Collecting excess produce from local farms and distributing it to people in need is not a new concept: It’s been going on for centuries. Four Island gleaners give us an inside view to harvesting from the Vineyard farm fields to provide fresh produce to grateful recipients.
Alli Fish, program leader for the Gleaning and Mobile Market programs,
Island Grown Initiative, Vineyard Haven
Tell us about your role at IGI.
I work for Island Grown Initiative as the Program Leader for the Gleaning and Mobile Market Programs. Both of these programs are part of the larger food equity work that IGI is involved in around the island with the goal being to ensure all people have access to fresh and affordable produce. None of this work can be done alone and we are fortunate to have many incredible partners invested in feeding our community. Much of my work is coordinating with these various partners from local farms to other nonprofits to collect and distribute local, fresh produce to those who need it most.
How did you get interested in this field on the Vineyard?
My background is in environmental science and management, working primarily on issues associated with climate change and land use. I believe that no system works in isolation and our food system intricately weaves together issues of public health and planetary health. I was excited to join IGI in this capacity to work within the food system by connecting with community and supporting best agricultural practices.
What exactly is gleaning?
Gleaning goes back to biblical times. It is an ancient practice of harvesting excess produce to feed people who do not have access. My personal definition of gleaning here on the Vineyard is a collaboration between a local farm with an abundance of produce and volunteers who harvest the bounty for distribution around the island. The harvested produce goes to multiple organizations working to address food insecurity here on Martha’s Vineyard.
Tell us about donations from local farms.
We have a lot of very generous farms that donate through the gleaning program. Morning Glory Farm has donated over 15,000 lbs this year alone. In total with all of our farm partners, we have collected over 30,000 lbs of produce from the start of June 2020 to today. And there is still more to harvest! The produce is donated to the Island Food Pantry, the Councils on Aging, the Island Elderly Housing network, all of the schools for lunch programs, IGI’s Community Lunch Program during the summer months, the Wampanoag tribal community, Serving Hands, the Vegan Society, and other organizations that are working to ensure people are getting the food they need.
How do you manage the glean?
I coordinate with the farms, see what the product is to glean, what supplies we’ll need, which fields; then I communicate with our captains and coordinate with Astrid Tilton at IGI for pickup and distribution. We have gleaning captains who collect all the supplies we need for the day, show up early at the site, and prepare the volunteers for what we are harvesting that day. They really lead the charge of the harvest. It has been so incredible to work with a lot of amazing people and learn a lot from the gleaners who have been doing this work for years and have a lot of knowledge to share.
Has the pandemic posed more of a challenge to your work?
We’ve seen increased need across all of our programs since the start of the pandemic. The gleaning program has harvested double what we did last year . . . and the mobile market has also seen much higher numbers in people served. IGI and partner organizations are working extra hard to try to meet that gap.
The desire to meet the need while under the constraints of a pandemic led to extra work in the gleaning program. We’ve had incredible volunteers step up to the plate for harvesting and coordinating. Astrid Tilton and I are the two full-time staff members at IGI working on gleaning. Astrid is responsible for food distribution and due to Covid, she has dialed in the right amount of food to the right places at the right time, so that people can get the freshest food when they need it. She’s been invaluable and has really taken the gleaning distribution to the next level.
Is IGI the main arm of gleaners?
There may be independent farms that donate to people in need, but IGI is the main arm for gleaners on the Island. Farms needing gleaning can always contact me and I can get people out there with the right tools and experience for gleaning. We have such an incredible group of volunteers who have a history of IGI gleaning who run the harvest so effortlessly. If any new volunteers want to be part of the gleaning, it’s easy to jump in and learn the ropes. To volunteer, go to our website: igimvg.org/volunteer.php.
How will the upcoming merger of IGI with the Food Pantry change your program and are you looking forward to this change?
Our upcoming merger with the Island Food Pantry will increase the access and accuracy of the Mobile Market and Gleaning because we will likely have a more streamlined system for distribution and communication about our food equity programs. I am very much looking forward to this merger and think it is an incredible opportunity to strengthen the work of both organizations.
IGI website: igimv.org/programs/food-equity-and-recovery/gleaning
Carol Collins, gleaning field captain, volunteer
Tell us about your role as captain.
Four or five years ago we gleaned so much food from so many farms — too much for one person to coordinate — that Island Grown Initiative created the field captain system. Basically, we are assistants. We set up the glean: we go early to get the supplies out of the shed; then, with our co-captain, we meet with the field manager of the farm. He takes us to the field, shows us what we can glean and we mark the rows. Then we meet the gleaners, take them to the fields and monitor the specifics. We do quality control in the fields while the glean is going on. We weigh everything, then bag it, box it, and put cards in to say what farm it comes from. Alli Fish from IGI is usually with us, and though it’s her first year, she is now a fully seasoned leader of the whole program.
