Picking the fields clean to take produce to the needy

CONCORD — As volunteers wade through rows of low, leafy bean plants at Brigham Farm, the morning dew dampens their shoes and pant legs. But not their enthusiasm. The six men and women spread across the field and crouched between rows of plants are chatting, laughing, and digging their hands into the foliage to find and pick the clustered beans.

In two hours, the empty boxes with which the group arrived will be weighed down with more than 80 pounds of green beans, destined, probably, for a food pantry in Medford. The volunteers are part of Boston Area Gleaners, a group that picks fields that have already been harvested in order to catch the last of the crop and take it to the needy. Last year, Boston Area Gleaners donated nearly 44,000 pounds of produce to food pantries, homeless shelters, and social service agencies. The group works with a network of about 25 farms and 20 recipient agencies.

On this dewy morning in Concord, volunteer Myriel Eykant, her fingers busy with green beans, glances around the abundant field, where corn stalks and tomato vines flanked the beans, and explains why she’s here. “To think that there are people who don’t have food,” she says. “It doesn’t make sense.”

The early-morning trip to the farm is part of the very traditional, but newly resurgent, practice of gleaning: a way of feeding those in need by harvesting the produce left in a field after the growers have picked what they need or want. Gleaning has roots in the beginning of agriculture. It plays a role in the biblical story of Ruth joining a group of gleaners and meeting Boaz.

The practice has grown in popularity lately, as the local food movement increases public awareness of the importance of fresh fruits and vegetables for people at all income levels. The Virginia-based Society of St. Andrew coordinates gleaning programs in 20 states and offers guidance to those interested in gleaning in areas the group doesn’t cover. Every year more than 30,000 volunteers glean more than 15 million pounds of produce.

The small, informal Massachusetts groups that organize gleaners are generally run by churches or charities. Besides Boston Area Gleaners, there are Island Grown Gleaning on Martha’s Vineyard and Rachel’s Table in Springfield. More groups are on the way. The Southeastern Massachusetts Agricultural Partnership is in the midst of building its own gleaning network, tentatively scheduled to launch next spring. In addition, the state Department of Agricultural Resources last fall launched the Massachusetts Gleaning Network, an initiative aimed at helping farmers, social agencies, and would-be volunteers form regional gleaning systems.

“If we can be helpful in connecting all these folks, can you imagine all the food that can be rescued?” says Rose Arruda, director of outreach for the DAR.

Gleaned foods are not rotting in the fields. The produce is fresh and could pass high standards. It’s there because farmers regularly find themselves with more than they can harvest or sell. Or the foods might have an unusual color or odd shape. Cucumbers may be too pale to appeal to consumers, or an unexpected bumper crop may produce too many beets, or a labor shortage may leave hundreds of ears of corn ready for picking and no one to do it.

Faced with any of those scenarios, farmers can call the gleaners.

In the case of the Boston Area Gleaners, the organization sets a date and time to pick, then sends an e-mail alert to more than 400 volunteers. At the specified time, gleaners head into the fields and harvest the plants the farmer has designated. This year, Boston Area Gleaners have picked bok choy, strawberries, beets, peaches, turnips, and green beans. One week in August, they harvested more than 2,500 pounds of corn.

Over the past few years, the amount of produce the group gleans has increased steadily. Last year was the most successful season to date, says Natalie Brady, a recent college graduate who used to intern with the group and is now a regular volunteer.

Executive director Laurie “Duck” Caldwell says that the group operates effectively because of e-mail and cellphones. “This couldn’t really have happened the same way several years ago,” she says.

At the food pantry at Unitarian Universalist Church in Medford, a partner of the Boston Area Gleaners, the occasional supply of chard or peaches or carrots, says coordinator David Pinckney, goes quickly. “If the gleaners come in with 10 boxes of fresh produce,” he says, “then those boxes are empty by the end of our evening.”

For some farmers, partnering with the gleaners is a natural extension of what they believe in. But not all farms are entirely on-board. Some don’t want to devalue their food by giving it away. Others are skittish about letting strangers tramp through their fields.

At Hutchins Farm in Concord, farm manager Brian Cramer was initially ambivalent about inviting the gleaners. Produce left in the fields can be plowed under to provide more soil nutrients. Ultimately, however, “It was hard for us to see some of these crops not being used in a way that people would enjoy them,” he says. The farm has been working with gleaners for five years.

Volunteers cite the mission behind gleaning as part of the appeal. They also get to work in the fields for a few hours and get a taste of the labor and satisfaction involved in farming, says Helen Palmer, a Cambridge resident. “That is part of it, that being able to play at being the farmer,” she says.

That elemental pleasure is shared by others. “I like being in the garden and seeing the fullness of the crops,” says Eykant, inspecting a plant to make sure she has plucked all the green beans. “It’s kind of a privilege.”

This story ran in The Boston Globe on September 25, 2012.

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