the bounty: Students from the College of St. Rose (above,
facing page) glean at Pauline Williman and William Salisbury’s
Photos by John Whipple
the practice of gleaning - harvesting a harvest’s leftovers
for the poor - has become increasingly difficult, local agencies
are determined to get fresh produce to the people.
Eckhardt’s one try at gleaning in his Stephentown cornfields
five years ago would have been comical had it not also been
a day’s waste of a most precious commodity for a farmer: time.
A call by Eckhardt to the regional U.S. Department of Agriculture
office summoned a crew of volunteers from AmeriCorps, who
descended one day to pick corn on Eckhardt’s 200-acre Kinderhook
Creek Farm. In keeping with the philosophy of gleaning, the
corn was to be donated to one of the region’s food distribution
outlets for low-income families.
good intentions unraveled fast. The pickers arrived with a
small army of officials and reporters eager to publicize a
charitable good idea, but they didn’t know much about corn.
Eckhardt spent more time instructing them and answering questions
than they spent filling baskets.
In the following days, Eckhardt caught several dozen people
helping themselves from his fields. They told him they’d heard
he was giving away corn.
are some real issues with gleaning,” says Eckhardt, who is
president of the New York State Vegetable Growers Association.
“The real question that came down was, ‘What’s in it for me?’
What an interesting concept—but from a farmer’s perspective,
I don’t think it was worth it.”
Gleaning is the practice of harvesting surplus crops to help
feed the poor. Sometimes, gleaned crops are the leftovers
of the field: the slightly misshapen squash, the apples with
the imperfect skins or the couple hundred tomatoes that ripened
too late to be picked with the rest of the field.
And sometimes, gleaning is done from crops grown and set aside
specifically as donations. It is a farmer’s version of tithing,
and indeed, references to gleaning are found in the Bible.
Under the law of Moses, Hebrew farmers were expected to leave
a border of crops around each field from which the poor could
harvest food, says the Rev. Perry Jones, executive director
of the Capital City Rescue Mission.
But whatever form gleaning takes today, it is a deceptively
complex idea wrapped in feel-good packaging, and that conflict
makes gleaning a tough sell. Talk to farmers and people in
the region’s nonprofit food distribution network about gleaning,
and more often than not, their response is, “Great idea; we
haven’t done it in years.” As a result, it is difficult to
find gleaning projects in the Capital Region today, even though
a number of them flourished five and 10 years ago.
asking the smallest producers, who are the most economically
stressed, to do the work, pick up the food,” says Billie Best,
executive director of the Regional Farm & Food Project
in Troy, a nonprofit group that promotes small-scale farming.
“You’re asking them to bear the entire expense, for what?
The good feelings that they get from helping the community?”
Cuts in funding to programs that provided volunteers; changes
in harvesting technology that leave fewer leftovers in the
fields; and a lack of tax incentives are reasons cited by
farmers who have stopped participating in gleaning projects.
But even as gleaning has fallen by the wayside, its appeal
has lingered, and that’s led to a whole new way of thinking
about getting fresh fruits and vegetables to low-income families.
This is harvest time, the spell of 18-hour, dawn-to-dusk days
when farmers race to move their crops from the field to the
Pauline Williman and William Salisbury
harvest motif—a quaint image of languid peasants tying up
sheaves of grain—has been a favorite theme in art and literature
for centuries. The reality, even today, is far different.
For all the technological advances of vegetable farming, the
difference between success and failure gets down to this:
A ripening field is like a clock ticking toward the deadline
that divides market-ready from ruined. Weather, a shortage
of farmhands, and breakdowns in distribution can spell disaster.
A few hours either way can make a huge difference to the fate
of a crop.
Gleaning has historically been more the province of small
farmers than corporate agricultural operations. But given
all the stresses of harvest time—magnified many times over
for a small farm—growers and food distribution networks often
try gleaning once or twice, only to become discouraged.
Gleaning operations are difficult to tally, but anecdotal
evidence indicates that in the 1990s, numerous such efforts
existed at churches and community centers in the Capital Region.
They worked under the radar screen and with little publicity,
and often depended on an exclusive arrangement with one farmer.
Once that arrangement ended, or critical funding dried up,
the gleaning also ended. Other, larger groups tackled gleaning,
but with equally mixed results.
called one time and said, ‘I’ve got bushels and bushels of
pears to be picked,’” recalls Lynda Schuyler, executive director
of Food Pantries for the Capital District, which coordinates
food collection and distribution to 43 area food pantries.
“I dropped everything and said, ‘Wow, pears, that would be
neat.’ But the problem was, I didn’t have the volunteers.
