Noah Kellerman, owner of the organic Alprilla Farm in Essex, once tried organizing a gleaning party, gathering a group from his parents’ church to pick leftover crops from his fields for donation to a local food pantry. But he found it too much of an undertaking.
That was before he was introduced to Waltham-based Boston Area Gleaners Inc. The group, which offers farmers an organized volunteer work force that can be summoned in a matter of days, has spearheaded a surge in gleaning — the practice of harvesting excess crops from a farmer’s fields for distribution to the poor that dates back to biblical times.
From the North Shore’s Alprilla Farm to Brookwood Community Farm on the Canton-Milton border to a Waltham farm on the property of Gore Place, gleaning is catching on in the suburbs, thanks to the nonprofit group.
Last year, the decade-old organization reaped record amounts of freshly picked produce — 88,694 pounds of fruit and vegetables — which it distributed to fight hunger through food bank and pantry partners.
Converted into 4-ounce servings, the annual amount translated to 354,776 servings, according to Laurie “Duck” Caldwell, the group’s executive director.
“We can help many, many people with one day’s work,” said Caldwell.
Founded in 2004 by Arlington resident Oakes Plimpton, Boston Area Gleaners organizes volunteers, sometimes on only one to two days’ notice.
Timeliness is important, said Emma Keough, market and food access manager at Brookwood Community Farm.
“It’s really critical people show up, and we’re not waiting two weeks,” Keough said. “They are really responsive.” Brookwood’s partnership with Boston Area Gleaners began two years ago after farm manager Maggie Pounds learned about the group.
“We’re growing really intensively,” Keough said, “so there’s only a small window to pick excess crops in order to give us time to turn over the land and plant a new crop.”
Frequent group e-mail blasts alert a list of 800 volunteers to gleaning opportunities. Gleaners meet, then carpool to a designated farm, and over a few hours, harvest the seasonal crop — strawberries and peas in spring, corn in August, and root vegetables in winter.
After enough boxes of produce are harvested to fill a van, the day’s pickings are driven directly to local food pantries and shelters.
Social networking and old-fashioned word of mouth are helping spread the word, both to farmers and people interested in volunteering.
Kellerman learned of Boston Area Gleaners through a posting on a farmer’s listserv.
“We’re happy to provide the raw materials,” he said. “Boston Area Gleaners provides the ‘missing link,’ ” referring to the free labor that gleaners provide to pick his mustard greens.
Impressed by one gleaning session last season, he’s already invited the group back four times.
Scott Clarke, a farmer who oversees the landscape and farm at the nonprofit Gore Place, more famously known for its historic house museum, started row crop farming a decade ago.
“We’re a late-season farm,” said Clarke, “so we grow a bit of everything — heirloom tomatoes, eggplant, green beans, a couple of different winter squash, plus summer squash and zucchini.”
Already familiar with Boston Area Gleaners, serving briefly on its board early on, he called the nonprofit after noting that he often had a surplus after farm stand sales and feeding the pigs and sheep.
The crops donated are of high quality, he stressed, but “in some cases, it’s just not worth it for us to pick. There’s either not enough quantity, or no market for it,’’ because of overabundance. “For example, summer squash. Every farm has it.”
Gleaners are a diverse group — 20-something students, full-time employed people looking for an outdoor volunteer gig, and retirees in their 80s. (Gleaners ages 13-18 must be with an adult). This year alone, Caldwell says, another 150 volunteers have enrolled.
Todd Kaplan of Somerville signed on four years ago after hearing about Boston Area Gleaners “through the grapevine.”
Averaging a dozen gleaning sessions a year, Kaplan, a legal aid attorney at Greater Boston Legal Services, has gleaned mostly on farms west of Boston — Dick’s Market Garden in Lunenburg, where he’s picked kale, tomatoes, and green peppers; Kimball Fruit Farm in Pepperell, which has offered the group first pick of apples; and the Food Project Farm in Lincoln.
The gleaning nonprofit “moves an inordinate amount of food that would otherwise go to waste into the hands of people who really need it,” Kaplan said.
Lynn Langton, a North Andover resident, says her immediate reaction to learning about gleaning in a newspaper article three years ago was “I want to do that!”
“I’m a recycling nut, so I’m for anything that takes stuff out of the waste stream,” she said. Langton also loved the idea of being outside and the end use of the produce.
“It’s such a high-quality, fresh product. It’s unbelievable.”
An enthusiastic gleaner, Langton, who shoots for a half-dozen trips a year, tells her friends “it’s the best volunteer job ever. There’s no pressure. You can volunteer once a year or 50 times a year. Whatever works for you.”
Even her 17-year old son, Ben, has joined her. “It’s gives us a chance to talk,” she said. “He loves it, too.”
Matt Crawford is Boston Area Gleaners’ coordinator, a one-man command central for all the gleaning trips. Caldwell says she plans to hire more regional coordinators by fall.
Many gleaners only manage to make one trip a year, which is fine, Crawford says, while others glean five times or more a year. A dedicated core group gleans about once a week.
“We like to have as many volunteers as possible,” he said, “so we can cover every day of the week.”
According to FarmFresh.org, there are 1,000 farms in Eastern Massachusetts alone, says Caldwell. In 2013, 27 of their 40 partner farms contacted them to glean.
“The potential of an organization like Boston Area Gleaners is amazing,”says Clarke. “There are so many farms, small like us. We continue to increase the poundage [donated] every year.”
Already about 10 farms in communities north of Boston have been added this year, Crawford says, despite the fact that farmers gain nothing from it except the satisfaction of helping others in need. Currently, Massachusetts does not allow farms a tax write-off for donated crops.
But Kellerman is still keen on gleaning. To fellow farmers interested in opening their gates, he advises: “Look for low-hanging fruit. For us, that’s greens. For others, it’s root crops. Whatever you have a lot of.”
Highlights from the 2013 Boston Area Gleaners annual report:
88,694 pounds: total fresh fruit and vegetables gleaned
64%: Increase over 2012
354,776: Number of 4-ounce servings/people fed
22%: Increase in volunteer gleaners from 2012
1 in 10: Food-insecure (lacking reliable access to affordable, nutritious food) residents in Massachusetts.
SOURCE: Boston Area Gleaners