What happens after the gleaners pick the produce?
Then Astrid Tilton from IGI comes with the truck to pick up all the produce. She does most of the distributing . . . the gleaners do some — a lot of gleaners like that as it closes out the process. I usually take produce to the Anchors at the Edgartown Senior Center.
How long have you been gleaning?
Ten years. When I found out this program existed, I was working two jobs with no time in the summer, but I always knew about gleaning. When we were growing up, my mother had a magazine picture of Millet’s “The Gleaners” framed in the kitchen. We were aware of not wasting, and gleaning is a perfect way to keep that theme foremost.
What is your real job?
I work at Martha’s Vineyard Framing and also do some of Allison Shaw’s framing.
Have you seen many differences in 10 years?
Gleaning used to be more of a mom-and-pop activity, and was much more casual. But it had growing pains; it was a little thing that had to find its way. It was my impression that some farmers had to be convinced it was a good thing. I think some farmers were nervous about liability issues, or gleaners stomping on crops. We had to convince them it was a win-win situation.The produce was going to be wasted, turned under if not gleaned. Once more farmers got on the program, we had more produce coming in, so we couldn’t be so laid back. We needed more structure.
Gleaning is under IGI?
It’s always been run by IGI. Our leader has always been an employee of IGI, and really our only contact. We are a separate entity of volunteers and take pride in being gleaners: we are the gleaners. Really a wonderful bunch of people. Less younger people in general, as we glean weekday mornings in the summer and fall, so don’t get a lot of young working people.
What does gleaning do for you?
Gleaning gives me a great deal of joy! Today, I loved being out there picking butternut squash. Both my grandfathers were gladiola farmers so I grew up in the fields in Mansfield on the south coast. They also grew potatoes and had big gardens. I love the smell of the dirt — it smells different in different seasons. When I’m out there I feel 12 years old again — it gives me so much. And I love the excitement people get being out there for the first time and the pleasure it gives them to be helping; it’s such an easy way to help.
Your favorite produce to glean?
As a gleaner, I love to glean peppers . . . I love to grow peppers. They are just so beautiful — and the plants are beautiful. One year Andrew [Woodruff] over at Sterling had tons of peppers and let five or six of us in to glean. When we finished, my truck was loaded with red peppers!
As a captain, my favorite is corn. It’s a difficult, complex, heavy, hard glean but the people love it. If you advertise a corn glean, it fills up in a heartbeat. Big bags of corn are heavy, so we take trucks up and down using this complex system but it is exciting because of the energy in the field — 3,450 lbs of corn in one short glean. It’s a fun glean from a captain’s point of view.
Green beans are brutal…you’re out there pickin’ and pickin’ in the heat and you get only five pounds after an hour. But then you take a 10-pound box to one of the distribution points and they are so excited: “Thank you, thank you so much.” Volunteers realize how important what they are doing is. We have people who keep coming back over and over again. That does something special for me as a captain.
Will you continue to glean for another 10 years?
For as long as they’ll have me, I’m a gleaner!
Tom Dresser, gleaning field captain, volunteer
How long have you been gleaning?
I’ve been gleaning almost 10 years. During my first summer gleaning in 2011, I wrote an article for the Vineyard Gazette titled, “…Gleaners Gather for Good Cause.”
Isn’t gleaning a nice change from writing?
That’s a great way of looking at it. Your mind is on picking squash, you’re not worrying about how to compose a paragraph. I like the variety and the physical push it puts you through. You’re really only competing against yourself…Yes, move! Get up and about.
The way you judge how well you are doing is by poundage: how many pounds you collect.
Sometimes I come home and I’m exhausted; after I’m lifting 30 pounds at the YMCA, then I go out and lift 200 pounds picking squash. It’s a physical activity and you feel like you are doing something worthwhile.
What are your perks as a gleaner captain?
Our job as captains is to make sure the produce gets harvested appropriately. We get compensated by taking some produce home. My wife Joycie loves tomatoes and loves squash; I am more of a corn person. Last night we had stuffed peppers — the peppers I had picked in a glean two weeks before. So that’s the way the system works.
As a reward besides taking home some produce, we also get an Island Grown T-shirt. A nice symbol of what life is about. You get a shirt as a captain, and if as a volunteer you come to glean 10 or more times, they offer you a T-shirt. Each glean is not a long commitment — we always start at 9 am and end by 10:30, basically an hour and a half.
