by Duck Caldwell
I once admitted to one of our partner farmers that I saw the role of the Gleaners within our local agricultural ecosystem to be that of the scavenger – to clean up what had been left – and the reaction I got was a hearty belly laugh and a nod of approval. Fortunately, farmers are connected enough to natural systems on a day-to-day basis that this idea clicked immediately. I even felt that I had encouraged a deeper understanding of gleaning to this particular farmer.
Back in the modern mainstream, however, scavenging usually connotes negative images. Those seen as societal dropouts might scavenge by dumpster diving, for example, and poor people might sometimes be forced to scavenge, which can be considered shameful and a sign of personal failure.
Seen from a biological perspective, however, the activity of scavenging plays an essential role in ecosystems. It ensures that abundances of rotting and decomposing organic material are processed and return important nutrients to the food chain, keeping ground water clean and preventing disease.
Given that gleaners are cleaning up good produce that would otherwise be plowed under, our work is not quite on par with a vulture’s (I’m pretty sure that gleaning does not prevent disease, for example), but it does serve the same purpose within our food system in terms of retrieving important nutrients from the waste stream and bringing them back into our food supply chain. I sometimes think of gleaners as a colony of ants, where scouts locate good stores of nutrients, and then send out teams to bring back the goods for the larger colony.
In our consumerist culture, however, we seem to truly forget that we are part of a living ecosystem. We’ve also been effectively trained not to pay attention to signs of imbalance, such as huge amounts of food surplus. On a basic, biological level, however, food is fuel, and fuel is energy. Any omnivore in their right mind would know that passing up good fuel is not in their best interest and, ultimately, represents a serious threat to their survival.
So why don’t we follow suit? Why aren’t we as smart as our omnivore cousin the bear, for instance, that eats a wide variety of seasonal fare and scavenges as well?
I think it is because we are so disconnected from our food sources that we scarcely understand the basic nature of fuel and energy. This basic, biologic knowledge has been stripped from many people in the modern age, and is compounded by the fact that most people in the US now do not live on or near farms.
This type of knowledge will slowly return to people as the local food movement grows. And the Gleaners will be right there in the thick of it, waiting opportunistically for our chance to pounce on agricultural surplus, and carry it, like so many ants, back to our larger colony, especially to those of us who are in need of nutrient rich fuel.