Rico Montenegro Plants for the FutureStory by Amber Galusha Photo courtesy of Rico Montenegro
Maybe you remember the story “Stone Soup,” a tale of two hungry strangers who go to a village with nothing more than an empty pot. The travelers are tricksters who persuade villagers to donate ingredients to their stone soup. Townspeople add a little of this and a little of that until eventually, a nutritious meal is enjoyed by all.
Rico Montenegro, chief arborist for the Fruit Tree Planting Foundation, a Pittsburg-based non-profit, isn’t a trickster and he doesn’t travel to villages empty handed. Instead, he brings seeds of hope to the hungry and to those who envision a healthy future for our planet and its inhabitants.
Montenegro’s story seems different than the folk tale at first glance, but if you look closely, you’ll see commonalities. Both are lessons in cooperation. Both are stories about making something good out of nothing.
For nearly five years, Montenegro has been working toward the foundation’s goal of planting 18 billion fruit trees worldwide. Along with volunteers, he’s planted sustainable orchards in community gardens, low-income neighborhoods, health centers, animal sanctuaries, international hunger relief sites and Native American reservations.
The work isn’t always easy. While some sites have suitable growing conditions, many times the soils are depleted and the water is scarce. But with proper cultivation, select varieties will produce an abundance of fruit for generations to come.
Apples and pears will bring sustenance to the Havasupai, a Native American tribe living near the base of the Grand Canyon. Guava, banana and mango will feed the hungry in poverty-stricken areas of India. Stone fruits like peaches, plums and cherries will provide food for public schools right here in the North State.
Montenegro hasn’t always traveled the world planting fruit trees, but he’s had a love of plants for most of his life. “It started when I was 12 years old,” says Montenegro, 64, as he recalls the day his family moved to a house with a water garden. “I was drawn to the vegetation around the pond and asked my parents if I could take care of it,” says Montenegro. They said yes, and Montenegro’s interest in horticulture blossomed.
Before long, he was growing a variety of plants in his own greenhouse and by age 14 he was working in nurseries. He earned his bachelor’s degree in horticulture from Cal Poly Pomona and did graduate work in botany and horticulture at the University of Minnesota.
In 1998, after working for Fullerton Arboretum at California State University, Fullerton, Montenegro moved his family to the Redding area where he worked as curator of horticulture for McConnell Arboretum at Turtle Bay Exploration Park. During this time, he also taught community fruit tree classes and became instrumental in restoring the orchards at Second Chance Ranch near Shingletown and Camden House in Whiskeytown National Recreation Area.
After becoming seriously ill in 2002 – he suffered from ulcerative colitis that required hospitalization followed by a series of strokes that left him with mobility limitations and speech impairment – Montenegro took leave from work. He eventually returned, but his health continued to decline.
In 2003, his job at Turtle Bay was eliminated due to budget cuts. Montenegro fell into a deep depression, but continued to rely on his faith to get him through. “As we look back on life, we see how the things we go through, the choices we make or the things we don’t have control over play a part in leading us in the direction we’re supposed to go,” says Montenegro. “Especially when we take those difficult times and turn them into opportunities.”
Although he wasn’t looking for it, opportunity presented itself to Montenegro in the form of a job announcement for the Fruit Tree Planting Foundation. Though being a traveling arborist meant time away from his family, he saw the work as a chance to enrich the planet and provide nutritious food to a vast population.
So, he applied for the arborist position, got the job and began his fruitful journey. When he’s not goodwill globetrotting, Montenegro is coordinating orchard-planting projects from his home near Millville where he lives with his wife, Patty.
On planting day, everyone pitches in. “The only way the orchards will be a success is if communities take ownership in them,” says Montenegro. “I tell people, especially kids, ‘I want you to remember today because what’s happening is much bigger than yourselves. What you’re doing is not only benefitting the community today, you are making a contribution for years to come.’”