Profiles: Senior Gleaners and Backyard Bounty

This installment of an ongoing feature looks at Senior Gleaners, a California group that distributes free food, and Backyard Bounty, a syndicated newspaper column about organic gardening.

| July/August 1979

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    Jan Riggenbach displays some of the backyard bounty that led her to start writing Backyard Bounty.
  • 058 profiles - senior gleaners2.jpg
    The Senior Gleaners in action gathering surplus produce.

  • 058 profiles - backyard bounty.jpg
  • 058 profiles - senior gleaners2.jpg

In celebration of little-known MOTHER EARTH NEWS-type folks from all over.  

Homer Fahrner: Come Glean With Me

Seventy-six-year-old Homer Fahrner is a retired-stockbroker-turned-forager. Along with 1,700 other elderly folks, he spends his time working as a "Senior Gleaner."

The Gleaners—part of a network of non-profit groups that systematically locate and distribute free food throughout the state of California—grew from a newspaper ad that Fahrner placed in a Sacramento paper some three years back. The announcement stated that Homer would hold a meeting which would attempt to deal with the hunger problem if he received at least 20 calls in support of such a move. Hundreds phoned in their interest, and the first meeting was promptly scheduled.

From this gathering grew the Senior Gleaners. They began their campaign by driving through Sacramento asking residents for permission to pick the extra fruit from backyard trees and bushes. Before too long, however, the group was called upon to deal with its first big-time haul: A truck carrying 7,000 loaves of fresh-baked bread had gone out of control in high winds, and the delivery could not be made. After several unsuccessful attempts to resell the goods at a profit, the truck line unloaded the bread to Fahrner's Senior Gleaners. Homer then distributed half the windfall to Gleaner-type organizations in Santa Cruz. Those groups reciprocated with two tons of cauliflower and 1,000 heads of cabbage.

Fahrner's foragers are quite accustomed to acting on a moment's notice when there's word of free food. The scrounged goods are stored in the organization's schoolhouse-turned-warehouse until they can be picked up by charities or distributed by the Gleaners themselves. The Sacramento County Farm Bureau now encourages its members to turn all their excess crops over to the Gleaners instead of feeding the surplus to hogs. (Fahrner's teammates go out into the fields themselves and gather the overripe, blemished, or odd-sized produce that has slipped through the cracks of the marketing system.)

Last year a local fish hatchery offered the food hunters some 1,200 pounds of fresh fish if the group could pick up the seafood by dark. The scroungers also reaped the benefits of tons of ripe melons that would have been plowed under had they been just one hour late to glean. Twenty-five tons of onions—unmarketable because they were too big for hamburger buns—also became a part of the Gleaners' haul, as did a large load of walnuts that had been knocked from trees during an unexpected storm and peaches with cracked pits and oversized fruits that had been rejected by a local cannery.

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