This is the question our staff hear from many-a-gleaner on the occasion of their first gleaning outing. It’s a good, straight-forward question with a very long and layered answer. I’ll start the answer here, and will continue to address the questions and complexities of agricultural surplus here in my new blog, “Gleanings of the Director.”
Let’s start with how farms work. Farmers are business people dealing with uncontrollable risks that would make most of the rest of us run screaming from the fields. Over-producing is one of the only ways they have of mitigating the enormous risks they face seasonally in the form of weather, pests, labor shortages, and constantly shifting markets, just to name a few. Any lost sale is that much more out of their own pockets, so planting extra is like a form of insurance.
The good news is, most farmers are perfectly willing to donate the resulting surplus, they just can’t afford to do it without some help. I once calculated the cost to a farmer for devoting one farm worker to one day of gleaning a truckload of apples and delivering to the local food bank. All told, labor, fuel, and opportunity costs (lost revenue of a laborer and a truck not doing their normal work) came to at least $400. For one day! You can see how a farm funded gleaning operation would be prohibitively expensive given most farms’ slim profit margins.
Volunteer gleaning efforts are a great way to recover some of the agricultural surplus that is left out in the fields in eastern Massachusetts. On a national scale, however, turns out gleaning is not always the most efficient way of recovering unharvested crops because of the large amount of time and labor required. In states with large vegetable farms that use mechanized harvesting systems, for example, millions of pounds of post-harvest surplus can be recovered regionally by simply sending a food bank truck out to large wholesale farms (Bloom, 2008).
Basically, the agricultural surplus recovery efforts that make sense in one region’s food system may not make sense in another. In our densely populated area, farms are tucked away in suburbs, outlying areas, and on conservation land. They tend to be small, diversified, and able to react to changing markets and specialty demands. They harvest mostly by hand and are very interested in being an integral part of their local communities. This all adds up to great opportunities for gleaning in the Greater Boston area, and a great potential for delivering significant amounts of fresh, local produce to our neighbors who may not otherwise be able to afford it.
Bloom, J. (2010). American wasteland: How America throws away nearly half of its food. Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press.