At the moment, Larson’s in a lull, waiting for the orange Jeep picking up buckets full of cucumbers from the 17 pickers strung out along the row to bring its next shipment.
“I know which of these rows is going to which place, and how much to whom,” she says, gesturing toward the boxes.
Now in its third year, Haywood Gleaners runs like a well-oiled machine. Produce donations rotate steadily around the group’s list of 34 recipients, each donation tailored to the group’s size and the quantity of food it can handle without letting any go to waste. Volunteer drivers pick up the shipments and ferry them throughout the county, each set of boxes outfitted with a sheet detailing the drop-off location and contact information. Picked produce is weighed carefully, exact poundage recorded for the tax purposes of both the Christian Society of Saint Andrews, under whom the Gleaners operate, and the farmers who host the gleans. Farmers get a tax break for donating their unpicked produce.
Today, 17 people are out in the field, combing the rows of cucumbers recently harvested by the farmer for any vegetables that have been left behind. It’s nearly impossible for farmers to achieve a complete harvest — inevitably, some of the crop is left behind as the ratio of profit gained to effort invested diminishes. The unpicked crop is then left to rot.
Unless the Gleaners get called in.
“To me it’s very satisfying that this food that would have gone to waste is going to help people who need it,” said Marian Phalin, one of the volunteers.
Haywood Gleaners has a list of organizations that use the food — everyone from Broyhill Children’s Home to Open Door Ministries to Chestnut Park Retirement Center — and once picked, another group of volunteers, the transport crew, takes the food where it needs to go.
“Last week it was apples, and then they brought in some mixed vegetables from the farmers market,” said Becky Murphy, an office assistant and volunteer with The Community Kitchen in Canton. “Whatever they bring we try to use or try to get the patrons to take home and use.”
The Community Kitchen has been cooking a lot of apples recently, as have many of the other organizations the gleaners supply.
“We had to stop sending apples for a while because people got tired of them,” said Donna Koger, who handles marketing for Haywood Gleaners.
Same with tomatoes — the group recently did a tomato glean at Cooperative Extension’s Mountain Research Farm in Waynesville. They picked 4,000 pounds.
“We just couldn’t get them to enough places,” Coger said, which is why the gleaners’ new maximum is “only” 2,000 pounds — a full ton. They just barely exceeded that limit at the cucumber glean last week, bringing in 1,975 pounds of cucumbers and 30 pounds of squash for a total of 2,005 pounds.
That brings the group’s take for the year to 23,595 pounds — nearly 12 tons, more than the season total for either 2013 or 2014. And there’s still plenty of time left in the harvest season.
“We have many more gleans planned over the next month,” said Donna Koger, the group’s marketing coordinator. “We are growing in our ability to provide healthy food to the hungry every year.”
“It’s pretty incredible the amount of food that’s left on the ground,” said Jo Paula Lantier, a friend of Larsen’s who doesn’t even live here — she and her husband were visiting from Louisiana but spent a good portion of their stay out in the fields.
Perhaps that’s because as “work” goes, gleaning is pretty appealing to the outdoors types.
“It’s a good excuse to be outside,” agreed Mary Decker, who heard about the group through her membership with the Haywood County Master Gardeners.
A group of four inmates from the Haywood County Detention Center, all wearing white T-shirts and orange pants, concurred. They agreed that it was good to be outside, and that the gleaner’s perk of getting to eat a few veggies on the job wasn’t a bad thing.
But the appeal is stronger than just that. For some, spending a morning working in the field has a nostalgic quality.
“I used to do this when I’d get home from granny’s house,” said Ricky Carber, one of the inmates. “I was raised up on a farm.”
It’s a pleasant way to make a difference. But a sense of purpose is perhaps the biggest driver among the gleaners.
“I’ve got the time, and there’s a lot of less fortunate people in the area,” Decker said.
“It’s a spiritual thing for me because I feel called to help people, especially people who are food insecure,” Phalin said, “and actually it’s fun. I enjoy it and I meet interesting people every time.”
That volunteer corps is growing. In 2013, the Haywood Gleaners launched with just a small group of 10 to 12 people interested in helping out. Today, their membership sits at 175 people who receive regular email blasts about upcoming gleans and turn up to help Haywood pick its way out of hunger.
“There’s so much I hear about hunger,” Decker said, “and I figure if I can do something to help, it’s just a small piece.”
Join the club
1. Visit www.haywoodgleaners.org/member-application/ to subscribe to the email list and fill out a membership application.
2. Wait for a member of Haywood Gleaners to contact you. Then, fill out a liability waiver, also available on the website.
3. Watch your inbox for a glean announcement that will fit your schedule. Let the glean manager know you’re coming, and then show up, liability waiver in hand.
Not just a Haywood County thing
West of Asheville, Haywood is the only county that has a gleaning organization, but, said the Haywood Gleaners’ marketing manager Donna Koger, “If you don’t have one, don’t be afraid to start one.”
Three years ago, the Haywood group was just taking toddler steps as the brainchild of founder Jim Geenan. In its first two years, logistics were a lot harder and the operation didn’t come off nearly as organized as it does now. But after two years of baptism by fire, the Haywood Gleaners have learned some valuable lessons and are more than willing to pass on their hard-earned knowledge to any aspiring group of gleaners.
“We spent all winter working on processes,” Koger said. “And it paid off.”