Economising via Gleaning. Ancient Practices for Today’s World

Item in THE ECONOMIST,  Christmas Special, entitled Gleaning. The return of gleaning in the modern world. How much can an ancient practice do to alleviate hunger?”

AT THE SALON in Paris in 1857, Jean-François Millet exhibited a painting called “Des glaneuses” (“Gleaners”). It caused a scandal. Millet had long made a point of painting peasants at their labours, but this big canvas was his strongest provocation. Into a decorous world of silks and parasols it introduced rough women, plump in their homespun skirts, rumps in the air, grubbing for ears of grain dropped after the harvest. One critic complained of “ugliness and…grossness unrelieved”. Another said it made him think of the scaffolds and pikes of the Terror of 1793.

Millet had seen the women differently. He found them dignified, doing their work in a sanctifying late-summer light, companions to his peasant “Angelus”. In this, as well as their humble roughness, he caught the essence of gleaning.

To begin with, it is not scavenging. To scavenge means to search for things that others have discarded, as children rummage for plastic bottles and phone parts on the rubbish tips of Delhi. Nor is gleaning foraging, which is to gather foodstuffs from the wild, as fashionable restaurateurs scramble for chanterelles and samphire. Nor is it scrumping, which is stealing, usually on a dare.

Items which are gleaned are the good and usable fruit of human activity; they have not been discarded, merely overlooked, or thought not worth bothering with. In Henry Mayhew’s exhaustive, wonderful chronicle of the Victorian urban underclass, “London Labour and the London Poor” (1851), his equivalent of rural gleaners are the river-dredgers who, when coal is accidentally dropped from a collier-brig, fish down to find it. In a striking analogy with rural gleaners in their ploughed fields, one tells him that “there’s holes and furrows at the bottom of the river…I know a furrow off Lime’us Point, no wider nor the dredge…[where] I can git four or five bushel o’ coal. You see they lay there.”

In less wasteful and more straitened times, the yield was small: grain for the hens, one sack for the miller. Nervous authors called their books “gleanings” to stress their insignificance and fend critics off. These days, what is gleaned has slipped beneath the notice, or the need, of giant retailers and the capabilities of giant dust-raising harvesting machines. Sometimes the weather leaves a crop unsellable: after the searing summer of 2018, many apples were smaller than supermarkets would accept. Some 20-40% of fruit and vegetables, according to gleaning campaigners, are rejected by British and American supermarkets on purely cosmetic grounds: the demand, for example, that courgettes should look identical. In America, about 2.7m tonnes of “ugly” produce is thrown out every year.

Modern Westerners who are happy to pick produce in the fields all day (in Britain, chiefly Eastern Europeans) are in short supply. But many harvesting machines leave behind perfect low-hanging tomatoes or strawberries in their beds. One grower of blackcurrants in Sussex, whose fields are regularly visited by gleaners, reckons that machines get only 60-80% of his crop. Businesses may go under, too, abandoning the crops in the field. Agnès Varda’s film “The Gleaners and I” (2000) documents the stripping of a whole unharvested vineyard before birds, or wild boar, move in. Whatever the cause, the modern yield may be substantial. The principle, though, is the same: if all is to be gathered in, the most efficient tools are the sharp human eye and the delicate human hand.

Rights and rules

Unlike scavenging and foraging, which tend to be individual enterprises with commercial potential, gleaning has almost always been communal and charitable. Its roots lie in the allocation of fair shares between individuals. The leavings of prosperity, the unneeded or overlooked fragments, are made available to those who need help, whether in dole at the monastery gate or from a sacking bag filled in a harvested field. Millet’s gleaners were engaged in a task reserved for paupers by the local commune; in the background, the regular harvest is being stacked up in abundance.

Unlike scavenging and foraging, which tend to be individual enterprises with commercial potential, gleaning has almost always been communal and charitable

The right of the poor to glean had biblical provenance. “Thou shalt not wholly reap the corners of thy field, neither shalt thou gather the gleanings of thy harvest,” said God to Moses in Leviticus 19:9-10; “…neither shalt thou gather every grape of thy vineyard; thou shalt leave them for the poor and stranger.” In Deuteronomy, a sheaf forgotten in the field was to be left “for the stranger, for the fatherless and the widow”; and “When thou beatest thine olive tree, thou shalt not go over the boughs again.” The Book of Ruth in the Old Testament tells the story of literature’s most famous gleaner, a pauper and an alien in Judah who so enchanted the landowner, Boaz, that he instructed his reapers actively to help her: “Let her glean even among the sheaves, and reproach her not: And let fall also some of the handfuls of purpose for her, and leave them.” Ruth’s gentleness and humility did much to give gleaning, and the allowing of it, a colour of holiness.

