Local gleaners share farms’ bounty

Volunteer gleaners Christian Sweningsen, Anna Victoria, Sophie D’Anieri and Karen Wilson at work in a field. Photo contributed

GERMANTOWN—Today “gleaning” refers more often to gathering information than produce. But the 14th-century meaning of the word, to gather overage or leftover produce, is active in Columbia and Dutchess counties through the efforts of Long Table Harvest.

Long Table Harvest began its work just last fall—collecting unsold or un-harvested produce from local farms and distributing it to local food pantries. Today it counts as partners 40 farms and 31 distribution sites.

This is not the poor scrabbling in the fields for leavings after the crop has been harvested. While there are some “public gleanings,” the type of gleaning practiced here involves volunteers who harvest crops in the fall that farmers know they won’t get to. The volunteers then turn over those crops to Long Table, which distributes them.

“This is a community effort,” says Audrey Berman, co-founder and director of Long Table. On the one hand, LTH is a one-woman show, with Ms. Berman writing grant applications and hosting fundraising events in the winter and delivering vegetables in the summer.

On the other hand, “we’re so reliant on human capital,” she says. Farmers are not paid for the produce they donate. At best they may be eligible for a tax break beginning in 2018. “I’m grateful to them and to the food pantry volunteers who meet the truck and to community members who contribute, whether they come out on a glean or make a cash donation.”

Brenda Blanks (center) receives food for the Mt. Zion Food Pantry, which she runs at Bliss Towers in Hudson. At right is Emma Gregory, also works the food pantry. Audrey Berman, founder and director of Long Table Harvest, is at left in the rear. Photo contributed

Even Long Table’s backstory is brief. Ms. Berman, 31, grew up in Chicago and came to New York City for college. She graduated from the Cooper Union School of Architecture, where she already knew that food was important: her work centered around creating shared spaces using food toward meaningful connections.

After college, she worked part-time for the Greenhorns in New York City, which supported new farmers in the United States. They were also based in Hudson, and Ms. Berman connected with farmers in this area. She spent three full seasons farming vegetables in Columbia and Dutchess counties, still working winters for the Greenhorns.

“I learned a lot about the nonprofit farming world,” she says. It became clear to her that “the ideology that I, and many young people, brought to farming wasn’t necessarily fulfilled through the business side of farming.

“Farmers struggle to make a living,” she says “and their offerings are still inaccessible to many people. That’s no fault of the farmer—they want their food to be accessible to everyone—or of those living without surplus wealth. It’s part of a much larger systemic problem.”

In any case, she observed, “the food grown doesn’t all go to people.” Some goes back into the soil for nutrient recycling. Farmers also have to grow more than they can sell, explains Ms. Berman, a sort of 20% insurance policy against damage by pests and weather.

For herself, she came to a point when “I realized I could not start my own farm. How else to stay involved? How could I address the problem of getting fresh food to those who needed it?

“My challenge, that I set up for myself, was that if the farmers spend so much time and care on this produce, and it’s edible, why not get it to people?”

At that point, she met Laura Engelman, who was working with the Hudson PROMISE Corps. Prior that, she had run a gleaning program in Washington State. There, in 2013 she recovered 55,000 pounds of fresh produce from area farms and distributed it to four food banks.

The two became partners in the LTH endeavor. “It was the right time and the right place, says Ms. Berman. “Laura was willing to take the plunge with me.”

Ms. Engelman has since moved to Denver, where she is pursuing a master’s degree. But what she helped start thrives. Through her grant-writing efforts, Ms. Berman, who lives in Germantown, is able to work full time for LTH. The endeavor also has a part-time assistant, Heylan Tsumagari, who grew up in Red Hook and apprenticed at the Hawthorne Valley Farm. This summer Ms. Tsumagari drives the cargo van. Mondays are the busiest days, when she will work a nine or ten-hour day delivering the gleanings to the food pantries.

“It’s a long day to be driving and handling produce, which is so perishable,” Ms. Berman says from personal experience. In September and October, “when the quantity gets even more significant,” the two may make van deliveries together.

Wednesdays the two staff their pop-up shop in Hudson, selling produce on a sliding scale pricing system.

Long Table is fiscally sponsored by the Hawthorne Valley Association so that it can receive tax-deductible donations. The Berkshire Taconic Community Foundation is the largest donor. Long Table is part of BTCF’s Fresh and Healthy Food for All, a five-year initiative in Columbia County, of which Long Table is in its second year.

The Seafood Buying Club, which launches August 17, is part of the BTCF grant. “We spent a year talking to a group of seven Hudson residents about food—what they needed, what the challenges were,” says Ms. Berman. “Seafood was a universal issue, regardless of ethnicity or economic background.”

In an effort to reduce the logistics and risk, club members order their fish and pick it up in Hudson. Order forms can be picked up at Bruno’s, 227 Warren Street, or downloaded from the club’s Facebook page. A tiered pricing system is based on household size and income.

Next year’s project, still in the exploratory stage, is a mobile market, which would travel all around Columbia County.

In the meantime, “we have to stay efficient, stay thoughtful, balance the farms and the pantries,” says Ms. Berman. “There are a lot of different needs. That’s what I learned this year.”

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