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Glean Times

The light at Snow's Bend is best in the late afternoon.

We were there in late February, on what seemed like the first pretty day in months. Andy packed his camera equipment, hoping to take advantage of the sunshine and do a little filming at the farm. But, I had other motivations for being there - Margaret Ann invited us to come out and replenish our dwindling stores of vegetables, gleaning from the fields what was left from the week's harvest.

Gleaning is nothing new. The act of collecting a farmer's abandoned or unprofitable crops, gleaning began as agricultural law in many ancient cultures. Farmers were required to leave a portion of their fields unharvested, allowing the poor to gather the remaining crops. Today, gleaning has become the mission of many charitable and church organizations as an effort to provide food for the hungry and repurpose large amounts of food waste - both on the farm and in the supermarket. Traditional gleaning groups, like the Society of St. Andrew, work nationally with volunteers, growers, and distribution agencies to salvage and distribute this abandoned food (there is also a local SSA chapter in Alabama). It has been estimated that 40-50% of all food ready for harvest in the U.S. is wasted. The reasons vary, but much food loss on the farm occurs during harvesting. Some crops are left behind because they are blemished and uneconomical to harvest, and some are just simply missed. Standing in the fields at Snow’s Bend, I found it hard to imagine that David and Margaret Ann would abandon half their crops because of cosmetic reasons.

When we arrived, it was just beginning to spit rain, the sun darting in and out of the moving cloud cover. Without the leaves on the trees we could see the high red banks of the Black Warrior. The light shone through the barren branches casting a late afternoon glow on the landscape around us. What might have been considered monochromatic this morning was now ablaze with color. We drove around to where the hoop houses stood, just adjacent to the now empty bit of land where five Tamworth pigs made their home until late last year. We were among the lucky few to benefit from David and Margaret Ann’s first foray into livestock production and our freezer was now filled with rich heritage pork. I remembered meeting the pigs at the Harvest Party back in October. Friendly animals, they didn't seem to mind when Andy jumped into the pen with them (I decided against joining him and instead assumed the role of gatekeeper just in case an incident arose). Mostly, they just sniffed and followed Andy around; I think they were happy to have the company.

Pieces of a new hoop house frame blocked the road. Laid out and waiting to be assembled, the pieces were long and large, and it would likely take more than two people to successfully erect the new structure. We parked the car, and got out. In the distance, Margaret Ann rode the tractor, preparing the ground for new plantings. Not far from her, David walked row after row, seeding turnips, beets, and other cool weather crops with a wheeled push seeder. After saying hello, Andy set up his tripod and I took to the fields.

Snow's Bend is in transition right now. With winter waning, and the CSA set to start up in early April, David and Margaret Ann are beginning to plow and break ground for spring and summer crops. Even though the fields are mostly bare this time of year, the hoop houses are full of seedlings and preparations are well underway for the start of the main growing season. I made my way over to the remnants of the fall garden, where greens, despite a few frost-bitten edges, grew hardily, and I could jump between rows of carrots, broccoli, and cabbages. Everything but the carrots were up for the taking - they were still selling those to restaurants. But, Margaret Ann promised to hold some back for us. We'd already been buying vegetables from Snow's Bend all winter long, the exchange of goods often taking place downtown, behind the Bama Theater after a film. It was like dealing in narcotics, except our illicit holdings were root vegetables, with dirt still clinging. We often finished up our post-film discussions while holding bags full of turnips, potatoes, and carrots, attracting a few stares from curious moviegoers (My mind formulated a retort in case a comment was made: It's legal, I swear - and it totally beats going to the grocery store!) Our own garden provided us a considerable amount, but because of our higher than average number of freezes this year, the greens were unavailable for a lot of the time - encapsulated in ice, then weakened by the frost. And our carrots never fully formed. Now things were beginning to go to seed, and my diet was entirely too meat heavy.

A run of the mill serrated knife and a recycled plastic bag were my gleaning tools of choice. I walked the rows, making it my goal to harvest some of all of the green things growing in the garden. Asian mustards, tatsoi, arugula, collards, bok choi, broccoli, salad mix, and cabbages all made their way into my bags. While collecting a few beets, Margaret Ann unearthed a turnip as big – Andy pointed out - as a baby's head. The turnip had been overlooked somehow, and had stayed in the ground until reaching its current mammoth size. It was unlikely that the flesh would be any good now, but I decided to keep it anyway - for purely comical reasons.

By the end of the afternoon, I had filled four large bags full of vegetables - vegetables that would feed us for over a week. As the sun started to go down, the fields looked much the same way as they did when I had first arrived. They appeared to be untouched and unaffected by my gleaning. We lingered for a while, but soon it was time to go. Margaret Ann turned the electric deer fence back on, and we all packed up and headed home for the night.

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