Berney’s grapefruit: Big yield, big impact

In the rolling hills of Somis, there are rows of grapefruit trees, waiting to be harvested by Food Forward volunteers every year. The trees, approximately fifty of them, are part of the orchard on Chuck Berney’s 42-acre property. While Chuck sells some of the fruit he grows, he reserves much of the grapefruit for Food Forward to collect and distribute to our partner agencies.

Chuck Berney’s 42-acre property includes grapefruit, lemon, and avocado trees

We’ve been collecting surplus fruit from Chuck’s property for 10 years, and in that time the property has become a favorite among especially hard-working Food Forward volunteers, including our Founder & CEO, Rick Nahmias. Since the property is also home to a commercial orchard, every year workers hired by Chuck pick all of the fruit, both what is being sold and the grapefruit for donation. Even with the harvesting completed, there is plenty of work left for Food Forward volunteers, who are tasked with “building” cardboard Food Forward boxes, closing up the full boxes, and loading them onto the agency’s vehicles. It’s a truly unique event for us, where our volunteers are not doing any actual fruit picking! It’s not easy work, but it’s become an annual staple of our larger Ventura County harvests, enjoyed by local Backyard Harvest volunteers and those from Los Angeles willing to make the trek to Somis to spend a day in the sun moving boxes of fruit. One family, the Aitchison’s, has come back to the Berney property for the second year in a row, and sees the hard work as an opportunity for more impact: “Since Berney hires pickers to ensure that his fruit is harvested and distributed locally, our involvement means that thousands of pounds of citrus can be distributed in only one harvest. This event has an enormous yield and the teamwork component of this harvest is gratifying.”

Chuck Berney (center) along with Food Forward staff and volunteers at a harvest in 2018.

The yield is indeed enormous—over two weekends this May, volunteers boxed and donated a total of 13,760 pounds of grapefruit, which were distributed to eight Ventura County agencies. Each of them received between a few hundred and a few thousand pounds of grapefruit, which were promptly distributed to farmworkers, low-income families, and other community members in Ventura County. 

The Aitchison family (Tara, John, Aidan, and Calin) frequently harvest in both Los Angeles and Ventura counties, and in the few years they’ve volunteered with us, they’ve been recognized with multiple awards for their commitment to Food Forward. Tara explains how the family first started volunteering with Food Forward: “Our involvement with Food Forward began as an activity that we could do as a family. Picking with the Backyard Harvest program enabled us to get outside, be productive, contribute to our community, and enjoy the perfect California weather.” Together, the family comprises a productive and efficient crew, setting them up well for continued volunteering during the pandemic. Tara says “When the pandemic hit, community volunteering events were canceled. However, we could still pick as a family. The fact that there were beautiful orchards with food going to waste during a time of unprecedented need motivated us to do all we could to help those that were struggling with food insecurity in our community.”

From left: Calin, Tara, and Aidan pose with boxes of grapefruit on the Berney property.

Tara and John’s kids, Aidan and Calin, have especially taken to the weekend harvests. Aidan, who is 17 years old, received the “Rookie of the Year” award for his harvesting in Ventura County in 2020. Tara shared with us what volunteering means for Aidan and Calin: “Our kids have learned a great deal through their involvement with Food Forward. Picking regularly is hard work, and volunteering with Food Forward has taught them to have a deeper appreciation and reverence for our food production. It has connected our teenagers to the community and instilled a sense of gratitude as they witnessed first-hand the increased demand for food assistance over the past year. Additionally, it gets them out of bed early on the weekends and they accomplish something before noon!”

Boxing and loading the bounty of Chuck’s grapefruit trees has become a yearly tradition for Food Forward volunteers who come back year after year, like the Aitchison’s. It’s a special property and one that makes a truly impressive impact on the communities served by our partner agencies.