Two tons of Hearst Castle oranges to go to the needy

Two tons of freshly picked oranges are going from Hearst Castle to needy families’ tables countywide by month’s end.

Hearst Castle landscaping staffers are plucking citrus from 120 trees, most planted about eight years ago to replace a decorative entry-to-the-estate orchard reduced by age to a scant, scruffy bunch of misshapen, dying trees.

State Parks donates the bounty to the 3-year-old GleanSLO program, now part of the Food Bank Coalition of San Luis Obispo County.

The program provides tons of fresh-picked produce to county hungry — kiwi from Nipomo, apples from See Canyon, cabbage, avocados, leaf lettuce and more, said Carolyn Eicher, GleanSLO coordinator. It comes from commercial farms, fields and orchards, farmers markets and backyard gardens.

The team hopes to double last year’s total of nearly 100,000 pounds distributed, with an emphasis on “not bringing in more food from outside the county, but to rescue that which is grown locally,” Eicher said.

GleanSLO volunteers go into fields or orchards, with farmers’ permission, to harvest produce left behind by growers’ picking crews. Some donors provide already-picked produce. GleanSLO has accumulated and distributed more than 21,000 pounds of produce so far this year.

Because of liability issues and State Park rules, staffers do the harvesting at Hearst Castle. They collect fruit in trashcans, take it down the hill in 30-gallon plastic sacks and put it in bins for loading by forklift onto a truck and a trip to the Food Bank warehouse.

Most fruit on trees near the Castle is left on the branch, as it was during William Randolph Hearst’s heyday, because he considered orchards near main buildings decorative. Fruit is harvested from orchards further down the hill.

The new trees are loaded with fruit ranging from small mandarins to seedless navel oranges that can weigh more than a pound each.

 “These young trees were just too laden … We’re allowing harvesting to help them grow and flourish,” said Nick Franco, parks district superintendent. “The fruit was so heavy it could have broken branches and damaged the trees.”

Instead, it’s parceled out for delivery to hungry county residents.