CBF Field Personnel / Field Personnel / General CBF / Missions

The crooked little tree that feeds thousands

By CBF field personnel Rick Burnette

Matthew 7:17-18 Likewise, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit.

When we moved to our subtropical North Ft. Myers property in late 2013, we began planting various types of warm climate fruit trees for food and aesthetic enjoyment, including mango, coconut, avocado, rose apple, jackfruit and longan.

Except for papaya and a few other exotic fruit-producing plants which can bear within a year or two (e.g., pineapple, banana), most fruit trees need a few years to start producing. Initially, such output is minimal. But as fruit trees grow, their annual yields tend to increase. 

Most of these trees have a season for production, usually spanning a few months. For example, our mangoes are most productive between June and August. One of our avocado trees bears between July and August and another usually spreads out its yield from November through February.

Among these fruit producers is a smaller tree – somewhat bushy – called a carambola or star fruit. Unlike the taller trees, our bent carambola remains quite compact, only needing occasional pruning along with an annual dose of compost. 

I have a January 2015 photo of a few star fruits lying on the kitchen counter, representing the first recorded harvest from the young carambola tree. It was over a year later that the mangoes and avocados began bearing.

And unlike our other fruit trees, the little carambola produces multitudes of tiny pink and white blooms and ultimately harvestable fruit over seven to ten months out of the year. It’s our garden work horse.

At first, our family could easily consume these frequent yields. But before long, handfuls turned into basketfuls. One Saturday I decided to knock on neighbors’ doors and offer fresh, juicy star fruit. “What are these?” they’d ask. “Star fruit,” I would answer. The response was usually something like, “We’re from Michigan. No thanks.”

Shaking the dust off my feet,  I decided to take these yellow, sweet, slightly tart fruits which happen to be packed full of Vitamin C, to share at the church we were attending. Surely Presbyterians eat fruit. Turns out, not so much.

Around the same time, Ellen and I became aware of the church’s involvement at Misión Peniel, an outreach to the Immokalee farmworker community about 40 miles from our home garden.

Having read Barry Estabrook’s Tomatoland, an account of the Immokalee farmworkers’ struggle for fair pay and decent work conditions, we learned more about the community’s food insecurity from Pastor Miguel Estrada, founder and director of Misión Peniel. In addition, our church friend, Ruth DeYoe (wife of Pastor Jeff DeYoe), had recently become the Mission Coordinator at Misión Peniel and began to nurture our involvement there.

It was during 2017, while our carambola and other fruit trees were entering full maturity and beginning to offer significant yields, a seed was planted in our hearts and minds. Might the abundance from our own garden be appreciated by the Haitian, Guatemalan and Mexican-born clients of Misión Peniel?

More questions followed. Would it be possible to combine the surplus from other gardens in surrounding communities to help meet the nutritional needs of the Immokalee food desert? What would we learn and exchange among Immokalee-based gardeners? How much nutritious, non-industrial food might also be grown and shared within Immokalee?

And why would a farm town of approximately 25,000, where 15 million pounds of food are produced and distributed every day during the winter growing season, have so much food insecurity?

Such questions led to discussions which ultimately resulted in the 2017 establishment of Cultivate Abundance, a faith-based nonprofit that works to address Immokalee’s ironic food insecurity. Our approach is to engage ordinary gardeners along with nonprofits, and small farms to share their abundance. We work in partnership with Misión Peniel and as an Engagement Partner of CBF Global Missions.

In addition to Ellen and I, the Cultivate Abundance team is now made up of Lupita Vazquez, Maria Vasquez and Ariana Avila as well as numerous volunteers from Immokalee and beyond. Together, we nurture four small gardens and seek out other abundance from over 50 more local food sources. Each Friday, these combined harvests are shared with 250 to 500 Misión Peniel clients among others living in their households.

Each time I look at our carambola tree I’m reminded of an observation by Dr. Caleb Oladipo, a Nigerian-born theologian, and Campbell University Divinity School professor when he remarked, “Even a crooked tree can bear good fruit.”

Since Cultivate Abundance was established, the crooked little tree in our garden has withstood two major hurricanes and a couple of freezes to provide over 1,600 pounds of fresh fruit, amounting to at least 6,000 food servings. And together with hundreds of other fruit trees and scores of garden patches in southwest Florida, since 2018, more than 117,000 pounds of produce, amounting to over 327,000 food servings and worth approximately $188,000, have been shared in Immokalee.

CBF might also be compared to the scrappy carambola.

Although not among the biggest trees in the ecclesiastical orchard, based on our 2022 Impact report and the witness of our congregations and ministries, we can see that CBF is bearing fruit – good fruit – that is being combined with the universal Kingdom harvest.

This fruit grows in places where it is most needed, extending blessings to the inner city, drought-stricken Africa and the Middle East. Migrant communities along the border and economically stressed areas of Appalachia, the Mississippi Delta, the Black Belt Region and the Native Lands are being blessed by CBF fruit. Our fruit enables the Good News to be lived out to meet the needs of refugees, the hungry, those without homes, and anyone needing love, forgiveness, healing and some blessed assurance.     

CBF figured out a long time ago that bigger is necessarily better. Enormous budgets and supersized programs aren’t essential. A lot can happen with a dose of compost (e.g., local assets, focused efforts) and faithful stewardship.

Let’s never underestimate the potential of crooked, little trees.

Rick Burnette and his wife, Ellen, serve as field personnel in South Florida. Click here to learn more about their work.

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