This was “gleaning 101,” as Haywood Gleaners volunteer Carol Larsen had explained to the group upon arrival.
“It takes the farmers to grow the crop, people like all of us to pick it up and it takes the organizations in Haywood County that we deliver the food to that help us distribute it,” she told the teens. “All three of those entities work together in an effort to solve and meet nutritional needs.”
Haywood Gleaners, a nonprofit that operates under the Christian organization Society of St. Andrew, is wrapping up its fourth season of existence, gathering crops left in the fields after harvest to distribute to Haywood County organizations serving people in need. Since its inception, Haywood Gleaners has collected more than 110,000 pounds of food — 31,000 pounds this year alone.
Larsen is always looking for ways to involve more people in the effort, so when she got an email from SOAR instructor Danielle Silvers asking about community service opportunities for her students, the question was a no-brainer.
However, unlike typical gleans when volunteers gather food after the farmer has already harvested his crop, the potato harvest was a first pass at extracting the produce from the ground. Christopher had planted the rows earlier that year with 50 pounds of seed potatoes provided by the gleaners, cultivating them all season long for harvest to feed Haywood’s hungry — not for his own profit.
“I thought it was a great opportunity for kids from the local SOAR residential camp to be exposed to another way to serve their community, another way to give back to Haywood County,” Larsen said.
The teens working the fields with the gleaners were part of SOAR’s boarding school program, which works with teens with diagnoses such as ADHD and ADD that make traditional educational environments difficult. The school divides its 30 students into four groups, with each group completing a series of two-week segments throughout the academic year. At any given time, half the students are out on some sort of wilderness adventure — though schoolwork continues during that time — while the other half are in a more traditional school setting. Then, they switch.
SOAR also works to include some sort of community service in the classroom half, and that’s where gleaning comes in.
“These are very privileged kids, and we hope that the understanding is that there are things we might take for granted in our daily lives, that we realize there are people who don’t have that privilege of a daily meal,” Silvers said.
Angie James, 18, of Lexington, said that the experience has been making an impact on her, for sure.
“Last year I wasn’t really social, and this year I’m much more social and inclined to help out in the community and always looking for opportunities,” she said as she searched for potatoes.
The gleaning project is an opportunity she’s glad to have.
“All the stuff we’re doing to help the community, I feel like it’s really making an impact on everybody,” James said.
“It’s fun doing it for the community,” agreed her classmate Kelsey Gordon, 17, of Johnson City, Tennessee.
Gambling on the weather
In addition to instilling a passion for community service, Larsen also hoped to give the teens a glimpse of how heavily the farmer’s fate is intertwined with the weather.
“Haywood County is in a severe drought — so severe that we’ve got wildfires going on around us,” she explained to the group. “The lack of rain for a farmer to grow food is a critical problem.”
Haywood County is currently in extreme drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor, the third most severe of the four drought designations. The state’s four westernmost counties are currently classified as experiencing exceptional drought, the most severe designation. According to the National Weather Service, the Asheville weather station has received only 1.1 inches of rain since Sept. 1, far less than the normal value of 9.01 inches. Since January 1, the station has received 29.55 inches compared to the normal value of 40.62 inches.
The drought is affecting fire danger, river flows, drinking water supplies — and crop production.
“I’m 76 years old and I’ve never seen this long a period of time this dry,” Christopher said. “Usually two or three weeks and you’ll get a rain.”
Christopher has been harvesting about half the crop he’d normally expect — there’s been no way to water the fields, because irrigation is not something that’s typically needed in the often-rainy Smokies. The harvest has been just enough to break even on the cost of seed and fertilizer, but not sufficient to turn a profit.
“The farmer, he’s taking a gamble,” Christopher said. “You never know what it’s going to do and you never know whether you’re going to get a hail storm or whether you’re going to get a freeze. You just never know.”
When he planted 50 pounds of seed potatoes provided by Haywood Gleaners this spring, Christopher couldn’t have known just how dry the season would become. In a normal year, Christopher said, he might have expected 15-20 bushels of potatoes off the two rows, but this year the harvest would be more like 3 or 4 bushels. Nevertheless, as the drought intensified, he continued to cultivate the rows and prepare them for harvest by the gleaners.
“It’s to his credit,” Larsen said. “We’ve gleaned corn here on his property twice this year, butternut squash, I forget what else. This (the potatoes) is a crop that he just out of the generosity of his heart planted.”
When asked why he’d chosen to give of his time and his land in a year that’s been so hard for those who make their living from the ground, Christopher gave a mild-mannered response deflecting any implied praise of his contribution.
“I don’t mind doing it for them. I don’t mind doing it at all,” he said. “I like to donate time, and the stuff that I grow and can’t get rid of, I let them have it.”
People don’t want to buy produce, he said, “unless it looks like a picture in a book.” The gleaners, however, are happy to take crops that make an ugly picture but a delicious meal.
By the end of the day, the SOAR campers had not only harvested 25 pounds of potatoes but also more than 500 pounds of winter squash gleaned from Christopher’s farm, which they then helped deliver to 18 partner organizations in Haywood County. The farmer also sent them home with some turnips to cook for themselves.
“We’re very grateful for all of you because it’s your manpower and his (Christopher’s) growing ability that are giving people who might not otherwise be able to afford it healthy food,” Larsen told the group. “You’re a great workforce, and Haywood County is very grateful.”
The harvest season is over, but it’s not too early to set the stage for involvement with Haywood Gleaners in the springtime.
The organization brings together growers, volunteers and people in need of healthy food so that food that would otherwise rot in the ground finds its way to dinner tables across the county. Forms are available online for people who would like to help pick and distribute, farmers who would like to host gleans and sites that would like to distribute food. Email for information about organizing gleans with groups such as camps or school classes.