Before I ever heard of the term ‘glean’ in any other context than ‘gather information,’ I already had experience of situations of abundances of food being underutilised. In Andalucía, where I lived for some time, I saw or heard about many cases of orchards or tree plantations whose owners can no longer afford to pay people to pick the fruit when it is ripe, so it makes more economical sense for them to simply leave them on the trees. There are also fields of trees which have been totally abandoned; perhaps the farmer died and all of the younger generation have moved to the cities.
In some parts of Spain there are entire villages who have suffered this fate, and if an enterprising group of young people were to go and set up homes there they may be able to revive the whole village and help it develop in whatever way they wish to. Indeed, this has become something of a trend, and there now exist real-estate agents who offer abandoned villages for sale to enterprising groups (see for example 1). How they obtained the villages and by whose designation they have the right to sell them is another question, one which I will not explore here.
When things are left in this way it presents amazing opportunities; but what I did not experience in Andalucía was an organised way of collecting all the fruit which would potentially otherwise be going to waste, and so when I embarked upon my first glean this September as part of the Sussex Gleaning Network (2), it was to be an eye-opening experience into how much we can harvest when we harvest together.
Gleaning with a smile
For me, it started with an apple. I quickly progressed to plums, and later participated in a mammoth glean of delicious sweetcorn. Pumpkins are looming on the horizon; sometimes I imagine this might be akin to how Eve felt. After taking that first apple, why would you go back?
The Sussex Gleaning Network (2) organises gleans by first getting into contact with farmers to see if they are likely to have any surplus produce, and if they would be happy for gleaners to take it. Once farmers have agreed the Network then has a relatively short space of time in which to plan logistics; as we cannot know until the actual harvest time exactly how much surplus there will be, if any.
This means that volunteers who are ready to spring into action the moment a date is set are absolutely key to gleaning work. Rideshares are sorted, lunches packed, pick-ups co-ordinated and directions, inevitably, mis-followed, and then we arrive on the farm.
On both of the gleans in which I have participated there were more than ten other volunteers, making the whole occasion wonderfully sociable. Everyone brings a little food from home which then gets placed together in one giant shared meal, and the fresh air and the actual visible evidence of so much abundance helps to foster the good mood.
The communal aspect of the picking also helps engender a connection with your fellow gleaners; there is a sense of shared creativity, of working together to make something beautiful. This sense is something I often experience when playing music together with other people as well, and perhaps it was no coincidence that many on the sweetcorn glean suggested that we think of some corn-harvesting songs to sing together to help the picking.
It may also not have been a coincidence that we did have a way of making music in the corn fields too.
Of equal importance was the continuous punning which went on all day. You would be amazed with how many corny one-liners can be made on the subject.
Reasons to glean
We heard some of the reasons why the apple and plum farmer had so much surplus. One was that apparently it has been, in England, a particularly good year for apples. You would think that this would make a farmer joyous at harvest time; but because of the market which he has to sell to, instead it means that there are too many apples for sale and the prices go down.
Another reason is the war in Ukraine, which has resulted in some trade being stopped between Russia and the EU. We heard that Germany and Poland usually export apples to Russia but that since they cannot now, the next natural export market to turn to is the UK as the pound is relatively strong right now. Thus, in spite of the particularly good year which we have had here in England for apples, supermarkets are actually turning them away as apples from elsewhere are cheaper.
With the sweetcorn, the reasons appeared even more arbitrary. The farmer simply said that he probably would not be able to sell all of the corn, and so he was not going to harvest it. He did not seem worried about his financial situation. I did not get a chance to question him in detail so I don’t know exactly what his personal circumstances were or why he felt the need to abandon vast swathes of his crops. It could be that he receives subsidies for his work and so is not in dire need of gaining a return from the corn. For more on this see (3).
Regardless of why or how it comes about, gleaning puts you in direct connection with food in its naked state, before it become embroiled in the occasionally tortuously long networks of packaging, processing, shipping, transporting etc. so common to our food today. This in itself makes going on a glean a worthwhile experience and I would encourage everyone to do the same, if only to feel first-hand what it’s like to actually pick the fruit or vegetables which you eat on a daily basis. This is one of the key ways in which we can begin rebuilding our connection to the food we eat and the natural world of which it and we are a part. To then be able to bring that to share with people who do not have much access to fresh food makes it even more worthwhile.
You also learn a lot when you come and glean. I have grown corn in the past but many people may not have seen it in situ; and I am certainly not expert enough to have ever come across ‘smut’ before. No, I’m not talking about some kind of crazed cornography (see what I mean?); it’s a type of fungus which grows on corn that looks like this:
Looks delicious, right? Well, unless you are Mexican it may be surprising (it would certainly not be my immediate instinct to put that substance into my mouth) but in some parts of the world corn smut is seen as a delicacy. See (4) for more information – it is apparently even good for you.
On the apple and plum day we managed, with between ten and fifteen people, to harvest a total of approximately 982.5kg of fruit to be redistributed through Fareshare (5). This hefty amount pales in comparison to what we harvested on the day of the corn, however, when we ended with something in the vicinity of 2.5 tonnes of sweetcorn, distributed through Fareshare to groups in Brighton and Hove but also Community Food Enterprises or CFE (6), a similar group who instead of operating nationally are based in London, who took as much as they could to that city.
On both days one of the most poignant aspects was the sheer amount of fruit and vegetables which remained even after we had filled the Fareshare and CFE trucks, and every volunteer had taken as much as they could realistically carry. Some volunteers and recipient groups may have been a little concerned about what they would do with it all; though I remain confident that all fresh food can be preserved in nutritious and long-lasting ways. With this in mind I and my fellow food-gathering accomplice filled two large backpacks with sweetcorn, making sure we tried some of it first.
We were now ready to embark upon a whole plethora of food preservation experiments.
The results were, as you may imagine, delicious, and I shall share some of them with you in the next blog post.
- Aldeas Abandonadas (Abandoned Villages), 2014. ‘Venta de Aldeas’. http://aldeasabandonadas.com/venta-de-aldeas.html – retrieved 28/10/14
- Gleaning Network, 2014. http://feedbackglobal.org/campaigns/gleaning-network/ – retrieved 28/10/14
- Monbiot, G, 2014. ‘The farming lobby has wrecked efforts to defend our soil’. Guardian, 5/6/2014. http://www.theguardian.com/environment/georgemonbiot/2014/jun/05/the-farming-lobby-has-wrecked-efforts-to-defend-our-soil – retrieved 28/10/14
- Mendoza, M, 2010. ‘Corn Smut Delicacy Huitlacoche is Good for You.’ Huffington Post, 27/04/2010. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/04/27/huitlacoche-corn-smut-goo_n_553422.html – retrieved 3/11/14
- Fareshare, 2014. ‘About’. http://www.fareshare.org.uk/about_us/ – retrieved 28/10/14
- Community Food Enterprises, 2014. ‘About CFE’. http://www.c-f-e.org.uk/About%20CFE.htm – retrieved 28/10/14