIGG hosts a cider-making party every few weeks in fall when there is an abundance of apples. Participants learn how to make fresh cider at this casual, family-friendly event. Cooper is also working on putting together educational seminars to teach fruit tree owners how to better care for the fruit trees with proper pruning and disease prevention. She hopes to one day expand into vegetable harvesting and spreading more education about healthy eating to the community’s children.

Cooper doesn’t seem to mind how busy her days get during the harvest season. Since FIGG is a volunteer program, she and many of the other gleaners work full time jobs and glean on the weekends or after work. But she says, “It’s worth it…[the fruit] is out there and it’s available for very little effort.” There’s no reason why anyone should be left wanting with so much abundance in our community.
"'There’s an abundance of food here. We realized we can feed a lot of people.'"