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Gleaners comb the fields for leftovers

MIDDLEBURY — For the second year running, the Addison Gleaners can be found out in the fields, picking peppers, root vegetables, Swiss chard and anything else that happens to be left over.
This produce will never see a table at the farmers’ market or a wholesale bin — everything that the gleaners pick goes to the food shelf at Helping Overcome Poverty’s Effects, or HOPE, in Middlebury.
The essential idea of gleaning is simple: Harvest the leftover, surplus and less-than-perfect crops on a farm — the ones that, while perfectly good, would not sell — and give it to people who may not otherwise have access to the produce.
“This allows us to provide people with fresh, healthy local food that they couldn’t afford to be purchasing,” said HOPE Executive Director Jeanne Montross. “This is wonderful stuff, and it costs a lot of money because there’s a lot of work involved in making it.”
Corinne Almquist, who founded Addison Gleaners last year with the help of a year-long environmental fellowship, said that as of late last week the program this year had harvested well over 10,000 pounds of produce from more than 27 farms. This is compared to the program’s initial year, when 8,478 pounds of produce from 13 farms went to the food shelf.
“It’s growing, slowly but surely,” Almquist said.
About once a week, depending on the season, a list of gleaning opportunities is emailed to volunteer gleaners, and people turn out to help harvest produce. In addition to gleaning the surplus produce at local farms, an Addison Gleaners representative has been on hand at the end of each Bristol and Middlebury farmers’ market to collect unsold produce. Almquist said farmers there are more than willing to donate produce that they may not be able to sell at the next farmers’ market.
“It’s already there, already harvested, and it’s top quality,” she said.
Jennifer Blackwell, who with her husband, Spencer, owns Elmer Farm in Middlebury, said this makes donating the produce much easier.
“It’s really helpful to have someone there,” she said — especially for produce like lettuce. Blackwell said she tries to use or freeze leftover produce from the farmers’ market for her own family, but during the peak of the season, there’s plenty of surplus.
This is the second year Elmer Farm has participated in the gleaning program, and Blackwell said that having people come to glean in their fields doesn’t hurt the farm’s income — paying someone to harvest just a few beets or a sparse bed of lettuce is not efficient, she said.
“Mostly it’s stuff that would have gotten tilled in with the tractor,” she said.
And if there’s a freeze coming, having gleaners picking at the farm helps get the most out of the land. With the help of the gleaners, the excess produce doesn’t go to waste.
This year, the gleaning group has benefited from the participation of students from Middlebury College, and Almquist, herself a 2009 graduate, led a gleaning orientation trip for first-year students this fall. The group spent a day at Golden Russet Farm in Shoreham picking crops, and a day at HOPE freezing and storing Swiss chard.
Still, it hasn’t been an easy road, said Almquist. This summer, while she worked at Golden Russet Farm, Middlebury College student Jessie Ebersole took on the role of coordinator. Ebersole has since left to study in Bolivia and Almquist is coordinating again with the help of two college students, Kate Olen and Jacob Udell. The two are doing an independent study project that looks at the gleaning program.
“I really wanted to get involved with Addison County farming,” said Olen, a senior Environmental Studies major.
She and Udell are in charge of coordinating one glean a week and picking up produce at the Wednesday farmers’ markets.
“It’s really important on several levels, to be able to bring produce into the food bank,” said Udell. “In terms of dietary options and health, … and it’s getting edible, fully nutritious produce (that’s) not up to the aesthetic quality that stores and markets need. We’re able to get it to people who still need it.”
The year has seen an influx of new participation, with farmers and home gardeners beginning to drop food off at the food bank on their own. People have also turned out at HOPE to chop and freeze vegetables for the winter, as well.
But Almquist said that the future of the program is somewhat up in the air. Going forward, it will need a coordinator to organize gleaners, farmers’ market collections and food processing in times of produce surplus. She’s hoping to find funding for a coordinator or to get churches and community organizations involved in a way that makes the program self-sustaining.
And with HOPE’s current struggles to keep the food bank stocked, Montross said the gleaning program has been a great help.
“It’s always a struggle when the food shelf is low,” said Montross. “In wintertime we get donations of non-perishable goods, but in the summer and fall when supplies are low, it’s a really big help.”
To get involved with the Addison Gleaners, contact [email protected].
Reporter Andrea Suozzo is at [email protected].

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