Volunteers harvest a residential tree in Ottawa (Photo Credit Hidden Harvest)

Volunteers harvest a residential tree in Ottawa (photo credit: Hidden Harvest).

What if we lived our lives in urban orchards? We’d have access to all kinds of foraged foods, and would be able to live off the land.

Ottawa-based friends and now co-founders of Hidden Harvest, Katrina Siks and Jason Garlough, woke up one fall morning after pressing apples into cider at a friend’s house. It occurred to them that they could start their own harvesting program. They had been gathering wild and urban edibles for years and realized that there was much more out there that could be put to good use. “You learn about one plant and you can’t turn a corner without seeing it again,” says Siks. That’s the backdrop for the launch of their organization.

Hidden Harvest co-founders Katrina Siks and Jason Garlough

Hidden Harvest co-founders Katrina Siks and Jason Garlough. Siks and Garlough enjoyed foraging for urban edibles, before realizing that this activity could be turned into something good for the community.

It took a few months for them to assess the project’s feasibility in Ottawa. They had meetings and discussions with representatives of the food bank and the forestry department, as well as members of conservation groups, and realized that there were no other organizations with the capacity to take on such a large project. Siks explains their ‘social purpose business’ approach. “Most greening groups work from their heart, but they burn out. My business partner and I come from a nonprofit background. We wanted to break the cycle of relying on grants.” She and Garlough wanted Hidden Harvest to be business as opposed to a nonprofit. They would have different income streams, and eventually people would be paid to do the work. The bottom line? People, profit, planet.

Siks believes many of our towns and cities already have urban orchards, but that we don’t take proper care of them. Emerald ash borer, an invasive green beetle native to Asia and Eastern Russia, is currently wreaking havoc in Ottawa. Some trees have been saved, but the majority has been lost. While the deaths of many trees provide an opportunity for replanting, edibles have not been planted in the last 20 years because many people view them as messy. “Whenever people see food falling to the ground, we want them not to think, ‘That annoys me,’ but rather, ‘That is a missed opportunity. This is food that can be used.’” This attitude can make a huge difference if harvested city food is diverted to those who need it – at least 45 thousand people in Ottawa use the food bank every month.

Hidden Harvest Black Walnut Harvest (Photo credit: Hidden Harvest)

A local black walnut harvest. This particular nut tree is native to eastern North America (photo credit: Hidden Harvest).

Hidden Harvest is a “dispersed farm,” but it’s hard to earn money from selling urban fruit. To compensate, the organization has several other streams of income.

  • Running workshops: Hidden Harvest brings in speakers to teach people about topics such as tree care, tree identification, and food processing. The profit comes from ticket sales.
  • Working with community groups: these groups have the capacity to care for trees, but are missing the funding to purchase them. Hidden Harvest advertises the opportunity for others to donate trees to the groups.
  • Corporate sponsorship: right now, the organization has an arrangement with a local coffeehouse chain, Bridgehead Coffeehouses, which is selling a “Hidden Harvest blend.” They receive a portion of the profit.
  • Future CSA option: Hidden Harvest is exploring the option of joining a community-supported agriculture group.
  • The quarter-share model: while many other fruit-gleaning groups operate under a third-share model (one third of the harvest goes to the homeowner, one third goes to the volunteers, and one third goes to an agency such as a food bank), Hidden Harvest operates under a quarter-share model. They keep a portion of the harvest to use for promotional and fundraising purposes, to generate income. With their quarter, Hidden Harvest has worked with culinary students at Algonquin College, who made an apple jam, as well as local beer company Kichissipi, who made a small production run of apple beer.
Canning the harvest - with Hidden Harvest in Ottawa (Photo Credit: Hidden Harvest)

Canning the harvest to help the Hidden Harvest business expand (photo credit: Hidden Harvest).

The company faces a more fundamental challenge; in order to get people to eat this food, they have to lessen the existing fear of organically-grown produce. “We’ve been eating food from stores for so long, and I’ve chatted with folks who tell me that unless it comes out of a box, it’s scary to them,” Siks notes. “They think it might be dirty. There is a perception that if it comes from a store, it’s clean and proper.” However, Siks says that there can be contaminants even in canned goods like apple juice.

Hidden Harvest is continually looking for ways to provide full-time jobs and support its activities, with the goal in mind of getting this food to as many people as possible. “It’s about rescuing what’s out there, remembering what’s out there, and replanting for future generations.” This kind of work is going a long way towards changing our perception of which foods are healthy and good.


Current premier of Ontario Kathleen Wynne visits Hidden Harvest volunteers at a local market in 2013 (photo credit: Hidden Harvest).