Ironically, "gleaning" may prove as valuable to us as a philosophy and a state of mind -- as it is for the tonnage of food actually salvaged or the number of winter larders enhanced...

Colorado gleaning party 08

Gleaning, Dumpster Diving and a Philosophy of Farming

by Daniel Botkin

Recent AP pre-Thanksgiving news coverage of food gleaning: (Charitable Colorado farmer invites public to gather unharvested crops -- and tens of thousands show up!)

colorado gleaning party

“…Everybody is so depressed about the economy," said Sandra Justice of Greeley…. "This was a pure party! Everybody having a great time getting something for free..." Justice and her mother and son picked 10 bags of vegetables.

Gleaning of course is an ancient practice by which people go out and collect, salvage, consume and/or otherwise utilize unpicked crops left behind in the field -- whether from weather anomalies, variable economics, the lack of timely help or the vagaries of mechanical harvesting. But "gleaning consciousness" can inform all walks of life and be excercized to creatively transform school kids gleaning beansothers' "garbage" of all types including furniture, clothes, building materials, art materials, even epiphanies, insights, joys and friendship....

Personally, although I never suffered chronic food privation or hunger, there's always been a powerful allure of "free food". Whether it was those early, all-you-can-eat grease joints along the interstate, or the gustatory glee of the college "potluck" -- or those beloved seasonal fruit orgies beneath plum, peach and pear thickets I learned to time on both coasts… As a child, I recall, sitting for hours with my best friend scheming bizarre and unlikely ways to "crash" strangers’ sumptuous parties -- not, mind you, to meet and greet the cool and popular, but rather to get at all the free food, of course! I was hardly being starved at home, and this was not merely pre-pubescent gluttony speaking.

On Dumpster Diving and "Freegan" Food

mango score on city streetLater, the same fascination with so-called "free food" led me into dumpster diving, freecycling and "farming the fringe" activities wherever I lived or traveled. Ultimately my passion for free food and "creative recycling" of "garbage" led me toward a life of compost making, organic farming, heirloom seed saving and permaculture. Funny that!

I began my "gleaning" career in earnest behind the Albertsons supermarket in Santa Cruz. It was 1976 and I was 19, on a hitch-hiking pilgrimage around America. I was waiting near the store for a friend, when I noticed a bunch of hippies were gathered around (and inside!) a huge dumpster, passing perfectly intact and apparently unspoiled food and produce of every ilk out to waiting hands – indeed, cases and cases and cases of it. The sight of all that perfectly good food, sitting there piled high on the pavement blew me away. My eyes bugged out and I asked a stupid question. They all laughed at me and kept working. My life took a big turn that day -- and I have never been the same since....

Aaron and Lyndsey unload goat salvageThis streetside dumpster epiphany melted some of the taboo against garbage picking that I (and most middle class Americans) grew up with. A certain threshold of righteousness and anger helped to overcome such strong social conditioning. Once over that barrier, I became a enthusiastic, opportunistic dumpsterer, using my keen eye and late night bicycling jaunts to discreetly glean the day's supermarket offering wherever I lived or happened to be passing through. The Pacific Northwest, full of amazing seasonal fruit and produce of all kinds, became for me, a free food paradise...

But as a poor college student in Olympia, Washington in the late 70's and early 80's, dumpstering became more than just a bourgeois sport. I and my confederates made a weekly dumpster schedule, divided up the labor and began sharing the surplus at a neighborhood "depot". We used bicycles or a borrowed pickup for late night missions and our methodology and our attitude grew more business-like and systematic. We dressed for the job and brought work gloves. We no longer cautiously picked tempting tidbits from the top of the heap, but rather systematically "mined" the entire contents of the dumpster, removing all valuable, unperished items before replacing the rest.

free food, always a hit...

