By Anna Flinchbaugh
This past week, my fellow Foodworks interns and I stopped by High Mowing Organic Seeds, an organic seed company based out of Wolcott. As a part of our visit, we toured one of High Mowing’s gardens. The crops, grown for seed rather than fruit, had taken on strange and unfamiliar shapes. Squat broccoli plants now stretched long and lithe, dotted with yellow blossoms. Leafy beet greens had given way to towering antennas clustered with tiny buds. Spinach leaves had elongated, grown angular. As odd as all of the crops looked, the spinach at least was familiar. I had seen the leafy greens in a similar state just the week before while helping out at a glean – a time for volunteers to harvest vegetables for donation to people in need of food assistance.
Given the staggering quantities of food donated by farmers and collected by gleaning volunteers, it’s easy imagine that there must be something broken in the food production system. The idea that so much food could fail to find a home in markets is puzzling, on the surface. How can it be that perfectly, good, nutritious, delicious foods are going unsold? It boils down to the inherent risk involved with farming vegetables and the need for farmers to mitigate that risk. Think water, pests and sunshine. Too much or too little of any of these things results in wide variability in the fields. Out of necessity, farmers plant more than they expect to sell in hopes of having enough yield to meet with sales goals. In this system of risk management, there ends up being food left in the fields to be tilled under, composted or… gleaned!
Gleaning has been recognized as an important part of agriculture from time immemorial. Sharing excess crops with neighbors is an important part of the fabric of life. But, in order to get the available food to people who need it— time is the ultimate factor.
My earlier experience with spinach illustrates this. Plants do not last forever, and they last even less time in an easily harvestable state. The spinach that we collected had begun to go to seed, tightly clustered buds beginning to crown the tops of stems gone lanky; finding the leaves that remained at their prime required a bit of hunting and a bunch of patience. Our crew of wonderful volunteers was able to provide those things; time was one resource that we could provide in abundance. The same cannot be said for the farmers, who – in racing against things like the rain, market schedules, and the ripeness of their other crops – are required to paint with somewhat broader brushes.
If farmers fight against too little time on one end of the harvest-to-market chain, they are often dogged by an excess of it on the other. Managing the variety of markets farmers sell into on the schedule required by each, all while contending with nature’s whims, is a puzzle. Farmers often have a very small window in which to sell their fresh, imminently perishable products; Red Russian kale that looks healthy and hearty one Saturday will be sadly wilted by the next. Because RAFFL’s Glean Team operates throughout the week, it is able to capture produce that would otherwise fall into a gap when product simply wasn’t being moved to a buyer.
Finally, gleaning accounts for the variation in appearance that occurs naturally in produce. Industrial agriculture perpetuates the idea that food can be grown to rigid uniformity, every apple six ounces and evenly red. These expectations belie the fact that cosmetic differences are as inevitable in peas as they are in people. And while consumers may accept lumpy heirloom tomatoes as charming, too much deviation from the red, round model can still be discouraging. By partnering with organizations that serve prepared meals, such as the Open Door Mission, the Glean Team is able to find homes for produce that falls outside of cosmetic expectations while remaining healthy, edible, and delicious.
Glean Team is coordinated by RAFFL staff but relies heavily on willing volunteers to help make it happen! Volunteers come as individuals or in groups to learn something new about farms, spend a few hours in the sunshine (or rain, depending on the day), and know they are contributing to the health and well-being of the community. Join the Glean Team by calling 558-5789 or emailing us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Having worked with RAFFL last spring through an Environmental Studies senior seminar, Anna Flinchbaugh is excited to continue her involvement with the organization this summer through Middlebury College’s Foodworks Fellowship program.
A version of this story originally appeared in the July 1 edition of the Rutland Herald.