It’s Called Gleaning. No Relation To Glee.

I have a friend, the Shoreline Fruit Lady. Today is her birthday, so in her honor I thought I’d talk about one of her favorite things: gleaning. Fruit Lady is a neighborhood gleaner.

She walks around her ‘hood with kids in tow and if she notices a big overgrown plum or apple tree in someone’s backyard she will leave a polite note on the owner’s door asking for permission to come harvest any fruit from the tree they won’t use. She leaves her contact info and usually the fruit tree owner is thrilled to have someone come and clean the fruit off the tree so it doesn’t fall and rot and become a big mess.

The Gleaners by Jean-Fran├žois Millet, 1857

Last year with little except gumption and a step ladder, my friend harvested over 500 pounds of fruit. Occasionally, weary from hours over a stove juicing and jamming and drying with “help” from two young children, she would drop a huge bag of plums on my doorstep. “Here, we can’t eat all these,” she’d say, “please take them.” That was code for, “I have seven more bags this size in my garage and I just got wind of a full Asian pear tree down the road I can harvest tomorrow.”

Together she and I went on a late summer blackberry picking bender that yielded country wine,  blackberry soda, berry syrup, juice concentrate and molasses, in addition to the most standard jams, preserves and frozen berries.

It takes a certain single-minded determination to be an urban gleaner. Once we were out picking blackberries along a quiet roadway with our girls. We were following a fence line and picking from the brambles that jutted out past the boundary. We worked our way down the fence and eventually around a corner. When we turned that corner we were in berry heaven. There were blackberries the size of quarters that hung in big, easy-to-pick clusters from ground to seven feet in the air. The fence line looked purplish from the glut.

Our buckets were filling quickly and we were starting to get picky and selective. “Oh, that one still has a bit of red on it. Not good enough!” we would say dismissively. Everything was going swimmingly until a car pulled up next to us. The window rolled down and a man looked at us.

“Can I help you?” he asked, confused.

We had managed to obliviously pick our way two-thirds up this poor guy’s driveway and were within a couple dozen feet of his house. Our kids were playing up the way, even closer. No wonder he didn’t know what to make of the scene.

I was mouth-open, sure I was about to get slapped with a trespassing charge and learn the meaning of hard time in a minimum security woman’s prison, but Fruit Lady handled the whole thing with cool aplomb.

“Oh, hey, you’ve got some great berries here. Can I bring you some homemade blackberry syrup? Or do you prefer jam?”

By the end of the exchange they were like old friends and she had secured his permission to come pick the remainder of the patch clean after the rest of the berries ripened. Apparently he had no idea he had blackberries on his property. And he loved the jam, too.

Gleaning has been practiced for millennia as type of charity. Traditionally the very poorest were allowed to access a field to collect leftover bits of a crop after the main harvest had taken place. In modern times, gleaning is still done by individuals, but is also done on larger scales as an organized way of bringing donations to food banks and hunger charities.

Although Fruit Lady’s windows were fogged from the steam of her water bath canner from July through October, she still wasn’t able to eat or preserve as much fruit as people were more than happy to give her. So my friend donated boxes upon boxes of good, fresh fruit to her local food bank. In this way she connected a resource to the people who need it, and in doing so stopped a lot of perfectly good food from rotting on the ground.

My friend isn’t alone. The Lemon Lady is a pioneer in urban gleaning, having harvested over 200 tons of urban fruit for food banks in her hometown in California. In Seattle, CityFruit coordinates the harvesting of private urban tree fruit by volunteers who collect the fruit for food charities, daycares and senior centers.

Have you ever gleaned? Do you glean for your own family, for charity, or for both?

Comments

  1. I love the concept. When I was spending time in Mesa, Arizona, I ate and juiced all the citrus I could handle from the trees in both the neighborhoods and along the major streets. So much would fall to the ground and get wasted it drove me nuts.

    I've gleaned apples from ancient groves far from the nearest homestead or village while hiking.

    The best I've ever had were the literally bushels of raspberries from a tangle that stretched for nearly 100 yards along a creek bank in northern California.

    Fortunately, here in Las Vegas where I live, there are a couple varieties of Mesquite trees that yield huge quantities of edible seed pods every year. I think I'm the only one in town that gathers and grinds them. They make a wonderful flour and the best pancakes you've ever eaten.

