The fruit of sharing

Here's an idea that combines the Transition movement's drive to rebuild our local foodsheds with its drive to build new economic structures

In our local neighborhood in Los Angeles, for the third year running, we are hosting a group purchase of bare root fruit trees.  It started on a whim.  I was ordering bare root fruit trees for my own yard, and thought perhaps a few others might wish to piggyback on my order.  I posted it on our local Transition email loops and suddenly my order had exploded to 21 trees!  We qualified for extra volume discounts at the supplier, and the box that arrived on my doorstep the following January was so big that it could easily have contained one of the Lakers basketball players! 

We repeated the fruit tree group purchase project a year later, and brought 28 additional fruit trees to our neighborhood (TWO Lakers-size boxes!).  It was such a successful model that we subsequently did a group purchase of rain water harvesting barrels.


The fruit tree group purchase didn't start out with the goal of getting the discounts; rather with the idea of getting more fruit trees planted.  Transition movement founder Rob Hopkins is big on planting nut trees in his UK town of Totnes.  Here in Southern California/Los Angeles, we don't get enough chill hours; most nut trees won't set or produce.  But fruit trees -- that we can do, in abundance. 

So much abundance in fact, that earlier in the year of the first group purchase, we had created a local harvest-sharing program.  Our local neighborhood is one of older houses (established 1940s), many of which have mature fruit trees.  People today don't do much canning or preserving, so a bumper crop of fruit was often left to drop, rot, and attract vermin. 

Rather than see all that food go to waste, we began inviting neighbors to bring their extra fruit to our community garden on the same days as we did our garden harvests.  We encouraged people to bring excess zucchinis and tomatoes, as well as the tree fruit.  Many weeks saw cratefuls of lemons, limes, oranges and grapefruits.  Extra fruit was channeled to the local food bank.  [Photo is of one week's haul to the food bank]

Transition Totnes' agenda with their nut tree planting program was to put in place now the "infrastructure" -- planting the baby trees -- for a perennial food forest.  Adapting that idea to our local climate, our goal became to get more fruit trees planted.


The first year, we publicized the group purchase through our email loop.  The second year, we chatted it up in our Organic Vegetable Gardening class series as well. 

We had people select from the vendor's online catalog, and send their order to us.  We insisted on payment up front (so that we weren't faced with fronting any money) and we were very clear about a cut-off date.  In these group things, there will always be someone who wants to jump in at the last minute, and those last minutes can stretch on and on.  Meanwhile that delays the order of the others, and perhaps might jeopardize them getting the selection they desired.

We were also clear about pick up instructions.  The way it works with the vendor we use, is that orders are taken in the autumn and trees are delivered in the cold of January.  Bare root trees are relatively tender, and need to be planted a.s.a.p. so that they don't dry out.  With 20+ trees arriving on our doorstep, we couldn't hold trees and give them adequate care, so we needed the participants to pick up their stuff as soon as it arrived.  We publicized, up front, the likely dates it would be, told people we would contact them by email, and sent out a preliminary warning message when we received the notice that the trees were being shipped.  As a result, most people picked up their trees on time.

To keep things clear, we created a little spreadsheet of orders -- who had ordered what -- and calculated the shared shipping cost.  Yes, it was a little bit of accounting work, but a small cost compared with the excitement of bringing that many additional new fruit trees into our immediate neighborhood.


The shared fruit tree orders have created a closer knit circle within our regular garden class attendees.  People proudly report how their trees are doing.  The group purchase project has spawned an interest in other fruit tree related things.  We've since planted a mini-orchard of dwarf fruit trees at the community garden. 

This past spring we invited my 85-year old father to teach a class session in fruit tree pruning.  A surprise lesson within that class was a lecture/demonstration on sharpening and caring for garden tools, a powerful message from the lean economic times of the 1930s and 40s.


Community-based finances can take many forms.  When we read the materials coming out of Totnes, it might sound like we all need our own local currency.  Not necessarily so.  Creating your own currency can be an expensive and complex project.  There are many other ways of economic sharing which are far less challenging and can make huge strides toward building a closer knit community.

Group purchases -- whether the afore-mentioned fruit trees or rain barrels, or a monthly bulk purchase of natural foods -- get people working together in ways that differ dramatically from the "I'll do it myself" mindset.  Harvest redistribution helps bridge people out of the "mine!" idea into a richer sense of "ours" and "plenty."  Used goods swaps or repurposing events help people understand that others can find more useful life left in things the original owners had regarded as cast-off.  All of these events stretch our inner sense of property, posessions, and possessiveness. 

Events and projects like these help to curb the runaway individuality which has cost us so dearly.  In the past, our American individuality has been our prideful self-definition.  "I am different, I am unique, Look at me!"  This is my property, these are my things, and they're better and bigger than your things (which makes me better and bigger than you).  Our declared (and militarily-defended) "freedom" to do as we please -- whether that be making a killer profit or raping the natural resources of other continents or consuming and polluting at opulent levels -- is at the root of many of the world's ills, from biocapacity to global warming to war.

Yet as we face a resource-scarce, energy-depleted, economically constrained, climate changed future, it is clear that we must find the path back to greater solidarity, working with others in ways that those of us alive today have never before experienced.  That means letting go of some of that excessive individualism, and group purchasing is a tiny step in that direction.

When bare root fruit trees arive, they don't look like much.  They are twigs with scraggly little roots.  They are fragile and need immediate tender-loving-care.  Once planted, they look a bit ridiculous, like naked sticks in the mud.  But as spring arrives, they sprout tiny bright green leaves. 

As a gardener, you can't help but get excited over these first delicate hints of new life.  A group purchase of 20 bare root fruit trees amidst the massive metropolis of Los Angeles doesn't seem like very much.  But maybe it's a tiny sprout, a hint of new life.




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