Much of medieval Europe accepted a right to gleaning, but carefully. This was no free-for-all, and the rules remained intact, in some places, until the 20th century. A “guard sheaf” would be left in a field to protect it until the harvest was complete. When this was removed a bell signalled that gleaning could start. And when the bell rang in the evening, gleaning stopped. The morning bell rang on the late side, at eight or nine, to give busy households time to get ready. All had an equal chance to gather their share.

Gleaning was also a significant part of the income of peasants and villagers, perhaps as much as one-eighth of annual earnings in central and southern England in the 18th and 19th centuries. But as the open fields were increasingly enclosed, farmers worried about damage to crops and simple trespass on what was now private property. When Mary Houghton went gleaning in 1788 on the fields of James Steel in Suffolk, she ended up in court, with a judgment that gleaning was a privilege, not a right. Mr Steel had no obligation to let her gather ears of corn; it was up to him whether he would kindly let her.

Mary Houghton undoubtedly thought gleaning her right. Whether she thought it a privilege is harder to say. Traditionally, perhaps because it required tidy-mindedness rather than physical strength, gleaning was left to women—as were other backbreaking tasks, such as turnip- and potato-picking, or ridding fields of stones. (Some insist that gleaning isn’t really gleaning if no stooping is involved.) Working in prickly stubble, often in fierce sun all day, was arduous. But there was good company, and the children could glean too, carefully picking up straws in bunches of 20 or so, with the ears out, then tying them with their own stems, like little bouquets. The gleaners of literature were imagined carefree, singing as they worked and weaving cornflowers through their hair. The old woman H.E. Bates observed in Northamptonshire in the 1930s, “the last survivor of an ancient race”, as he called her, “moving across the field under the mellow sun, nipping up the ears in her quick hands, shaking her sack”, was too busy to notice flowers. Nonetheless she looked “eternal”, as natural in the landscape as the birds.

In France the Code Pénal still states that gleaning is allowed “from sunrise till sunset…when the harvest is over.” But no one seems to know the rules, especially as there is almost no gleaning for grains any more. The oyster-pickers filmed by Ms Varda off the Atlantic coast glean around the commercial beds after storms, but how closely, and how many they may take, are hotly debated questions. The gleaners she finds elsewhere are often lone scavengers, mostly the very poor, who are as likely to root through supermarket bins as to wander hopefully through fields. The most poignant throwback to older ways comes when a clutch of muddy village children, gleaning potatoes near Arras, burst into a chorus of “Lundi, des patates, mardi, des patates, mercredi….” With the breakdown of old community patterns, old-style organised gleaning has gone out, too.

Not many songs, but scattered chat and laughter, are heard in the fields at Maynards Fruit Farm, in East Sussex, on a warm day in June. The farmer has invited the Sussex branch of Britain’s Feedback Gleaning Network, the country’s largest, to pick what is left of his rhubarb crop. Persistent rain has made the crop come on too early, and he needs to clear the field to let more come through. In effect, this time, the 15-20 gleaners who arrive are harvesters rather than clearers-up. The principle seems the same to them.

Gathered by Facebook

These days there is no summoning bell. Instead, a perky alert comes by tweet or Facebook post: “Bracdrop [cabbage glean] at Wigden near Canterbury. Be there at 9…Over and sprout.” The Sussex Gleaning Network alone contains 900 names. The people at Maynards come mostly from Brighton, the nearest city; almost none are from the countryside, and this is normal. Gleaning is now an urban and green preoccupation, requiring toilets, parking and travel expenses. The gleaners are dressed for work in jeans and walking boots, but need instruction on how to handle the small, sharp knives with which they will trim the stalks in the field. The acreage is not large, but after bending to pick rhubarb for six hours, they are tired. In return they find fun and comradeship in the open air, and pride in the stacks of stuff they pose with afterwards.

Cutting waste is the gleaners’ first motivation, but poverty comes a close second: other people’s, rather than their own. By government estimates, 10m tonnes of food goes to waste in Britain each year, 70% of it thrown out by ordinary households. Britain is the chief offender in the EU, which in total chucks 89m tonnes of food away. Meanwhile around 20% of Britain’s adults, and 14.5% of America’s households, are classed as “food insecure” in some way, unable to get nutritious food as often as they need it. Few, on either side of the Atlantic, have tried to guess how much fresh produce rots before it leaves the field. But farmers who took part in a Vermont Food Loss Survey in 2016 estimated annual vegetable and berry loss at 16%, and a British farm-waste survey by Feedback in 2018 came up with a figure of 10-16% across all crops, “in typical years”.

