By Chris Peterson
Early on an unusually chilly and damp August morning, cars start lining the one-lane road at the OSU Lewis-Brown Horticulture Research Farm off Peoria Road, east of Corvallis. Women (mostly) emerge from the vehicles, putting on an extra sweatshirt, jacket or hat against the damp chill. They gather their boxes or containers and head to the group gathering under a tree where Dave Bryla welcomes them back. These are gleaners from throughout Benton and Linn counties back for their sixth blueberry picking this summer.
Bryla, a research horticulturist, looks like he’d be at home on a beach with a surfboard, his face tanned and hair sun-bleached from working among acres of blueberry plants. Most of the gleaners this day know him from previous gleans. They listen quietly since each pick is a little different. Today they’re to pick certain rows, but not the bushes on either side of posts. Attention must be paid. They’re to keep count of how many containers they pick since all the berries will go into flats to be weighed, then redistributed according to how much each person picked. Green and shriveled berries will be kept in separate buckets so they, too, can be weighed. Yield and condition of the fruit is important since Bryla’s work will determine which irrigation and fertilization methods are most efficient and effective for commercial blueberry crops. By noon, they will have picked about 800 pounds of blueberries just today.
After a few questions and confirmation of instructions, knots of people head to the designated rows and get right to work. Heads are barely visible as people kneel or sit on upended buckets to pick. Soft “plinks” fill the occasional silence between conversations as berries hit plastic containers, or a softer “plunk” if they’re dropped into cardboard boxes. Occasionally, full containers are lifted over the rows to the person closest to the flats, then someone sorts through, removing leaves, and green or shriveled berries. Snippets of conversation or bursts of laughter locate clusters of workers. Strangers, such as myself, are welcomed into conversations as we pick. A few adolescents and teens work alongside their families, enjoying conversation that flows easier when hands and eyes are busy. Not surprisingly, the topic is often related to harvest, preserving, or gardening. Many of the gleaners are - or were – gardeners. Some had to give it up because of a move to a place where it was no longer feasible, health or age made it increasingly difficult, or because they simply don’t have time to tend a garden once gleaning calls start. The calls are often unpredictable and sometimes require the harvest be done immediately, eating up many a day, evening and person’s energy on a moment’s notice. Then, the harvest must be distributed and preserved. Humans may have a little control over when crops are planted, but crops determine human schedules when they’re ripe.
Bryla says the gleaners will be back at least one more time this season to help pick. “The gleaners have been doing a great job,” he said. “There’s no way we could have picked all the fruit ourselves. They have always been very cooperative and it’s a pleasure to have them.” The project, a joint effort between the US Department of Agriculture and Oregon State University, comprises over 4,000 blueberry bushes. The fruit, considered one of nature’s most nutritious, will find its way to hundreds of local tables.
|Gleaning groups in Benton
and Linn Counties
|Alsea Valley Gleaners||Alsea|
|Canyon City Gleaners||Mill City|
|Mid Valley Gleaners||Albany|
|Mary’s River Gleaners||Corvallis|
|North Santiam Gleaners||Scio|
|Philomath Community Gleaners||Philomath|
|Central Valley Gleaners||Halsey|
|South Benton County Gleaners||Monroe|
|Sweet Home Gleaners||Sweet Home|
|For more information contact:
Susan James, Coordinator, at 752-1010 or email@example.com
Though the folks at this glean represent most of the 14 groups throughout Benton and Linn counties (see sidebar), they are but a tiny fraction of the approximately 5,500 members of these two counties. Some today are volunteers who don’t qualify as gleaners, thus can’t take any of the blueberries home, but enjoy the work and camaraderie. They may be friends or neighbors of gleaners, or members of a church or service group. To qualify
as a gleaner your family must be at or under 200% of the federal poverty guidelines. The number of people who qualify, not surprisingly, is increasing. Anyone over the age of 12 is
welcome to share in the work of gleaning.
Gleaning groups are well organized. They have to be. The smallest group has 65 members, the largest has over 600. All but one have their own 501(c)3 tax-exempt status. The one without is Philomath, which is a program of Philomath Community Services. Each group abides by state and federal regulations, and their agreements with Linn-Benton Food Share and the Oregon Food Bank. Each group determines the amount of dues members pay. If someone cannot afford dues or make donations they cannot be removed from a group or denied food. Able-bodied gleaners must put in at least 8 volunteer hours per month and are expected to go on two gleans a year, though most do several more. Not all members are physically capable of gleaning. Those who are share what they glean with Adoptee Families.
The Mary’s River Gleaners in Corvallis, for example, have annual dues of $30, which are used for such expenses as printing, copying, bags and gasoline. They cannot be used for food. Groups raise funds separately through fundraisers or grants to pay for food, such as that which they re-pack at Linn Benton Food Share twice a month with all other gleaning groups. In summer and fall, members often glean several times a week. All food is collected and redistributed at their building off the bike path near the intersection of Philomath Boulevard and 16th Street. Through grants, fundraisers and many volunteer hours, they have built shelving and tables and purchased refrigerators and freezers. There are currently 106 Adoptee households and 48 gleaning households, totaling 352 people.
Throughout the year, all groups pick up food from grocers and bakeries on a weekly basis to redistribute.
Susan James, coordinator of the food and wood gleaners for Linn-Benton Food Share, a program of Community Services Consortium, is the only full-time staff person overseeing gleans in the state. She provides training on grant-writing, fundraising, board training, food safety, donor relations, field training, plus federal and state regulations and all required paperwork. The coordinators of each group meet monthly in Corvallis. At the aforementioned bi-monthly re-pack at the Linn-Benton Food Share warehouse in Tangent, 16,000 to 18,000 pounds of frozen vegetables and other foods are re-packed every month into family-size portions for distribution.
In 2008, gleaners in Linn and Benton counties gleaned over 2 million pounds of food that would otherwise have gone to waste. That’s the equivalent of several orchards and fields, plus rows and rows of grocery store shelves. While most Americans have no idea where the food on their plates comes from, gleaners know. Their resourcefulness is what makes any harvest they participate in far more efficient and complete than even the best machinery could possibly accomplish.