  2. I work with Not Far From The Tree here in Toronto
    http://www.notfarfromthetree.org/about

    In 2010 we harvested almost 20,000 lbs of fruit, ranging from peaches and apples to quince and grapes in just 5 neighbourhoods. Our model is 1/3 goes to the homeowner (if they want it and many don't), 1/3 to the volunteer pickers, and 1/3 to a local community kitchen of food bank.

    We also tap urban maple trees to make syrup and are holding our Syrup in the City party this weekend!

  3. Sharon Miro says:

    You have inspired me. In Southern Cal there are citrus in every yard and so many people just let them rot. But asking permission to glean is a great idea. Most cities have a an organization that picks backyard fruits–but do a poor job of getting the word out to home owners. Thanks for this great reminder to use or give!

  4. I volunteer in Silicon Valley (formerly known as the Valley of Heart's Delight) with an organization called Village Harvest (www.villageharvest.org). We glean from backyard trees and small local orchards, and about 125,000 lb per year of fruit goes to local food banks and senior centers. We hit a million lbs last November!

    Bruised or split fruit goes home with the volunteers, and that alone is enough to keep me in applesauce, jam, and frozen juice all year.

  5. What a wonderful idea! We live in rural Georgia, where several new subdivisions have popped up in what used to be acres and acres of pecan trees. The old trees drop everything for what seems like just the birds and squirrels – no one gathers up the pecans.

    I wonder how they'd feel about a mom and her two teenagers offering to gather everything up…to save their lawn mower blades come spring each year? :)

    Pecan pie, anyone?

  6. I love blackberry jelly (yes it's more work than jam, but worth it)! We've got four mature crowns in the wetland behind our house that we cultivate every year. I've always been leary of picking blackberries along the road for fear of whatever they've been sprayed with, intentionally or unintentionally. I bet she's in great shape though with all that work under her belt. Harvesting three fruit trees in our yard plus the blackberries is enough to put me in my grave. hehe.

    Great post. You rock!

  7. Sinfonian and others who are interested in juice and jelly-my friend (the Fruit Lady of this post) turned me on to steam juicing. It's how she processes and puts up so much fruit without losing her mind. She has 2 or 3 steam juicers now and I have one. She nabbed a few from family and friends who no longer wanted them and found the rest (including mine I believe) at thrift stores. If you make a lot of jelly, juice or syrup it is really worth keeping your eye open for a steam juicer. It makes extracting juice from everything from blackberries to pears a snap.

  8. This reminds me of the old women that gather the chestnuts on the campus of Villanova University. When I was a student, I looked at them like they were crazy. Now, I see how smart they were. They probably sold them for a pretty penny!

  9. Wendy D. says:

    Wow, lol, we picked potatoes this last year in the finest gleaning fashion and didn't even know it!

  10. Please ASK BEFORE you help yourself to someone else's property. We sacrificed and worked very hard for many years to buy our farm. Traditionally, the things that grow in the ditches belong to the landowner. Land costs many thousands of dollars per acre, plus the cost of fencing and maintaining the fences and gates, plus, often, the landowners on each side of a road have to help pay to pave the public roadways. We seed, fertilize, and mow the pastures, and often trespassers like you leave our gates open, our expensive livestock get out and may cause a wreck on the highway, you pick our fruit we had plans for, you trample the grass, tear up the plants, fish our ponds, and on and on. We share the bounty of our farm with our large family and friends, and when you steal from us, our work was for naught. Just ask! We let strangers pick things when they ask, within reason, but if you show up and decide to just take it, we will ask you to leave politely, but if you don't, you might get to meet your local sheriff's deputy. It is called STEALING, not gleaning.

  11. @Anonymous: She did state at the beginning that they ask or leave notes with contact information and a request. The berries up the driveway was an example of an accidental trespass. She has not in any way stated that she takes the fruit from the hard labor of another without asking. She asks for what people don't want or don't wish to gather themselves. There is a big difference.

  12. While I totally agree with anonymous about asking permission before harvesting on someone else's property (which I think you made clear), if it's in the public right-of-way it's a free-for-all whether the property owner planted it or not. It's nice to ask, but it's not stealing if you don't. The same goes for fruit trees/shrubs that have made it over to your property even if the main plant is on your neighbor's property.

  13. Anonymous,

    I am so sorry you've had such negative experiences with trespassers. I would certainly agree with you that opening the gates to someone's farm and fishing in their pond, etc. is just not right.

