WALNUT CREEK -- A scruffy sloping field, unused and more weed patch than wonderland, has been transformed into the fertile forerunner of 8,000 pounds of fresh produce. And it's all because of Art.
That's Art Ungar, a longtime member of Mt. Diablo Unitarian Universalist Church in Walnut Creek who shepherded the 80 fruit trees now digging their roots into the soil near the congregation's building.
The Lafayette resident and former management scientist has been attending the church since 1968. For nearly 47 years, he's watched the southwest-facing slope -- too steep to build upon -- sit fallow.
"I went to an Urban Farmer training session about planting, after helping the group with backyard harvests a few times," Ungar explained during a break in the Feb. 2 planting of the trees. "Afterward, I went to the ministers and said, 'This is an outfit (Urban Farmers) who really knows what they're doing. We should put an orchard in; it's a great idea and everyone will benefit.' It was an easy sell."
Urban Farmers is a nonprofit founded by Siamack Sioshansi that has grown from grassroots harvesting (and donating the produce to hunger relief agencies) to six established orchards, college- and community-led projects and a broad network of collaborative harvest/plant/educate efforts. Sioshansi often describes the timeless, cyclical nature of the organization by paraphrasing an Iranian poem: "Others planted so we can eat, we plant so others can eat."
And despite it being Super Bowl Sunday, nearly 30 Urban Farmer volunteers had signed up to help with the Walnut planting. Sioshansi said people always underestimate how many individuals will want to participate. "There's the Super Bowl," he said, gazing at the nearly completed planting, "but boom, they did it."
The church's co-minister, David Takahashi Morris, said the congregation has been equally enthused. "It's been remarkable. The approval process went smoothly. For a large-scale, physical change on the campus to go through in a month (three months, he said, is typical) was swift."
Perhaps because the opportunity afforded church membership a golden blend of economic practicality and environmental accountability, Takahashi Morris said the group exceeded expectations. Initially invited to purchase 50 trees to fill the open space, checks poured in, despite Ungar's messages announcing the limit had been reached.
"The deadline arrive and passed. I kept saying we had to stop and people didn't stop," Ungar said. 'You can see, we're excited."
Seventeen-year-old Kira Powell is not a member of the Unitarian church, but the Las Lomas High School senior was thrilled to grab a pear tree, squeeze its roots, place it in the already-dug hole and shovel dirt.
"I'm part of a two-person team," she said. "I do this for my own happiness. I grew up in a family where we help at women's shelters, soup kitchens, camps." The best thing, she said, was that her Urban Farmer activities actually create food. "It's not a one-time thing, like handing someone a can of corn. It's continuous, for 50 to 100 years."
The second, longer figure might require a miracle to be true. But Matt Zahner said Walnut Creek's hilly slopes are perfect place for it to happen.
"The soil here is wonderful too, not like the hard clay and sandstone we had" at the Athenian School in Danville, said Zahner, a social studies and math teacher at that school. He was at the Walnut Creek planting because the church's orchard is modeled after the one planted in 2013 at his school. Urban Farmers has inflamed his agricultural embers, and Zahner admitted trees are constantly on his radar and he drives around, seeing potential orchards everywhere.
Ungar said the early objections to his proposal were few. "It costs under $50 a year to water 50 trees, so it's negligible," he said. The trees are fenced to keep deer out, and wrapped in gopher-resistant wire cages. Soon, pomegranate trees will be planted and grow 6-7 feet tall around the orchard's perimeter, their thorns keeping deer out and allowing the fence to be removed. In a few years time, Ungar and his fellow church members are likely to return, joined by urban farmers, to glean the new orchard's first harvest.
In the meantime, an interfaith orchard bringing together several local groups and using more of the church's open space, has already progressed from Ungar's next big idea to a real possibility.