By Tara Kelly
There is untapped potential in the fields of the greater Rutland region. Good, nutritious, tasty food could be in the hands of hungry people from Wells to Fair Haven to Rutland if a few more good hands were available to glean (harvest for donation).
Growing vegetables and fruit for sale is a tricky business. Unpredictable weather, pests, and volatile markets are just some of the complicated factors that lead farmers to plant just a bit more than they plan to sell. The unsold lettuce at the end of a farmers market or the row of green beans that overproduced creates an opportunity to feed more people. But, there is only so much a farmer can do. Choices range from turning the crops under to put organic materials back into the soil, feeding extra produce to animals on the farm (making for some happy pigs), or donating the produce back to the community.
The third option, the one farmers would most prefer when the crops are good, is also the most difficult to accomplish. Everyone knows that there are not enough hours in the day for farmers working full tilt all summer long. RAFFL’s program ensures farmers have a reliable resource to call on, people are mobilized in quick order, volunteers have the training and supplies to handle the job, and good communication is established with food programs around the county where we deliver the donated produce.
The Glean Team (formerly known as Grow a Row) has always relied on a number of creative partnerships. Grace Church has organized volunteers, Green Mountain College has shared resources critical to the operations of this program, Thomas Dairy and Wellsmere Farm have lent cooler space, Hannaford has donated boxes, the Rutland Area Food Coop has donated storage space, Williams Hardware has donated supplies, 22 farms have donated produce, and many, many individuals have contributed their time. When the Vermont Foodbank opens its satellite distribution facility in Rutland, we anticipate partnering with them as well.
Another important partner is Salvation Farms. Theresa Snow, director of Salvation Farms, is a passionate advocate for long term food security and food independence. For nine years she has operated an effective gleaning program and helped RAFFL, as well as others, to start gleaning as a complement to our work to reconnect and strengthen our local food system. RAFFL’s partnership with Salvation Farms is an example of collective impact. For example, earlier this spring Bill Clark (longtime advocate for RAFFL’s work) called to say he’d been in touch with Perry’s Potatoes just over the border from Poultney in Hampton, NY. Perry’s has donated potatoes to RAFFL’s program each year, but this year was unprecedented. They had nearly 3,000 pounds of potatoes that were starting to deteriorate. They wanted to donate while the potatoes were still good or else, Kevin Perry said, the cows would be happy to eat them.
RAFFL’s volunteers took a few hundred pounds, sorted out the rotten ones, and bagged them for distribution to food shelves and meals programs around the county. Then, we called Salvation Farms. Salvation Farms picked up the remaining 2,200 pounds and brought them to the Southeast Correctional Facility in Windsor. Inmates on a special work program organized by Salvation Farms sorted and bagged the remaining potatoes and within a day all of those potatoes were delivered out to charitable food programs in Vermont. This is the power of partnerships.
Theresa and I spent a day and a half last week driving around the county meeting with farmers who have donated produce to our program over the past few years. The purpose of our visits was to plan for the coming year. With Theresa’s expertise and coaching, the conversations went from “happy to work with you again this year” to a true spark that led to many creative ideas for how RAFFL can be of even better service to farmers in the process of collecting excess produce for donations. There is a real, untapped potential for moving food from farms to people who have emergency food needs. In order to accomplish this, RAFFL is scaling up our services this season. We will continue to pick up unsold produce at the Saturday farmers market in downtown Rutland and pick up bulk amounts of food from area farms. We are expanding our capacity to do more harvesting. We need more gleaners.
Gleaning is fun and rewarding work. RAFFL’s Glean Team is a chance to see food production at work and gain a deeper appreciation for everything that goes into it. We get a day in the sun (or rain) where it is easy to see what has been accomplished by the end – crates of food ready for delivery to people who need it.
The efforts of these many volunteers do not go unnoticed. I’m told by the folks we donate to that people recognize and appreciate it when fresh farm produce is available to them. Not only are they receiving more nutritious options than they might otherwise, but they receive the gift of knowing that neighbors are taking care of neighbors – that their local farmers and community care. Join RAFFL’s Glean Team. Call 417-1528 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Tara Kelly is the Executive Director of the Rutland Area Farm and Food Link