Profiles: Senior Gleaners and Backyard Bounty

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Jan Riggenbach displays some of the backyard bounty that led her to start writing Backyard Bounty.
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The Senior Gleaners in action gathering surplus produce.

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.

Recently, Senior Gleaners expanded its base of operations with the addition of organized groups in Davis, Grass Valley, and Stockton, California. This effort has become known as Gleaners Statewide. Fahrner hopes the expansion will facilitate future hunger-fighting plans, including an Emergency Food Bank where social workers will be able to pick up a food supply that will “fill in” during the time it takes for a needy family’s welfare application to be processed (usually about three days). In addition, Homer envisions a program that he calls Brown Bagging, which will make it possible for any Food Bank member to come each week and fill up a sack from the network’s current gleanings.

Fahrner firmly believes his Gleaners hold the answers to a good many of today’s social problems. The group has, no doubt, already saved the government thousands of dollars in both medical and welfare costs for the elderly. In a youth-oriented society, Homer Fahrner and his Senior Gleaners are making it clear that the elderly are a useful, productive, and positive segment of today’s world.–Patricia Washburn.

Jan Riggenbach: Backyard Bounty

When Jan Riggenbach had to move to Omaha, Nebraska because of a change in her husband Don’s career, she knew she’d need some form of therapeutic activity to ease the strain of urban living. Jan chose backyard organic gardening. She was immediately successful in her new endeavor, and soon friends, neighbors, and acquaintances were eagerly asking, “How do you do it?”

“Eventually,” says Jan, “I realized that there were thousands of Midwest city dwellers who were interested in gardening but who could hardly tell a seed from a weed, let alone understand such oddities as compost and mulch. So on Christmas night, 1974 I sat down and wrote a sample gardening column. I called the feature ‘Backyard Bounty’ and mailed off copies to 50 Midwestern newspapers. The next week I returned from an out-of-town trip to find acceptances from five papers awaiting me, ranging from a county weekly in northwest Missouri to a metropolitan daily in the Great Lakes region.”

Today “Backyard Bounty” appears in 22 newspapers from Ohio to the Great Plains and has thousands of regular readers. (Jan has been labeled “the upper Midwest’s leading missionary for organic gardening” by one of her faithful followers. In the past 12 months she has received mail from more than 1,000 other enthusiastic fans.)

Of late, Jan’s gardening/writing career has expanded in a number of new directions: She has taught an organic gardening class at a local college, given talks and slide shows at local libraries and club meetings, and sold articles on organic planting and food preparation to regional and national magazines–including MOTHER EARTH NEWS! Jan also writes and publishes gardening pamphlets such as “Fruit Trees & Bushes” and “Canning, Freezing, Drying & Cooking”. Furthermore, two summers ago the Riggenbach family plunged into the truck farming business to facilitate the sale (and barter) of Jan’s organically grown vegetables.

In the spring of 1976, the Riggenbachs moved to an 18-acre homestead near Glenwood, Iowa, where they’re in the process of completing an energy-efficient home (with passive solar heat, a wood-burning stove, heavy insulation, space-saving built-in furniture, and a window greenhouse!). And in the midst of all this activity, Jan and Don set type for a new book: The Best of Backyard Bounty, which is a compilation of Jan’s favorite gardening tips from the first two years of her newspaper column.

“None of my enterprises will ever make me rich,” Jan says of her many
endeavors. “But I’ll always have the wealth of the good food I’ve
learned to grow, the new friends I’ve acquired through my gardening
column, and most important of all the MOTHER EARTH NEWS way of
life!”–Jack L. Sommars.