    I imagine that someone being so disrespectful to your property and the hard work you've put into your farm would be quite shocking and hurtful. I feel that way when someone shows up to my blog, takes a post I've written entirely out of context and leaves an anonymous comment accusing me of theft.

    I fear your prior negative experience with trespassers may have caused you overlook the first part of this post, where I state that my gleaning friend asks for owner's for permission to glean. To clarify, she doesn't pick without permission and neither do I.

    There has been only one time I'm aware of when she (or I) have picked on private property without permission, and I detailed it in this blog post because it was an accidental incursion that, frankly, terrified me. In no way am I encouraging people to trespass in the name of gleaning.

  14. Lisa Linderman says:

    Anonymous, it sounds like you're pretty bitter from past experience, and I'm sorry people have invaded your space and stolen from you. That's disheartening, especially when you put in a lot of work.

    What I don't get is why you're taking out your (apparently justified) anger here in particular. The blog post was pretty darn clear that Fruit Lady gets permission first. The picking up the driveway was an accident, and was handled amiably and to mutual satisfaction. The rest is just a discussion of wasted fruits and how great gleaning can be. As for whether things growing in ditches belong to the landowner, ask the city. They will tell you that within a certain distance from the street, it's basically public in many areas. Out here, blackberries are like weeds, and those bramble piles along side roads are not maintained by anyone but the county coming along to mow them periodically. Sometimes, in those bramble piles, you find the entrance to a long driveway which looks like a gravel road, so I can see how one might lose track of where they were. That's a far cry from vandalism or purposely going through a gate.

    Not a single person made mention of anything condoning trespassing or stealing or doing this in the dead of night or being entitled to someone else's property. Why aim your bitterness here, where it does nothing but put a serious damper on some building enthusiasm for a sustainable, community-friendly practice?

    "Trespassers like you"? Who? Where? Because they picked up a drive by mistake? "You" pick our fruit, "you" trample the grass? Pretty serious accusations based on no evidence at all. I know you didn't mean these people literally, but that's the language you chose, and it's unwarranted. I'm sorry you don't have the actual perpetrators at hand to blame, but that doesn't make responsible gleaners the problem.

    Gleaning is something of a local tradition here. We have gleaning organizations that work with farmers and landowners to glean thousands of pounds of post-harvest fruits, unwanted fruits and nuts, and amounts too small for mechanical pickers to bother with. The food goes to the gleaners and to the food banks, and the farmers and land owners get a useful cleanup duty. You say you let people pick within reason, but generally gleaners aren't looking for fruit the family will use, they're looking for leftovers and unwanted stuff. If you have a use for it, decline instead of adding to your resentment.

    I hope no one else gets scared away from the concept of asking for permission to glean by your response to what had been a positive thread. Though you say "just ask", potential underlying hostility like yours is one of the reasons I personally don't ask to glean. I will glean if someone offers, or if someone else has permission and just needs labor, but I won't just ask, because too often I read the veiled resentment behind the "yes" answers.

  15. Im still working on finding places that I can do that. But I have gone blackberry picking in the woods next to me and along my lane and also on a friends farm. We recently went mushrooming in her woods too. I asked her if she has elderberries and she said she thought she did. So next yr. if I get lucky Ill be doing that too. She did give me several pumpkins and I have a few I bought too so its way more than Ill use. So I told her how I do it and freeze it and she liked that idea. So Ill be doing some for her too.

  16. I didn't really read "anger" in the comment by Anonymous, just a statement of facts and a reasonable request.

  17. We have a harvest rescue here. People phone a cordinator because they have fruit they can't or don't want to pick and pickers get an e-mail with the details.
    Otherwise the bears come and trash the fruit trees while becoming habituated to humans and other bad things.

    I LOVE gleaning! And I don't have to ask permission….. People thank me for taking their fruit.

  18. I guess I have been “gleening” for quite a while. As a 12 year old kid, I have to say I did “hit” a couple of gardens to grab a big fat tomato, running away as fast as I could, only to sit on a “red ant hill” to eat it! Yikes! Nowadays, I ask. For instance, I have looked out my kitchen window for years and watched the crows drop these huge walnuts from the power lines to the road to crack them open. Finally, last year I asked my neighbor if she was doing anything with those beautiful walnuts. She said, well no, she sweeps them up and puts them into her yard waste container! What?? Really? May I please harvest the ground fall and I will trade for yummy baked goodness. Yes, she says! She got goodies and I got lots of beautiful walnuts (and stained fingers). Looking forward to doing it again this year!

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