Every old freegan foodie must surely recall their most legendary dumpster haul. ...There was that glorious Safeway on the west side of Olympia, which single handedly fed dozens of jolly transients one summer in David Heller's tipi meadow. Then there was the Dog Brothers' infamous Oak Harbor haul we scored (even though we needed nothing) while bike touring north to the San Juan Islands in '80. That dive was so robust and rich (including produce, fruit, juice, yogurt, cheese, spuds, dry goods...) that we could only carry away a small fraction of it and instead carried it all around to the parking lot and left it piled there with a big "FREE FOOD" sign. freegan bread line

Then there was the time I got arrested in West Olympia and hauled away in handcuffs for... yep, dumpster diving. Luckily my comrade, Rob Vogel got some timely cash from the ATM and passed me bail as they put me in the cruiser... (I still had to walk five miles back in the dark from the police station when released, charged with criminal mischief at the next morning. (Luckily my bicycle was still at the store, safely stashed in the brush along with the huge boxes of dumpster loot for my trouble.)

Those who've been privy to the immense waste stream in the American food industry know that food wasted in dumpsters is but the surface of it. Supermarkets routinely toss pallets of perfectly edible stuff, yes. But so do cafeterias, schools and restaurants. And food service and catering companies waste tons daily. At this date, even the local food coop, for crissakes, has a lively flow of rich green waste, headed for landfill. And household food waste in America is still astronomical. We don't need an expensive study to tell us so...Come to find out, when you study the situation, waste is actually built into every step of industrial food production, distribution and consumption. And that's not even considering the biggest waste of all, which is that... most of the industrial food "product" is, in urban dumpster diverfact, "garbage" to begin with...

Serious food gleaners, perhaps, dive headlong into random dumpsters less often than we used to. Nowadays, many supermarkets have long since sealed their dumpsters, due to liability, "efficiency" and other concerns, and thus the best days of some garbage hounds have ended. Instead today's serious salvager might arrange with a sympathetic grocer to more orderly haul away boxes of said "waste" for our goats, pigs or other livestock...

The gleaning impulse continues to show its potential in many walks of life. Whether in town or on the farm, lifelong food gleaners keep it up, day after day, even knowing that such post-market salvage doesn’t really address the deeper, systemic issues of industrial food commodities and their built-in carbon emissions, poison runoff, abusive labor practices and assorted waste.

Buried within each of our family trees is an older, tribal memory, the timeless recollection of hunger, yes even famine. Isn’t that also partly why tens of thousands drove out to a Colorado farm around Thanksgiving to glean remnant leeks, spuds and carrots abandoned in the field?

Eli Rugosa of Growseed.org wrote me to offer a greater historical context to the phenomenon of gleaning

Nathan gleans beans“The traditions of Ancient Israel were rooted in a belief system that the land and produce did not belong to any individual. It was believed that the people and the land were one meta-being. Just as a good organic farmer today feeds the soil to feed the plant, the ancient Israeli believed that they must feed the poor and hungry to feed the plant. If not, the earth itself would suffer hunger and not yield its abundance. Consequently a rich body of community tradition evolved to protect gleaning and land rights..”.


Digging deeper you’ll find out gleaning has accompanied virtually all farming for millennia, on every continent, with countless millions depending on it for their seasonal sustenance.

And there's something else today about gleaning, above and beyond the raw value of salvaged food (or hay, bricks, lumber, etc). Today, gleaning may also end up serving us in unexpected ways:

elderly lady gleans cabbage

neighborhood food salvage creates community and security ...it affords us a sense of doing right, as in helping out the farmer, one another, the planet, reducing waste, etc;

...it connects us more (including the landless and non-growers) to soil, plants, Nature and her cycles;

...it provides us a visceral, tactile experience of bounty beyond what we may experience in daily life;

...it offers us a more hopeful, creative, activist response to today's crises and dilemmas.