I made probably a dozen phone calls to find volunteers, and
I just couldn’t do it.
had that happen maybe four times in my time here, and each
time it was the same scenario: ‘It’s available right now—if
you can get somebody out to get it.’ ”
Food Pantries for the Capital District still participates
in gleaning, by working with Capital District Community Gardens
on the Squash Hunger program. Squash Hunger (of which Metroland
is a sponsor) encourages area residents who have a community
garden plot to plant an extra row of vegetables, and donate
that produce to Food Pantries by leaving it at one of several
drop-off sites at area markets and cafés. This is prearranged
gleaning; it doesn’t require a last-minute mad rush on the
part of the Food Pantries staff. For now, the Lotto jackpot
kind of gleaning—50 crates of fresh peaches, if you can get
someone to pick them!—is still beyond the capabilities of
the Food Pantries.
beginning to say accessibility is the biggest issue,” Schuyler
The Hunger Action Network of New York State had a gleaning
project with the City of Albany a few years ago, recalls Mark
Dunlea, Hunger Action’s associate director. But with changes
in staffing at the Albany Service Corps program, “it just
gradually fell apart,” Dunlea says. Last year, Hunger Action
Network tried to get local churches interested in gleaning,
again without great success.
problem is, you’ve got to get everything lined up at once,”
Dunlea says, citing a familiar complaint. “If you really do
it a lot, it’s a lot of food to get out.”
Pauline Williman and her brother, William Salisbury, have
lived all their lives on their family’s 195-acre farm in Knox.
Their parents bought this property in 1923, and it has been
deeded as farmland since the Dutch settlers, Williman says.
With no children interested in following their way of life,
Williman and Salisbury—who are nearly 80—needed to rethink
the family farm. Their solution goes several steps beyond
basic gleaning, but retains the connection between gleaning
and community food production.
Five years ago, Williman and Salisbury turned their land into
a nonprofit trust with a board of directors. Their annual
crop of more than 10 tons of corn and squash is donated to
the Regional Food Bank of Northeastern New York. In exchange,
Williman and Salisbury get a substantial tax break. Williman
still handles her John Deere tractor with ease, but she is
thinking to when she and her brother can no longer do the
farm work. When that time comes, the board of directors will
install a manager.
The idea came to Williman several years ago, after her widowed
mother had died and she and her brother pondered the farm’s
wanted to put it back into some kind of production, and I
know there’s no way a small operation can be a profitable
venture,” Williman says. “So I spoke to the food bank and
said I wanted to see things growing on the land again. The
tax part of it was never the motivating thing. I love to see
things grow. I grew up following my dad in the fields, doing
whatever there was to do, and I just wanted to see the farm
back in operation, doing some good.”
Because Williman and Salisbury have a dedicated outlet for
their crops, it’s easier for them to get the word out when
they need volunteers to glean. Last week, more than two dozen
students from the College of St. Rose signed up to glean nearly
a ton of squash at the farm, through a volunteer program at
the college called “The Urban Launch,” under the St. Rose
Community Service Office.
In this, the fourth summer of the farm’s operation as a trust,
Williman has no regrets. Forming the trust required time,
legal fees and lots of paperwork, and this would not be the
answer for every farm, but she says it is in keeping with
her belief about a farm’s mission. Williman has been attending
the Thompson’s Lake Reformed Church since she was 4 years
old, and she evokes the New Testament in explaining that belief.
really not a fanatic, but I do take my faith seriously, and
believe that we are charged with ‘feeding my sheep,’ ” Williman
Other organizations that tried gleaning are now trying to
incorporate its philosophy into different methods, even if
they haven’t entirely abandoned gleaning.
Hunger Action Network still sees gleaning as a viable notion,
and is advocating for a change in New York state law that
would give farmers a tax incentive to participate in gleaning
programs, says Sheila McCarthy, the group’s Upstate Community
A year ago, Hunger Action Network produced a guidebook to
gleaning that lists resources, examples of successful programs
and common pitfalls, and advice on how to get started. Right
now, efforts are often haphazard, and McCarthy would like
to see a countywide clearinghouse that would match small farms
with volunteer pickers and agencies that need the produce.
In the meantime, Hunger Action Network, like some other groups,
is going to manage its own gleaning operation, using a large
garden plot on Plum Street in Albany’s South End. Next summer,
the agency will work with the Trinity Institution, a social
services group in the South End, to grow vegetables on that
plot for distribution to local food pantries. The Community
Foundation for the Capital Region provided a $10,000 grant
for the project.
