A Farmer Muses on the Art of Gleaning



I have been “gleaning” in various ways my entire adult life.  Gleaning, of course, is an ancient practice by which people go out and collect, salvage, consume and/or otherwise utilize unpicked crops left behind in the field – whether from weather anomalies, variable economics, the lack of timely help or the vagaries of mechanical harvesting.  Today I believe “gleaning” may prove to be as valuable to us as a state of mind – as it is for the tonnage of food actually salvaged or the number of winter larders enhanced.

I’ve never personally suffered chronic food privation or hunger.  Yet, there’s always been for me a powerful, nearly primal allure of “free food.” Whether it was those early, all-you-can-eat grease joint offers along the interstate, or the gustatory glee of the college “potluck,” or those beloved seasonal fruit orgies around plum, peach and pear thickets on both coasts, finding ways to eat for free has held my interest.  Later, this same fascination led me directly into organic farming, heirloom seeds and permaculture.

Those of us who’ve been privy to the immense waste stream in every sector of the American food industry know the truth: supermarkets still routinely toss palettes of perfectly edible stuff, and cafeterias and restaurants still waste tons daily. Even the local food coop had a lively flow of green waste, headed for landfill, last I checked.  And household food waste is astonishing. But that’s just the visible waste, the tip of the iceberg’s tip.

Serious gleaners, perhaps, dive headlong into random dumpsters less often than we used to. Instead we politely arrange with a sympathetic grocer to orderly haul away said “waste” for our goats, pigs or other “livestock”.  We gleaners keep it up day after day, even knowing full well that such post-market salvage doesn’t really address the deeper, systemic issues of industrial food and all its built-in carbon emissions, poison runoff, abusive labor practices and assorted waste.

And the various practices we call “gleaning” are sure to increase with current rising unemployment and the dramatically down-turned economy. But the impulse to glean may also spring from a deeper, older body memory. Buried somewhere within our human family tree or tribe, remains the karmic recollection of hunger, yes even famine. Isn’t that also partly why tens of thousands drove out to a Colorado farm last week to glean remnant leeks and spuds and carrots abandoned in the field?

Come to find, gleaning has accompanied farming for millenia, on every continent, with countless millions depending on it for their seasonal sustenance.

And there’s something else here today about gleaning, above and beyond the raw value of the salvaged food (or hay, bricks, lumber, etc) Observing that many people continue to glean even when the dollar value may not “justify” the practice.  I conjecture that it may also hold a secondary appeal. Seems that gleaning also affords us a sense of doing right, as in helping out the farmer, the planet, reducing waste, etc; connects us (including the landless and non-grower) to soil, plants, the natural world and its cycles; allows for a visceral, tactile experience of bounty beyond what we may experience in normal, daily life; and, offers a more creative, activist response to highly imperfect and variable (food and life) circumstances.

In this last sense gleaning emerges as one of the world’s oldest forms of agricultural “value adding.” Personally, I like to think of it as targeted recycling, only with a missionary’s edge.

This fall, for example, before the hard frost, I went around gleaning my own outdoor gardens of still-green, living brassica plants, leeks, lettuces, chards, beets, celeries. I lifted from the ground anything left vaguely alive that I couldn’t stand to lose, and transplanted them like sardines into raised, permanent beds in a 65′ backyard hoophouse, chuckling as I worked at the irony of the gleaner gleaning himself. These retread plants easily survived and now are almost certain to over-winter, with zero added heat, sprouting modest but steady sprigs of high-value, nutrient-dense food all winter and beyond.  Will I make any profit on these slow growing but delicious greens? No! But, nor would I trade them for a Caribbean vacation.

Gleaning food is great, but we must also transpose its brilliant logic to gleaning wasted energy, clothes, lumber, bricks, books – even friendship, hope, time and good ideas.  A quick look around reveals just how many other precious commodities are also left bruised, forgotten and squandered in the field.  Ideas like community economics, organic agriculture and effective world government. Ideas like a woman president, sustainable energy, conservation and Peace.  Gleaning of such crucial, but overlooked ideas may end up being the ultimate “rescue package.”

What began for me as a bourgeois sport and political statement has become over thirty years time a pragmatic philosophy of life and of farming. Gleaning has taught me not to overlook the seemingly “spoiled”, “rotten” and “dead”, to revel in the “over-ripe”, the unwanted and the used, and to prize the ugly, anomalous and out of date.  Gleaning has taught many of us that plants and food, in all their stages, like people, are sacred and should never be taken for granted. The news around the world tonight does not reflect that sanctity. But experience shows there are untold riches to be gleaned, nearly everywhere, though some caked in ignorance and mud, yet hidden from view.

Photo: Africankelli, prisoners gleaning food for the Phoenix food bank

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View Comments (4)

  1. Thursday, December 4th, 2008
    I am happy to hear that gleaning exists in the U.S. Of course, I realized that some forms (urban gleaning, gleaning sidewalks littered with discarded treasures, gleaning one's own garden, public fruit trees, etc.) existed, but I was uncertain of gleaning private fields after harvests. You've begun the work for me, but it is a shelved project to research more into the laws concerning gleaning in the U.S. I would like to see more gleaning benefiting the poor and hungry.

    My gleaning interests were sparked by Agnès Varda's documentary "Les glaneurs et la glaneuse," which I highly recommend to any and all!
  2. Stephanie
    Thursday, December 4th, 2008
    I second that - "The Gleaners and I", by Agnes Varda.

    I also just listened to this - http://www.thisamericanlife.org/Radio_Episode.aspx?sched=1258 - excellent episode of This American Life - where in act 3, Dirk Jamison chronicles the beginning of his father's habit of dumpster diving. Quite lovely in it's meditations on the proprieties we cling to, perhaps while sacrificing our freedom.

    Thank-you for this thoughtful post.
  3. ghostwriter
    Saturday, December 6th, 2008
    Hey did I miss something? I didn't see any credit given to the writer of this post.

    Great article! I wonder how much food 'waste' is being pushed into dumpsters in every town around this country. Maybe a civil Dumpster Diving Corp. is in order, modeled in the manner of the international Peace Corps. Not a bad idea ...
  4. pcrossfield
    Saturday, December 6th, 2008
    Hi, ghostwriter, the author is Daniel Botkin, who is credited in a bio following the post.