I recently learned about the Trees That Feed Foundation and the remarkable work they do. It is inspirational to learn about what this group is doing. I had the opportunity of interviewing Mary and Mike McLaughlin, founders of Trees That Feed. Read on and learn more about the difference individuals can make.
Trees That Feed began in 2008. How and why did Trees That Feed begin?
One morning about 10 years ago, Mary McLaughlin sipped on her morning coffee and reflected, she has been fortunate, it’s time to do more to help others. Mary was especially concerned about the environment and also wanted to do more to help those in need of nutrition. She had been concerned about the environment long before most people. Planting fruit trees “kills two birds with one stone.” More like three birds. A fruit tree feeds people, creates jobs, and benefits the environment as well.
Working with her husband Mike and brother Paul Virtue, Trees That Feed Foundation was established in 2008. Mary and Mike tossed in a small amount of seed money to get things going. Operations commenced in earnest in 2009. The Trees That Feed location in Winnetka, Illinois, now serves as operational headquarters for the Caribbean, Central America and Africa. To date they’ve provided nearly 200,000 fruit trees of many types, including breadfruit, to farmers and others in over 18 countries.
Can you describe the very early days as you began to realize your vision?
There were a few watershed moments. Mary liked the idea of planting breadfruit trees, a delicious and nutritious fruit from a hardy, low maintenance tree. She heard through a friend that there would be a breadfruit conference in Hawaii. Mike encourage her to go. She attended along with a number of academics. They asked Mary what was the name of her organization. They assumed that she was a passionate, but solitary do-gooder. In a flash Mary answered … Trees That Feed.
At that meeting we discovered that we could order fruit tree saplings by the thousands, from a nursery in Florida. This made the dream a real possibility. That was a big deal. We’ve moved even larger, of course, since then. Now most trees are sourced locally.
What was the largest stumbling block you encountered in establishing this program?
Early on we heard from some skeptics. “Why waste your time?”, they said. There’s no need, they said. But on a closer look there was plenty of food waste simultaneous with insufficiencies and malnutrition. Mary’s reaction to the skeptics was just more determination.
The other stumbling block was the problem of importing high quality fruit trees from the US into the Caribbean. This had not been done before, at least not in quantity. No one seemed to know how to get air freight reservations, phytosanitary inspections, import permits, and air waybills. By trial and error Mary and Mike, with a little help from their friends, got it done. Since that first shipment of 72 plants in 2009, Trees That Feed has supplied nearly 200,000 high quality fruit tree saplings to farmers in 18 countries.
What was your vision in terms of size and reach and rate of growth at the beginning?
Our goal was, and is, to plant a million fruit trees. It has taken a bit longer than we thought but we’re on a great trajectory. We won’t compromise quality to achieve quantity. We go slowly enough to ensure that the trees we deliver all or nearly all survive to fruiting maturity. The fruit feed people and serve as a cash crop. No sense planting a million trees in a hurry, and have 90 percent of them die young!
Once the program got underway, how did you go about planning the next step/s?
Planning initially was only how to get the next shipment safely on a plane. As the first two or three years went by we went to 500, then 5,000 trees a year. We realized we were becoming successful and we began to strategize and organize more effectively. So for example we planned, budgeted, raised funds and tracked our results more accurately with each passing year. We worked with universities and professionals who provided the technical, marketing and communication knowledge we lacked. We came to realize that planting trees not only good for food and the environment, but it created jobs. Our work had an economic impact. To quote one of our farmers, “It’s amazing what a little economic activity can do for a community’s optimism!”
Now in 2020 we have a well-organized development effort, an 18-month plan for delivery, contract staff on hand, and a pretty active social media line of communication.
How do you locate your farmers?
We have two main approaches. Well, first, the farmers now find us! We’ve become a recognized name throughout the Caribbean region. We get requests every day for trees or other kinds of assistance. We ask a few questions to screen folks who are more expert farmers from those just getting started. Either way, we look for a “Yes” answer.
It’s also effective for us to identify farmers’ associations. That way we find hundreds of farmers in one fell swoop. We donate trees “wholesale”, if I can call it that, by the hundreds or even thousands. The farmers’ association then distributes the trees in some rational way depending on the resources and capabilities of their member farmers.
We’re currently partnering with a group, CariPhil, who will be planting 1,000,000 trees across the Caribbean. TTFF will give at least 20,000 trees to that project.
How much time do you spend traveling?
Prior to the coronavirus, we would do about 12 trips a year to various countries and/or conferences. That has slowed down now, of course, or more accurately it has stopped for the foreseeable future. However, one of our strengths is our large network of dedicated, reliable partners, whether individuals or groups. So, for example, we contract with local people to visit the places we’ve donated trees, to monitor their results. In other places we have volunteers who serve as our eyes and ears. They send us reports and pictures, and we talk to them often by phone so we know what’s going on everywhere we operate.
What is your next step?
Mary and I (Mike) work nearly full time, maybe more than full time, managing our programs and handling the various administrative tasks that the organization needs. As we get more requests coming in than we can handle, we really need to add a staff person to carry some of the load. Ideally we want a young person to work with us, understand everything we do, and then take responsibility for part of our operations. Eventually we will need to have a successor to carry on, so it could be a really good opportunity for the right person.
Is there more you would like our Splash Magazine Worldwide audience to know about you and your program?
Our work has several highly integrated aspects. We don’t just plant trees. We work across the value chain from tree propagation, to nursery operations, farming, processing, marketing and selling. We teach and feed young school children who will grow up appreciating the importance of agriculture, nutrition, the economy, and the environment. In some countries we help with language learning through our activity book. We give away food processing equipment. We help farmers, entrepreneurs and entire communities. We would love your audience to see that this is the best way to help people in need, that is, not merely to serve their immediate needs, but rather to give the means to a livelihood, to sustainable benefits, to food and economic independence. We would love to see copycats and we’d love to see them doing even bigger, better work than we do.
Learn about our programs in tree distribution, tree propagation, fruit harvesting equipment, breadfruit products and marketing, school-feeding programs, training and monitoring. The benefits of our work are permanent and sustainable.