In Franklin County, the nonprofit ComLinks Community Action
Partnership Cooperative Gleaning Program has gradually shifted
its emphasis from traditional gleaning to its own crop production,
says Lloyd Richey, a coordinator in the gleaning program.
The gleaning program dates to 1988, when the federal government
provided incentives to dairy farmers to stop milk production
during a period of surpluses. Many of those dairy farmers
turned to crop production instead, Richey says.
The first year, ComLinks gleaned 73,000 pounds of produce
and worked with nearly a dozen vegetable farmers. But as the
milk surplus dried up and vegetable growers returned to dairy
farming, ComLinks turned to growing its own crops, many of
them on state land.
The agency has a cooperative arrangement with the New York
State Department of Corrections, and uses inmates to tend
some of its crops. The Hunger Action Network guidebook to
gleaning notes that some community food activists object to
the use of prison labor, but Richey says the vegetable farming
teaches the inmates a skill.
ComLinks distributes produce to 80 food pantries in upstate
New York, most of it grown under its own supervision. The
agency still does traditional gleaning of surplus crops from
two vegetable growers and a few local orchards, but “even
that has gotten to be very sparse,” Richey says.
we started gleaning, the farmer was leaving about 20 percent
of his crop in the field after the harvest,” Richey says.
“Ten percent of that was gleaned. Today, what they have for
machinery, they’re leaving just about 5 percent. So that makes
quite a difference.”
The Regional Food Bank of Northeastern New York in Latham
distributed nearly 20 million pounds of food last year in
23 counties. Of that supply, produce and dairy products were
the most difficult to handle, because they are so perishable
and often so difficult to freeze.
It’s Friday, a day that the Food Bank staff does not like
to see produce waiting for distribution. If it doesn’t get
placed before the weekend, it may not be fresh enough to eat
the following week. As with the harvest of farm crops, timing
is everything in the Food Bank’s distribution of produce.
On this morning, there are boxes of not-yet-ripe cherimoyas—a
South American fruit that looks like a hand grenade—and packages
of salad mix that have another day or so left. Rapidly ripening
bananas are next to the cherimoyas, and strawberries are in
Most of this produce has come from grocery chains or produce
markets; little comes directly from a farm. The Food Bank’s
arrangement with Pauline Williman and William Salisbury is
the exception, not the rule, and the first such grown-for-donation
relationship the Food Bank has ever had with a farmer. It
works as well as it does because it’s predictable.
the produce we get from the farms, the majority of it doesn’t
come from gleaning,” explains Joanne Dwyer, the Food Bank’s
executive director. “The only way we can do gleaning is with
volunteers, and harvesting is very much on the dime. It’s
a great idea, but it’s just not worth somebody’s money and
time to get out there and get it.”
Anna Dawson has studied this gap between storage and consumption
that keeps so much locally grown produce from getting into
the community food network, and she believes that the solution
lies in vacuum-packaged, frozen produce. The ability to freeze
fresh asparagus and ship it to a shelter for homeless families,
for example, would allow a nonprofit organization to use it
weeks or even months later in soup stock. Freezing can suspend
the frenetic countdown that starts during harvest time, when
the shelf life of fresh vegetables gets compressed into a
Dawson, a Kinderhook resident, is a retired home economics
teacher who studied food science at Cornell and is on a mission
to promote the idea that “fresh is not always the best.” She
is well-known member of the community food movement in the
Capital District and also a lifelong farmer. She recently
received two grants from the federal Sustainable Agriculture
and Research Education program totaling $22,500 that she used
to test the vacuum packaging and storage of frozen produce,
as well as the feasibility of introducing frozen fruits and
vegetables into food programs at day care centers.
you’re thinking about preserving the harvest, you don’t have
to do it the way Grandma did, because we have freezers and
vacuum packaging,” says Dawson, who founded her own company,
Hometown Foods, as a springboard for spreading her message.
“We’ve got the technology; it’s just that people have not
thought about freezing as a way of preserving food. We still
have these old paradigms and some negative experiences with
For now, Dawson is trying to get the organizations she approaches
to overcome the almost predictable reaction that frozen produce
won’t hold up or taste good. She’s gotten some agencies interested
in learning more about it, but getting them to commit to carrying
frozen produce is difficult. She’s thinking about ideas such
as tasting parties to help convince the doubters. She says
that if more places used frozen produce, it would create a
greater incentive for gleaning.
And, like Lynda Schuyler at Food Pantries for the Capital
District and so many others who would rather see the leftover
crops eaten than plowed into the ground, Dawson says connecting
the crops to the people is key.
the answer I come up with is the answer for everybody,” she
says. “We have to make it easy to access.”