The Meyer lemon tree in front of Will Reichmann’s house is small, but official.
Shortly after buying it, Reichmann registered his humble sapling online as part of a new campaign aimed at proving that even one of the country’s most densely populated cities can learn to feed itself, one crop at a time.
“When the tree gets bigger we’ll participate in gleaning programs and help with food banks,” said Reichmann, a retired social and environmental activist. “There are so many lemon trees around the city and you can’t consume all that you grow.”
The Just One Tree campaign was started by Isabel Wade, an environmental planner who’d been thinking of ways to nudge the city toward greater agricultural independence since leaving her post as executive director of the Neighborhood Parks Council, which she founded. She zeroed in on Meyer lemons after reading a study on San Francisco’s “food watershed” – a 100-mile radius around the city where food is grown and raised. The assessment, conducted by three nonprofits, concluded that some commodities, including citrus, wheat, corn, pork and potatoes, weren’t produced in large enough quantities to satisfy local demand.
Hog farms and wheat fields didn’t seem practical for the city. But the Meyer lemon tree, which doesn’t need much heat to mature, flower and bear fruit year round, seemed an ideal first crop to promote. The fruit already is the citrus rock star of farmers markets and upscale grocery stores, where it’s prized for a signature yellow radiance and fragrant sweet tang.
Technically, the Meyer lemon is believed to be a combination of a mandarin and lemon, first cultivated in China. Its skin is thinner than other lemon varieties, making it hard to ship. But it adapts and grows easily, making it suitable for all of San Francisco’s microclimates.
Based on an estimate from the city’s Department of Public Works, San Francisco already has as many as 4,000 Meyer lemon trees. The city would need 12,000 trees, producing 461 tons a year, to be self-sufficient, according to “foodshed” calculations.
The first phase of Wade’s project involves asking Meyer lemon tree owners to register on Just One Tree’s website. The tree locations will be mapped, creating a hyper-local picture of where they’re growing. The project will also encourage planting, and when crops are sufficient, distributing lemons around the city.
More than 50 tree guardians have already signed on, some of them also posting snapshots of large backyard specimens bearing dozens of lemons, or dwarf plants with still-green fruit. Like a proud parent, Reichmann sent in a picture of his dwarf tree in a terra cotta pot – his second, after his first was stolen, pot and all.
Jeffrey Betcher registered the tree that was a housewarming gift from a boss 14 years ago. Though he’s donating the next crop to a friend for lemonade at her wedding this summer, he hopes to give future bushels to the community.
“The project is interesting because it applies technology to the urban agriculture movement,” said Betcher, executive director of the Quesada Gardens Initiative, a community building organization in Bayview Hunters Point, where his tree is located. “The notion that we can use urban spaces has been around, but what’s new is the trend of asset mapping.”
Wade, who founded the state’s Urban Forestry Program in the 1970s, sees Just One Tree as emblematic of what the city, considered one of the nation’s greenest, can do. San Francisco already supports community gardens that share and donate produce, a fruit gleaning program and a small fruit tree planting project designed to offset carbon emissions.
“We’re very interested in her project,” said Mei Ling Hui, urban forest coordinator at the city’s Department of Environment, which manages the carbon offset project. “It’s a way to frame self-sufficiency and tree stewardship and planting in San Francisco.”
Just One Tree plans to promote a “soda-free summer” and to partner with restaurants to serve water flavored with local lemons. Wade sees other public benefits, including business opportunities in low-income neighborhoods, where there is little available fresh produce, to make and sell lemon products.
“This is something that will show people they can make a difference,” said Wade.