Tag Archives: gleaning

Gleaning First Hand

Gleaning First-Hand

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.

Untended Olive Grove

Untended Olive Grove. Photo by David Ashwanden

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.

Gleaners Together

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.

Corn whistle

Corn whistle. Photo by David Ashwanden

Yes that's right - an ocarina in the shape of a corn cob. Why would you go on a corn glean without one?

(Photo by David Ashwanden). Yes that’s right – an ocarina in the shape of a corn cob. Why would you go on a corn glean without one?










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.

Sussex Gleaning Co-ordinator Vera Zakharov adding to the huge amount of corn

Sussex Gleaning Co-ordinator Vera Zakharov adding to the huge amount of corn

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:

SMUTMore SMUTLooks 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.

Abundance amounts

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.


  1. Aldeas Abandonadas (Abandoned Villages), 2014. ‘Venta de Aldeas’. http://aldeasabandonadas.com/venta-de-aldeas.html – retrieved 28/10/14
  2. Gleaning Network, 2014. http://feedbackglobal.org/campaigns/gleaning-network/ – retrieved 28/10/14
  3. 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
  4. 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
  5. Fareshare, 2014. ‘About’. http://www.fareshare.org.uk/about_us/ – retrieved 28/10/14
  6. Community Food Enterprises, 2014. ‘About CFE’. http://www.c-f-e.org.uk/About%20CFE.htm – retrieved 28/10/14

Rejoicing in Abundance

Occasionally I encounter someone who refers to our planet as being one on which scarcity is a problem. It is understandable how you could arrive at this viewpoint; after all, the media in this country often mentions food security issues and there are many people who are hungry, even right in our own home towns.

Institutions such as the idea of global aid seem to exacerbate this view; relying as they do on people in one country or region giving away some of the resources they have to another, seeming to imply that we cannot have all the resources we need right where we are. But is it helpful to see our world like this?

There is a lot of sentiment that scarcity is an illusion; and even an ever-growing body of evidence to show that wherever you are, abundance is a possibility.

The beauty of the world: something we can all esperience. Photo by David Ashwanden

The beauty of the world: something we can all esperience. Photo by David Ashwanden

Possible abundance

Back in 1980, architect, innovator and inventor R. Buckminster Fuller wrote of how thinkers such as Thomas Malthus, Charles Darwin and Karl Marx had managed to influence global conceptions to the point where

“All books on economics have only one basic tenet – the fundamental scarcity of life support. The supreme political and economic powers as yet assume that it has to be you or me.” –R. Buckminster Fuller, 1980 (1)

However, having undertaken a lifetime of research and experiment, he concludes that this conception is based simply on not looking at the wealth of the world in a holistic manner. If we account for all of our resources using what Fuller calls “cosmic accounting” (1) then we are all billionaires.

In the 2012 report to the UN Right to Food, Oliver de Schutter estimated that there is enough food being produced in the world to feed 12 billion people (2). This, even in spite of the fact that our farming methods are so inefficient that in many cases the inputs of oil-based products outweigh the outputs of food (see for example 3), and the current trend of ‘high-yield’ intensive monoculture farming is destroying habitats, ecosystems and soils (soils being something which is generally regarded as a useful substance for growing things in) to the point where, in some places in the UK, soil structure has completely broken down in over 75% of maize fields (4).

The UN Conference on Trade and Development’s 2013 report Wake Up Before it’s Too Late: Make Farming Truly Sustainable Now (5) explores how changing our agricultural systems will help to build more stable food sources, community development and – crucially – more food production (5). Even before that change is fully implemented, however, there are ways in which we can help to redress the balance.

For if we are all billionaires, and are producing enough food for 12 billion people, why are some still going hungry? Perhaps there are some who are taking more than they need, but there’s only so much excess you can eat, even if you are huge. When we begin examining this, we find that much of the commercial food produced in the world actually does not even get eaten – or come close to being eaten.

Food production for…humans?

                The Institute of Mechanical Engineers estimated in their Global Food Report Waste Not, Want Not that

“30–50% (or 1.2–2 billion tonnes) of all food produced never reaches a human stomach” (6)

There are many factors affecting this, from weather patterns to supermarket quotas and the global economy to local fashions in taste, and it is not only the producers who could be more efficient in their production. In many places, the industrialised, ‘high-yield high-input’ farming system means that crops are designed to be intensively grown in monoculture systems aimed at producing a large amount of crops at the same time. This method inherently carries a high risk of waste in it; for a large number of reasons, from higher risks of disease, pests and lack of nutrition involved in monoculture farming (see for example 5) to the practicalities of successfully harvesting and processing what is usually several thousands of individual crops at one time. These are compounded by supermarket regulations on size and quota, which here in the UK are quite specific in a way in which growth is usually not (7). The Soil Association estimate that 20-40% of UK Fruit and vegetables are rejected on “cosmetic grounds” (although who decides these cosmetic grounds is unclear) before they reach the consumer.

Even the slightest deformities may be enough for fruits and vegetables not to make it to the supermarket.

Even the slightest deformities may be enough for fruits and vegetables not to make it to the supermarket.

For more (and more extreme) examples of unusual crops check out the Guardian’s gallery  here

Turning problems into solutions

Luckily, the very complicatedness of the factors affecting why we are wasting so much food is also a fantastic opportunity. These factors show that often producers feel as though they do not have a choice about having to throw away vast amounts of their crops. And sometimes, they may not wish to throw them away. This leaves ample opportunity to take this abundant overflow of stagnating energy and utilise it.

