‘Gleaning’ and the economics of farming

I got to spend a lovely July day in east Kent, participating in a ‘gleaning’ day. A tradition that dates back to biblical times, gleaning is the concept of harvesting the leftover crops and, traditionally, redistributing them to the poor, widows, strangers or orphans.  In our case, we harvested surplus strawberries that weren’t sufficient quality to meet supermarket standards for the farmers contract with a major grocer.  The cost of harvesting the last few batches of strawberries would be more than the farmer would make back from the sales at their local farm stand.  So, as a matter of economics, the leftover crops would be left to spoil, unless a cost-free way of salvaging them and using them in short order could be found. 

Gleaning (also called scrounging) is the act of collecting leftover crops from farmers’ fields after they have been commercially harvested or on fields where it is not economically profitable to harvest. 

This is where the local network Feed the Five Thousand comes in. The network matches surplus crops from UK farms to local food charities which can make quick work of whatever fresh produce they get for free. The Gleaning Network coordinates volunteer pickers with local farmers and food charities to get the food to those who most need it.

After a hours of chatting, picking, munching, and filling punnets of fresh strawberries, 12 of us volunteers managed to salvage about 450kg of fresh, nutritious food that would have otherwise gone to waste. And, we each kept a punnet for ourselves too.

Gleaning

The farmer donated the punnets and the strawberries, and his wife donated her time driving volunteers back and forth to the station and helping arrange logistics on the farm – as well as bringing us a few tasty treats! The gleanings were loaded into a van, and all delivered to local food shelters in Kent.

The farmer’s wife described how some supermarket inspectors would reject entire fields based on firmness tests, deeming the fruit to be too soft, which could impact the shelf life. Others can be rejected because they are misshapen or don’t meet aesthetic qualities. It was clear from only an hour of picking under the canopies that the nicer fruit was nearer the seams of the canopies (where there is probably more water and sun). Why would an entire field need to be rejected when there is so much variation in quality under a single canopy?

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It makes you wonder how farming contracts can be handled more sensibly to help both the farmer and the purchaser have a more economically fruitful (no pun intended) relationship. The grocer who contracts strawberries from our farmer also markets their own strawberry jam. Why can’t the misshapen and aesthetically undesirable fruit be collected as well, and sold under separate contract to provide the fruit for their jam? Even the slightly softer fruit, which would otherwise go wasted, would be suitable for jam. Surely it would mean less waste at the farm, a single point of supply for the grocer, more profit for the farmer, and better use of the natural capital that was invested in growing the fruit to begin with.

Certainly, there must be better ways of getting more out of the natural capital spent on farming…

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