Gleaning for a greater good

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On a dusty swath of land beneath modern wind harvesting, the ancient practice of gleaning comes to life.

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On a dusty summer evening, a large group of gleaners harvest leftover organic Walla Walla Sweet Onions from already once-farmed rows of Dan McClure's onion field west of Umapine. McClure invited the gleaners to his land to keep food from going to waste.

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In a cowboy hat to protect form the heat of the summer sun, Merrel Phillips looks through dusty earth for salvageable Walla Walla Sweet Onions while gleaning with the Walla Walla Gleaners.

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Using well-loved garden gloves, Lois duncan trims the green from a gleaned Sweet Onion.

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Landowner Dan McClure gives direction to the gleaners.

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Verlie Ward, left, and Ramona Sturgill weigh out 40-pound bags of gleaned onions.

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Layers of Walla Walla gleaners work in a dusty onion field west of Umapine.

UMAPINE - From just yards away the earth looks empty, baking under a punishing sun and landscaped only by tire tracks.

With a gurgle of a nearby irrigation ditch, an ocean metaphor comes unbidden. Shorn hay fields the color of sand dunes roll gently as a sea of green onions laps at its base ... and the now-flattened ground standing in for a mud flat.

Eventually the tableau gains a third dimension. In a wave of dust, people young and old approach the field as one, hoisting buckets and carrying all manner of sacking. Squinting into the searing sky, the Walla Walla Gleaners resemble nothing so much as group of extras from "The Grapes of Wrath."

Far from the despair of the 1940 movie, however, hope is grown as these volunteers gather agricultural leftovers from a valley brimming with food.

Ancient tradition roots here again

The practice of gleaning dates back to Biblical times, as evidenced in the Old Testament. Leviticus 19, 9-10 - "Now when you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very corners of your field, nor shall you gather the gleanings of your harvest. Nor shall you glean your vineyard, nor shall you gather the fallen fruit of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the needy and for the stranger ..."

Gleaners wait patiently for a grower's surplus - produce that's insect-damaged, irregularly shaped, spotted or striped by a procedure or harmless blight. In other words, not profitable for farmers to collect from ground, bush or tree.

Turning that into a local blessing for area food pantries began with a casual conversation among friends in 2009. It was an "abundant" growing year, noted Walla Walla Gleaners President Pat Camp. Why not, then, reclaim some of what is left in fields and on trees for those most in need?

And why shouldn't it be their little group to make that happen?

That informal first summer yielded about 10,000 pounds of produce gathered by a few workers from farms, orchards and back-yard gardens.

"Last year a family had six pear trees in their yard and they said we could have one tree," recalled founding member Liz Hair. "We got hundreds of pounds of pears. They went straight to the food banks."

With hundreds of gleaning groups cropping up around the nation, Walla Walla reflects the trend, Camp believes. This year the ranks of local harvesters swelled to 60 or so. Most have joined simply to contribute the community, while others are determined to pay it forward from their own times of hunger.

Members of Walla Walla Gleaners do have the option of taking some produce as payment for their labor - a tiny fraction of total poundage - while many give all they glean to the greater cause, Camp added.

Gleaners are trained in safety and crop-specific harvest techniques. They sign liability waivers and follow rules emphasizing respect for the food and the people who grew it, she explained. The organization supplies equipment, from ladders to scales.

Relationships with area farmers are building. Gleaning, as old as time, is recently re-rooted here. It will take time to gain understanding of the practice, Camp said. "It's really interesting to ‘sell' the program. Some farmers aren't interested if it is not going to all go strictly to charity. We are happy to offer every pound we pick will go to a food bank."

Farmers have legitimate anxieties, she said. "They need to know you are not reselling it, that you are not undermining their customer base. You do have to work on that and build trust."

In the meantime, numbers suggest local hunger is growing. In 2009, Blue Mountain Action Council Food Bank handed out food to nearly 10,000 families and Christian Aid Center provided 34,200 hot meals.

Winning over growers is not insurmountable. Organic farmers Lori and Gary Middleton founded Fields of Grace in Tri-Cities a few years ago. In that short time, thousands have been educated in the art of gleaning, numerous churches have become involved and farmers have come to welcome them, Lori Middleton said.

Fields of Grace is enjoying a trickle-down effect from local acceptance, she added. "We have farmers who grow additional food and set aside some crops just for us. It's a big blessing."

Those gleanings go to a Tri-Cities food bank, but the benefit does not end there. "People bring their children, and you've got the grandparents out there. It's really an event, it's really wonderful," Middleton said. "And then to take thousands of pounds of fruit and take it to Second Harvest, that's just gratifying."

Gathering bounty

This summer evening begins with gathering basics. "There will be smashed onions," farm manager Dan McClure cautions the group of two dozen people. "We drive over them when we drop the bins."

The intact produce remaining after picking by machine and man will have imperfections, but those onions are perfectly good, he explains.

With that, the gleaners are off, quickly saturating the cleared acre with intent to harvest whatever possible.

Walking a row with eyes down, Sheril Fetter explains she is here with her 12-year-old son. "I hate to see things go to waste. I like the idea of putting in some labor and getting some produce and helping the food bank," she said. "It's a win-win."

The family parcels out a share of the glean with the neighborhood, Fetter noted. "Quite a few are elderly and there are some widows. They give to us and we give them."

Gail Bobbitt has been gleaning her whole life. "My family always did this. We'd see an apricot tree with the fruit on the ground and we's stop and ask if we could pick them. And if they wanted a little something for it, why, we were happy to pay it," she recalled.

Camp is scooping up the smallest orbs for a nonprofit preschool. If her quest for 70 or so is successful, every child will have a small onion to take home as a show-and-tell about how food grows, she said. "This is Easter-egg hunting in the dirt."

The scale, set up in the skimpy shade of a pickup truck, is quickly in use. Two women run the operation, helping pickers unload their haul into net bags. When the gleaners have finished, McClure will be given a total poundage (which turned out to be 1,480 pounds). It will include how much goes to charity and how much is kept by gleaners.

Simple solutions, greater goals

Walla Walla Gleaners may be practicing patience while waiting for crops and a labor-intensive gathering process. But the organization is just as eager to jump ahead, Camp said. "We'd like to see this program grow in numbers and expand to service groups. And we eventually won't be able to get to everything."

McClure is happy that the group got to his onion field, he said a few days later. The gleaners, true to their mission, did a "very good job. They followed directions and got most everything, which is what I wanted."

He understands some farmers worry that gleaning can hurt business, he said. "But I don't think (gleaners) are. I think they are taking it to places we don't go to. I think it's great."

With awareness of gleaning, the community can learn about food waste and what individuals can do, Camp said. By inviting gleaners in when zucchini plants are in overdrive or "you are buried in tomatoes," those contributions can start decreasing the community's dependence on food ba nks, she pointed out.

The group's motto states it in more simple terms: "Abundance - gathered and shared."

Sheila Hagar can be reached at sheilahagar@wwub.com or 526-8322. Check out her blog at blogs.ublabs.org/fromthestorageroom.

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