Gleaning revolves around supply and demand, and the most important factor is time. My general philosophy about gleaning is probably more crude and unsophisticated than you may think. Our goal is to glean as much high quality produce as possible. As long as the quality is good we hustle after it until the truck is full or we run out of daylight. This attitude is a bit old school, but effective. It has earned farmers’ respect and has allowed us to grow our organization. Even though we are aggressively gleaning as much as possible, we only capture 5% of the farm level surplus in our eastern MA region each year. In 2016, we gleaned 421,167 pounds (about 12,000 bushels).
I should note that we devote extra resources and time to new farms with high donation potential by working through sub par crops so that we can establish a good relationship with them. Some farmers are better than others and some farmers specialize in certain crops. Not every farm is worth our time, so we are prudent about where we devote extra effort and resources. I believe in complex reciprocity, which means I will do a favor or an act of endearment for a farmer under the belief there is a bigger payoff in the long run. This builds respect, trust and strong working relationships.
The other shoe to drop in this equation is demand. Some crops like potatoes and apples are in high demand and we can move infinite volumes; others like arugula and blue Hubbard squash are in lower demand, which poses bigger distribution challenges. This can be a limiting factor. For example, if I bring back eight continuous truckloads of arugula with no other crops, we would be stuck with most of it and our distribution manager would no doubt kill me. So we try to harvest as much variety as possible, because we can slip in a few cases of arugula on each order of peaches and carrots.
Pantries have grown to rely on our services for a consistent variety of fresh produce. We deliver weekly or bi-weekly to most of our pantries. From experience, we know roughly how much arugula we can collectively move in a week and how much we can move through each channel; this tends to roughly guide for how much we harvest. We have standardized our harvesting practices, using banana boxes which allow for uniform of crop packing and easy palletization. We also know how much a case of potatoes weighs and can thus estimate crop volumes for each harvest (pounds and bushels).
Regarding which crops to harvest, I often make on-the-fly judgments when arriving at the farm. Last season, we ran trips 6-7 days per week, with as many as 4 trips per day. Each day and farm is different and there is no single metric used to determine which crops we will be harvesting. Nutrition or dietary preferences is not something we judge or try to impose on recipients. It is nearly impossible to develop an algorithm for gleaning because there are many factors at play and the context if the situation is very fluid. I didn’t appreciate the complexity and nuance of our decision making process until trying to train a new staff member to make these decisions last season. Ultimately we "read and react" to the situation. Often, all (if not most) of the following criteria factor into the decision process about which crops to harvest:
1. Demand. How popular is this cop? If the crop has marginal appeal, which channels want it and in what volumes?
2. Current inventory. How many of each crop do we have on the truck or in our cooler? Do our recipient agencies have a full inventory, can they take more? Do they want more?
3. Inventory pipeline. How many more tomatoes do I expect to be rolling in over the next week? In our business, when it rains, it pours (i.e. all the tomatoes come at once). Is it hard to find tomatoes right now for donation (shoulder seasons)?
4. Relative quality of each crop. Can I get higher quality at a different farm in the same week? How long will the quality be maintained in the field? Pest pressure, temperature, and crop physiology are at play here. How does this crop compare to our standards and market expectations?
5. Shelf life. What is the shelf-life of this product in cold storage? How fast does it have to move before it spoils? What is the expected delivery date and turnaround time (add three days for pantry level distribution and 5 days for food banks)?
6. Available volume. Can we harvest everything in one trip? Does this require more staff time, volunteers, multiple trips, more trucks, etc. If we return tomorrow or next week which crops can hold, which are more perishable?
7. Wholesale market price. What is the wholesale price for tomatoes this week? How long will this (high or low) price last? This pertains to regional crop forecasts. Regional food banks have the ability to purchase crops especially if prices are low.
8. Harvest rate/efficiency. What are the harvest challenges of this crop (weed pressure, pests, and quality defects can slow harvesting rates). What is the experience level of today’s crew? How fast can today’s volunteer group harvest? How much supervision is needed? Is there an alternative crop we can harvest more efficiently? How much on-site training is needed? How much quality control is needed by staff? (i.e. the cull rate for cherry tomatoes can be very high and the harvest rate can be very slow even though this crop is in high demand. )
9. Weather Forecast. Are we expecting a frost, heat wave, wind, rain? Weather affects not only scheduling, but crop conditions and accessibility in the fields with mud and snow etc.
10. Farmer Relations. How well do I know this farmer? How big is this farm (available volume)? How skilled is this farmer (consistent quality from crop to crop and across the season)?
11. TIME - last but not least! As applied to every other factor above. How long will this opportunity be available? When does the farmer want to plow under the field? Weekly scheduling constraints, budgeting, distribution cycle, etc.