A favorite glean?
Corn is my favorite to eat, but not my favorite to pick because it’s so heavy. Cabbage was sort of fun to do — a little weird, you cut off the head. The one I don’t like is salad greens, it’s like cutting grass from the lawn. All these different varieties of greens come up and there are some leaves you don’t want to take because they are bitter. The two gleans that are the hardest physically are corn and squash — weighty things that you have to deal with.
Tells us about some highs and lows.
Once after a glean I took big burlap bags filled with corn to the Oak Bluffs School. The chef there offered me a bowl of chili made from the peppers we brought in the week before, and said I could go out and eat with the kids in the cafeteria. My grandchild, a second grader, was there having her lunch, so I joined her and her friends and we all ate chili from the peppers from my glean. That was very cool — something kind of fun.
In gleaning, you sort of have to pay attention to the weather. We were picking corn in a field across from the Agricultural Hall, with lightning and thunder and rain coming. Maybe there were only five of us gleaning, when everybody said, “that‘s it, we’re gone!” I stood with a great bag of corn, with no one left, so I came home with a whole bag, gave Joycie six ears, and brought the rest back the next day.
Sometimes it’s kind of hot. We start in June with salad greens and radishes at the beginning, then by August the corn and tomatoes are ready to harvest, and we have some hot, hot days, so it’s not all fun in the sun.
Marjorie Peirce, gleaning field captain, volunteer
How long have you been gleaning?
I started gleaning as soon as I moved to the Island, about 15 years ago.
At that time, there was a small group of women gleaning. Morning Glory Farm was our first donor and continues to be our main site for gleaning, demonstrating the ongoing vital partnership and collaboration with our Island farmers. The gleaning program has really grown in the last few years and IGI has been a wonderful supporter of this essential program. If you don’t want food to go to waste, it’s really important to have someone paying attention and organizing it through a network. Volunteers get appreciated and are respected. And during COVID-19 we know we are safe, that we are keeping the produce safe.
How often are you gleaning?
Now we are gleaning two mornings a week; in the summer it’s three mornings a week and in the late harvest we usually have three mornings until a hard frost. In the winter sometimes farmers call us in to help harvest in a greenhouse: the basil or kale. Basil — it’s tender — it has to be picked and packaged and gotten out right away.
What do you do when you’re not volunteering?
I work with elders and disabled people in their homes and do health advocacy for them. In addition, I try to give three days a week to the community.
Do you enjoy your role as captain?
It’s a good thing. We started with four captains, now there are 10. It’s very helpful especially now with COVID-19. As captain, you know the farms, you are the contact that volunteers can call to answer questions. Sometimes we can have a glean on one day at three different sites with different crops. The captain keeps the volunteers organized. The farmers love the field captain aspect as they know they have experience and a contact.
What farms do you glean?
In addition to Morning Glory, we glean at Slough Farm, Slip Away Farm on Chappy, and a number of private orchards who have given us access. Also we glean at some quite small farms now — every year there are more. The Community Garden has become a larger endeavor, where some gleaners plant vegetables for us to glean. Morning Glory has been very good to work with us for so many years. I think they secretly plant extra for us. It’s a lot to relinquish your field to somebody . . . you are turning over your child to let someone tromp in and out of it.
You glean for the church?
Most of the produce I collect is for the West Tisbury Congregational Church community winter suppers. When we have a big glean of something I’ll take the booboo tomatoes or imperfect squash and I’ll process that produce into soup right away. I typically put up tomatoes in the freezer; I put up corn in the freezer. Our community suppers are held once a week, January through April. We have a food outreach from our church year-round, and I deliver produce to a few families every week. There’s a prepared food program that we are trying to network with the whole Island.
We organized Sunday gleans through our church to bring different groups in. And the schools are usually involved. Nothing lifts up your heart as seeing little kids helping on a glean — it’s the greatest.
The joy of gleaning
It gives me so much joy to do it. Today we had nine new volunteers. When they first come they don’t know what gleaning is, then they are amazed. We are helping the farmers, who I personally can’t support financially, so I show up with my hands and my feet. That produce will not go to waste. Soon, they are going to plow that row under, and wouldn’t be able to do that as efficiently without our gleaning efforts. They are very grateful.
Fellow gleaner and captain Carol [Collins] and I say we have to go to Gleaners Anonymous — it’s contagious. I’ve been in the field twice this week already — it feels good.
And the food is having a proper movement; it’s moving along the chain going where it needs to go.