Historic orchard feeds those in need
By Melissa Dowling
Volunteers from the Rotary Clubs of Sonoma Valley and Jack London State Historic Park and staff from Farm to Pantry assembled on July 23 in the park’s historic orchard to glean – or gather – 798 pounds of ripe plums that will be given to people in Sonoma County who are struggling with food insecurity.
“This orchard is such a beautiful place, and it’s a real pleasure coming out to help restore the historic groves,” said Scott Murray, President of the Rotary Club of Sonoma Valley. “Protecting the environment is a key focus area for Rotary International and for our local Rotary District 5130. Helping restore the existing groves, picking seasonal harvests, and replanting the historic peach grove are important environmental projects for the Rotary clubs in this area. This is why the Rotary Club of Sonoma Valley together with the Rotary clubs of Sonoma Sunrise, Sonoma Springs, Glen Ellen/ Kenwood, and Valley of the Moon, and the Sonoma Valley High School Interact Club are all contributing people and resources to this effort. Twenty-six volunteers from across the local Rotary groups have supported the two workdays that we’ve held so far at the historic groves, and we have more work and harvest days scheduled over the next twelve months.”
“The orchard is located three miles away from the main entrance of the park. It’s a beautiful and rewarding hiking destination, and now, thanks to the Rotary Club of Sonoma Valley and Farm to Pantry, the literal ‘fruits’ of our labors are serving a greater purpose in the realm of food justice. We love that these historic trees that we’re working so hard to preserve are also producing food for people facing food insecurity throughout the county,” said Matt Leffert, Executive Director of Jack London State Historic Park. The orchard was originally a part of the Sonoma Developmental Center.
“The partnership with the park yields much more than fruit. Together, we are helping to feed people, promote health and nutrition for the community, and reduce food waste,” said Duskie Estes, Executive Director of Farm to Pantry. “It is often hard to believe in this beautiful wine country, that one in three of us in Sonoma County are experiencing food insecurity. We are very grateful that we get to share the bounty of the Jack London historic orchard with those who need it most.”
In 2021, Farm to Pantry rescued over 350,000 pounds or 1.4 million servings of Sonoma County grown fruits and vegetables. Since 2008, they have delivered over 4.5 million servings of fruits and vegetables in Sonoma County and spared the air of emissions equivalent to taking nearly 400 cars off the road for one month.
In August, volunteers from nearby Benziger Winery will gather to glean Bartlett pears, which will find their way to pantries and hungry mouths throughout Sonoma County.
In 2002 Jack London State Historic Park acquired approximately 600 acres of land from the Sonoma Developmental Center State Hospital. This land included the historic orchard – 110 acres of apple, pear, apricot, peach, cherry, and plum trees that were planted primarily in 1908-1912. By the 1980s, the orchard was abandoned.
In 2007, the California Department of Parks and Recreation and the National Park Service partnered on an assessment of the orchard and determined it to be a valuable Historic and Cultural Landscape and that it should be stabilized for future generations to experience.
Soon after that, Jack London Park Partners entered into an operating agreement with the Department of Parks and Recreation to manage Jack London State Historic Park, and the non-profit began working in this historic orchard to stabilize the historic trees. This work consisted of clearing competing vegetation away, pruning deadwood, bracing, thinning fruit, mulching, watering and removal of harmful invasive species, and this work continues today.
While doing this work it became apparent that an expanded project was needed as many of these historic trees had already been lost, and even the healthy trees are nearing the end of their life cycle. Jack London Park Partners developed a plan with California State Parks for a cultural restoration of the historic orchard, which began in 2017.
This new expanded plan includes replanting areas of the historic orchard grid with cuttings taken from the historic trees. These cuttings (scions) are grafted onto rootstock by a grafting expert. When ready, they are planted on the same grid where historic trees have disappeared. By doing this, visitors to the orchard will not only get to see and appreciate the individual trees, some of which are over 100 years old, but will also be able to experience what a pre-World War II orchard landscape would have been like.
In the fall of 2017, Jack London Park Partners planted the first tree in the orchard in over 50 years—a quince seedling grown from a cutting taken from the last surviving quince tree in the historic orchard. To date more than 50 trees have been planted, including quince, apple, pear, cherry, and apricots.
In 2021, Jack London Park Partners Board Member Sandy Leonard connected the park with Duskie Estes and Farm to Pantry, a non-profit organization that supports environmental sustainability by rescuing locally grown food and sharing it with those experiencing food insecurity.