Set against the waste, gleaners’ efforts seem a drop in the ocean. In most years, Feedback gathers around 100 tonnes of produce. But every little helps. Gleaning has again become an adjunct to more organised social welfare. And, in some places, there is still a religious flavour to it. In America the Society of St Andrew, the oldest and biggest gleaning operation, draws 40,000 gleaners mostly from churches, synagogues and other faiths (including Islam), making the biblical basis explicit. Both there and in Israel, most gleaning is run by faith groups.

Calls for gleaners now target the young and fit from a wide area, but there are exceptions where local, neighbourly help is paramount. One gleaning programme in Oregon takes in only members whose household income is at or below 200% of the federal poverty guideline; all, therefore, are poor, and many are elderly or disabled. Some “adopt” people who are physically unable to glean themselves and share their gatherings with them.

The gleaners see themselves as noble agitators. They mount “rescues” to “save the veggies”; they talk of an “Arable Spring” and a “Glean Revolution”. They eagerly calculate how many people could be fed each year if everything was saved, and employ just-in-time logistics. Getting produce from the fields to tables in charities, hostels, shelters and lunch clubs requires a fleet of sometimes refrigerated vans. In Britain, FairShare, which has about 20 branches, runs the vans; the fruit and veg are then used by Foodcycle, a national charity, to make meals for needy people, mostly in cities. In America, the Society of St Andrew distributes 9000 tonnes of food a year to a network of pantries serving the urban poor. The gleaner network of south-central Pennsylvania alone counts 120 “community partners”. Such networks are growing.

Could gleaners get more? Undoubtedly. Field gleaning relies, as it always has, on good relations with farms. But those most open to the idea are small, family-run businesses, not enterprises of scale. Farmer psychology can be difficult, and some feel ashamed to call in gleaners, as if it is an admission of failure. Others dislike the thought of half-trained workers in their fields. Gleaning is sometimes best offered as free help: workers for Maine’s Gleaning Initiative will do other jobs too, such as sorting squash.

Gleaning could be more urban and suburban, and in some places it is. Around Silicon Valley in California, Village Harvest, founded in 2001, gleans citrus from gardens, backyards and old orchards. In Britain garden-gleaning is confined mostly to Hackney, a now-hipster (and mostly gardenless) part of East London. Pickings from such places give a lean return for the labour involved. Again, gleaners need to break into the world of big producers who care less about waste. They also need to persuade big supermarkets to tolerate imperfection. Both Morrisons in Britain and France’s Intermarché now sell wonky veg—“inglorious” ones, as Intermarché happily calls them.

In America, where only about 10% of available edible food is recovered, worries about the cost of charity have also held back gleaning. The America Gives More Act of 2015 allows a permanent deduction for farm businesses that welcome gleans of up to 15% of taxable income. But legal caveats about trespass and damage can be fierce, and laws covering gleaning vary greatly from state to state: the east and west coasts broadly welcoming, the heartland much less so.

Inglorious glorified

The scale of the practice may have changed out of all recognition, but the philosophy—almost a theology—of gleaning remains the same. It completes and expands the harvest, so that the greatest possible number can share in it, especially the poor. It appreciates, and makes full use of, all that man and nature between them have provided. Community ties are strengthened by it. Beyond that, the act of gleaning can enrich in particular ways. Each gleaner, as in a religious service, enters not only the experience of the group but also an individual world of gathering and quiet accumulating. Gleaning can become contemplative, almost mesmerising. In this attitude of humble seeking, the harvest can be of thoughts, images and understandings, as much as food.

On a balmy October day the Sussex gleaners have assembled again, this time at the orchard in Stanmer Park. Some will do actual harvesting; others will do real gleaning, tidying what falls, or has fallen, on the ground. The fruits, seedling Bramleys, have been left to turn red and sweeten. They glow against a perfect sky.

No one is in a hurry. They do what they can, working methodically round a tree or a patch, feeling the netting bags grow heavy round their necks. It is very quiet, the loudest sound the thud of apples in the long grass. The words “waste” and “revolution” rise out of some conversations. Other talk is of crumbles and cream. Under one bent old tree, two girls in headphones stop work and start dancing.


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