Gleaning Among the Ghosts

 

Stumped Avocado Trees
Stumped Avocado Trees

 

I’m involved with a local gleaning program, GleanSLO, and usually it’s a slam dunk win-win-win all the way around. The GleanSLO volunteers go to a property – either commercial or private, to glean leftover produce and take it to our local food bank. Hungry people get healthy food that would otherwise go to waste, the property owner gets a tax credit and the pleasure of knowing their produce went to a good cause, and we gleaners get some exercise and fresh air.

However, a glean in which I recently participated had a bittersweet and sobering edge. GleanSLO was contacted by an avocado grower in Morro Bay who was opting to “stump” his trees due to the extreme drought here in California (see graphic and link below). There was no longer sufficient water in the property to maintain the trees, and trucking in water (which some big commercial growers have resorted to doing) was too cost prohibitive for his small family-run operation.

By stumping, essentially cutting off all the top growth so that the trees are indeed stumps, the trees will go into a state of dormancy until they receive regular watering again. After all that foliage is cut off, the trunk is susceptible to sunburn, which will actually burn the trunk to such a degree that it will be too damaged to transport water up and down the tree. To prevent that sunburn, the trunk is literally whitewashed with paint.

It was into such a landscape that we arrived for the avocado glean. A once thriving and healthy orchard was now reduced to stark tree trunks jutting up from piles of lopped-off branches. It looked like a ghost army lined up, perhaps awaiting nightfall to they could rise off and be gone from this dry, crunchy landscape.

Nonetheless, amidst all those thousands of branches were thousands of undersized avocados, about the size of a racquetball. They were way too small to be marketable, but they were still very nutrient dense. As gleaners, our task was to comb through all those branches and rescue those little avos for the Food Bank. After two hours, the 40 of us had managed to glean 1,600 pounds of avocados. Subsequent gleans were and are scheduled, and to date, the property has yielded over 4,200 pounds of fruit.

As for the avocado grower … after stumping the trees, the best case scenario is that he will be able to harvest a crop again in three to four years. Realize though, that “best case” means if we get rain this coming fall and winter, and if we get enough of it.

Those are a couple really big “if”s, and they loom larger with each passing day.

 

“Since late July, roughly 58% of the state was considered to be experiencing an “exceptional” drought — the harshest on a five-level scale.” ~ LA Times

(The dark brown area in the map below indicates “exceptional drought” conditions. Pretty much right in the middle of it is the Salinas Valley, an agricultural area often referred to as “the salad bowl of the world.” Morro Bay is on the coast, about a third of the way up the state.)

Picking Flowers for the Food Bank?

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A few weeks ago, as the promise of much needed rain was teasing the Central Coast, a ripe opportunity arose for the Glean SLO program. John Rourke and Chris Freitas of San Luis Berry Farm had gotten as much of an organic strawberry harvest as they could before the rain would hit, so they invited a couple local groups, including Glean SLO, to pick as much from the fields as possible.

Gathering under steadily graying skies, we set out to fill as many plastic clamshells as we could. Several dozen gleaners of all ages were on hand, easily spanning at least three generations.

Compared to other crops, strawberries are relatively easy to pick in that you can just pinch the ripe fruit off with your fingers instead of having to use clippers. However, the plants are loooow to the ground, meaning you have to stoop, bend over, kneel, and/or sit to get yourself in position.

It is not a job I would want to have for eight-plus hours. It is not a job I would want to have for five-plus days a week. It is not a job I would want to have to depend upon for my livelihood.

It is a job that makes me appreciate being able to go into a store and buy strawberries. These gleans have a way of making one gain that sort of perspective.

My first 15 minutes of effort. I got faster, but not a whole lot faster!
My first 15 minutes of effort. I got faster, but not a whole lot faster!

However, a couple hours of picking strawberries is certainly doable. When you then multiply those hours by all the Glean SLO volunteers who were on hand, over 900 pounds of strawberries were harvested that afternoon, and those were then distributed to over 600 families in San Luis Obispo County via the Food Bank Coalition. Truly an example of what community cooperation can accomplish, of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts.