This is exactly what the Gleaning Network (8) are doing. The Network is a campaign made up of volunteer ‘gleaners’, who get into contact with farms which have a surplus of unsellable (but still perfectly edible) crops, and go and pick said crops, distributing them to local charities and community groups who are in need of fresh food through Fareshare (9), a redistribution organisation who intercept food from going to waste all over the country, giving it instead to people who would like to eat it.

The Gleaning Network could only collect the surplus food from the farms if farmers were sympathetic, showing that the food production wastage problem is not as simple as just being the responsibility of the producers. At least there are some producers who see the incongruence, and are taking proactive steps to address it.

But what is this ‘Glean’?

The idea of gleaning is not a new one but dates back, as far as I can tell, to feudal times, or just after the concept of land ownership rather than common land which everyone can use became prevalent in England. I have heard a number of stories of who the original ‘gleaners’ were, and my favourite variation is this: that once the idea of land ‘enclosures’ as a pose to ‘common land’ began becoming steadily more and more popular, in particular around the 14th century (10), suddenly a large amount of the population, who had previously been farming using semi-communal resources on land which was owned by no-one, found themselves instead deemed as trespassers on someone else’s land. Yet the land owners recognised that the people living on what was now their land still needed to survive somehow; and indeed, it would be beneficial to them, the landowners, if the peasants continued to exist, since the landowners needed them. If there were no workers to farm the landowners’ land, the land would not be much use to the landowners. With this in mind the landowners would always purposefully leave a proportion of their crops unharvested in the fields. This would then be gleaned – that is, collected – by those who needed it.

So the Gleaning Network is reviving this practise – with all of the modern twists that the supermarket quotas, the ‘high-yield, high input’ farming systems, and the global economy bring with it. The Gleaners are back: but now instead of a few villagers picking their way across some small be-hedged fields, the Gleaning Network now regularly co-ordinates surplus harvests of upwards of 1 tonne of crops at one time.

Why is this happening?

The extent to which food waste has become commonplace is an indicator that it is perhaps not just one thing which needs to change, rather, that our entire culture could do with looking at from a slightly different perspective. Why do people find it acceptable to throw away what is clearly edible food in the first place? Some may feel it is beyond their control; but even so, it could be seen that this very attitude indicates a marked disrespect for, and lack of connection to, our food.

In his book Agri-Culture: Reconnecting People, Land and Nature, Jules Pretty explores the idea that many in our culture may have lost (or temporarily forgotten) the deep significance of the role which food plays in our lives, and how with the simple act of eating, we are communicating in a vast number of ways to the environment, other people and creatures, and of course, our own bodies (11). “As consumers”, Pretty says,

The choices we make send strong signals about the systems of agricultural production that we prefer. We may not realise that we are sending these messages, but we are.” (Pretty, 2002) (11)

Just the simple act of realisation can be incredibly empowering. When you sit down to eat your dinner, do you listen to your body’s reaction to your food to gauge what is the right thing to feed it? Do you rejoice in sharing food, and in the power of the simple act of eating with others? When you procure your food, do you think about the effect this will have on the environment around you, and the other people, plants and creatures in it?

When we begin thinking about these things, it may well transpire that our own strategies of feeding ourselves, from sourcing our food to getting rid of waste, begin changing dramatically. In this way our whole culture of attitudes to food can begin to become healthier, more efficient and more beneficial to us.

One of the key aspects of creating a new culture is to create new stories as part of the culture. In this way we can strengthen our ties to each other, the planet and our food. In order to do this we do not have to disregard everything which comes before us; indeed, this is what makes us up so we have to integrate it in order to move forwards. All of our favourite stories and inspirations will probably be what is most useful here. As Joseph Campbell puts it, we can all make our own myths to help enrich our lives, and when we do,

“We have not even to risk the adventure alone; for the heroes of all time have gone before us; the labyrinth is thoroughly known; we have only to follow the thread of the hero-path.” (Campbell, 1949) (12)

For me this means following whatever stories I feel I can shape constructively into my own personal mythology in order to create a world of true abundance. With this in mind I began my foray into the world of gleaning. Intrigued? Stay tuned for the next post, where I explore this activity at farm level…


  1. Fuller, R.B, 1980. Critical Path. St Martin’s Griffin: New York
  2. Schutter, O, 2013. Interim report of the Special Rapporteur on the right to food. United Nation General Assembly: New York
  3. Lamberley, P and Oakeshott, I, 2014. Farmageddon: The True Cost of Cheap Meat. Bloomsbury: London
  4. 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 10/10/14
  5. UN Conference on Trade and Development, 2013. Wake Up Before it is Too Late: Make Agriculture Truly Sustainable Now for Food Security in a Changing Climate. United Nations: Geneva. Online copy can be found here: http://unctad.org/en/PublicationsLibrary/ditcted2012d3_en.pdf
  6. Institute of Mechanical Engineers, 2013. “Global Food: Waste Not, Want Not.” IMECHE: London. Available as a PDF here: http://www.imeche.org/docs/default-source/reports/Global_Food_Report.pdf
  7. Lawrence, F, 2004. Not on the Label: What Really Goes into the Food on your Plate. Penguin: London
  8. Feedback Global, 2014. ‘Gleaning Network’. http://feedbackglobal.org/campaigns/gleaning-network/ – retrieved 22/10/14
  9. Fareshare, 2014. ‘About Us’. http://www.fareshare.org.uk/about_us/ – retrieved 22/10/14
  10. Fairlie, S, 2009. ‘A Short History of enclosures in Britain’. Land Magazine, Issue 7, Summer 2009. http://www.thelandmagazine.org.uk/articles/short-history-enclosure-britain – – retrieved 22/10/14
  11. Pretty, Jules, 2002. Agri-Culture: Reconnecting People, Land and Nature. Earthscan: Oxford
  12. Campbell, J, 1949. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Fontana Press: London