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Picking the bounty: Students from the College of St. Rose (above, facing page) glean at Pauline Williman and William Salisbury’s farm.

Gleaning the CUKE
By Darryl McGrath
Photos by John Whipple

While 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.

Larry 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.

The 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.

“There 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.

“You’re 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 market.

(l-r) Pauline Williman and William Salisbury

The 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.

“Somebody 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.

“I’ve 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.

“I’m beginning to say accessibility is the biggest issue,” Schuyler adds.

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.

“The 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 future.

“I 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.

“I’m really not a fanatic, but I do take my faith seriously, and believe that we are charged with ‘feeding my sheep,’ ” Williman says.

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 Food Coordinator.

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.

“When 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 the cooler.

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.

“Even 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 few days.

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.

“When 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 frozen food.”

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.

“Basically, the answer I come up with is the answer for everybody,” she says. “We have to make it easy to access.”

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