As the Glean SLO follow up email noted “One in six people in SLO County are ‘food insecure,’ often not knowing how they will get their next meal. Forty percent of the population (the Food Bank) feeds are children. Fruits and vegetables are typically the least accessible type of food for low-income families.”

The email went on to note that in 2013, nearly half of the food distributed at the Food Bank was fresh produce. Of that 205,000 pounds (and counting) was gleaned by the volunteers in the Glean SLO program. (Here’s another story about gleaning in the Central Valley; an effort to provide food for the very people that harvest much of the nation’s – arguably even the world’s – food.)

As fresh produce goes, strawberries are among the most nutritious foods we can eat. The WebMD website explains that their benefits include being high in fiber, low in calories, and free from fat and cholesterol. As such, they’re good for your heart, blood pressure, cholesterol. They’re also a good source of Vitamin C (eight strawberries have more than an orange) and other antioxidants, as well as potassium, iron and manganese.

Interestingly, strawberries aren’t really even berries. They’re a member of the rose family (Rosaceae), and the “berry” is actually the enlarged stem end of a flower. Who knew that we were picking flowers for the Food Bank?!

Gleaning the County’s Bounty for the County’s Hungry

gleaners_webCome on, admit it. At some point in your life you’ve exuberantly purchased a six-pack (or two) of zucchini starts in the spring, and six months later your friends and neighbors are fearfully hiding from you because you’re always looking to pawn off zucchini the size of small canoes.

Examples of such overabundance exist wherever food is grown – from backyard gardens to large commercial scale operations. The sad fact is that much of that food goes entirely to waste, with some estimates putting the figure at one-third of all the food grown worldwide. True, some is loss to pests or other field conditions, but most is just left to rot because it’s not cosmetically up to par for market (consumers want perfect looking produce) or because the infrastructure is insufficient for getting it to market.

Enter the concept of gleaning. The verb “to glean” is typically applied to information or to agriculture. In the case of the latter, Merriam-Webster defines it as such: “to gather grain or other produce left by reapers,” “to pick up after a reaper,” “to strip (as a field) of the leavings of reapers.”

Basically then, gleaners are picking up leftovers, waste, what others don’t want and/or can’t harvest, and redistributing it to those in need. Think of it as the agricultural version of Robin Hood, without the rich/poor thing, the archery, and the tights. It’s a concept that has been steadily gaining worldwide steam, especially as we face not only the challenges of feeding people but also the challenges of dwindling natural resources.

In San Luis ObispoCounty, agriculture is a predominant industry, so it’s an avoidable given that there is food waste. Enter GleanSLO, a grassroots effort that started in 2010 as Backyard Harvest. Now operating under the auspices of the Food Bank Coalition of San Luis Obispo County, GleanSLO coordinates food growers willing to have their produce gleaned – whether private gardens or commercial operations – with volunteer gleaners. Once gleaned, the fresh produce is distributed via the Food Bank to needy county residents.

The success of the GleanSLO program is pretty impressive. In 2010, 22,000 pounds of food were harvested that would have otherwise gone to waste. In 2011, it was 37, 988 pounds. In 2012, 99,165 pounds. So far, just as of this writing in April 2013, 39,919 pounds of produce have been harvested and distributed to needy people in the community … my community.

I recently went on my first glean, and will definitely be doing it again. On a beautiful spring morning, I met up with the two GleanSLO coordinators and a handful of other volunteers (ranging from retired to grade school age) at an orchard in rural Nipomo. The property was set back on the hills, which afforded us all a stunning panoramic view of the coastline as we plucked, picked, and pulled 1,945 pounds of oranges over the next two hours.

Two hours. 1,945 pounds of fresh produce. Fresh air. Getting to see beautiful rural properties. Exercise. Meeting new people with community spirit. Helping to feed healthy food to hungry people. Doesn’t get much better than that!

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