In this last sense gleaning emerges as one of the world's oldest forms of agricultural "value adding", the brilliant strategy of enhancing or reworking pre-existing resources, crops and/or products to a higher level of utility, value or attractiveness. dinosaur kale remnants in  January hoophouse Berries become jam; milk becomes cheese; knowledge becomes vision: stories become legends...

Gleaners as Missionaries

Personally, I like to think of gleaning as a form of"targeted recycling" -- only with a missionary’s edge. The world is full of salvage, yes, but which wreck, which rescue, which sad sack, rotting case is really worth our time and energy? Which rescues are actually viable, sustainable... and which ones will help us salvage and heal the planet? Of course, it's the discernment factor that's key, otherwise you're forever distractable by whatever flotsam and jetsam floats your way.

dumpster haul loaded in trunkFeeding hungry people has always been the most powerful catalyst of gleaning activities. Feeding people, and teaching people to feed themselves... and healing the planet, of course , are elevated goals and should indeed be the drivers of our greater "Gleaning Mission".


Gleaning precious foodstuff is an ancient, ubiquitous practice. But we must also transpose its brilliant logic to other commodities routinely wasted, like energy, clothes, lumber, bricks, books--even friendship, hope, time and good ideas! A quick look around reveals just how many good people and good ideas are also left bruised, forgotten and squandered in the field! Ideas like community economics, organic agriculture and effective world government. Ideas like sustainable energy, conservation and Peace... Gleaning and reviving such crucial, but overlooked simple truths-- as well as an assortment of lost souls -- may end up being the only real “rescue package” that can work.

What began for me (dumpster diving) as an exciting sport and political statement has morphed over thirty years time into a pragmatic and utilitarian philosophy of life and of farming which still informs our lives and work. Among other things, gleaning has taught us not to reflexively overlook the seemingly "remnant", "small", “rotten” and “dead”, to revisit the “over-ripe”, the unwanted and the used -- and to prize the ugly, anomalous and out of date. Gleaning reminds us to be more curious and open to people that seem odd, different in appearance, class or world view. Gleaning reminds us that plants and food, in all their stages, like people, are sacred and should never be taken for granted. The news around the world does not reflect that sanctity. But experience shows there are untold riches to be gleaned, nearly everywhere, though some caked in ignorance and mud, yet hidden from view.


winter hoophouse at LDFFarming and Gleaning

remnant chard and leeks in January 09 hoophouseSo, what does gleaning and dumpster salvage have to teach us in the realm of sustainable farming?

I've long been fascinated by the numerous and varied ways of extending living food crops into and through the cold New England winter... using hoophouses, coldframes... and the cold hardiest varieties including many brassicas, alliums and leafy greens...

A more recent epiphany came, however, about where to get those hardened-off (trans)plants for potential overwintering... Because it is sometimes challenging (busy summer schedules, counter intuitive timing, heat...) to get fall plantings germinated and well established before the cold sets in, I've taken to considering the perennial possibilities of our typically "annual" veggies by gleaning my own garden for winter transplants.

This fall, before the hard frost, I went around gleaning my own farm of still-green, living brassicas, leeks, lettuces, chards, beets, celeries. Laughing over the irony of the gleaner gleaning himself, I lifted from the ground any still-alive, cold-hardy stumps, runts and assorted leftover plants that I could find --and transplanted several hundred of them like sardines into raised, January 09 hoophouse with surviving leeks and chardpermanent beds in our 65' backyard hoophouse. This kind of wholesale, bareroot transplant of large, established plants is something I'd never attempt in summer's heat, due to transplant shock and their extreme tendency to bolt. However, in the cold, moist soil conditions of fall I've witnessed little of either one of these problems. No shocking, no wilting, almost no bolting.These assorted cold-hardy plants have now yielded a slow but steady autumn and winter's worth of delightful, nutrient-dense greens. We've plucked and pruned and eaten away most of them. Every single week we've adored the sweet chard and kale and beet greens. These remnant greens have wilted and frozen multiple times through January, but have remained steadfastly alive, nonetheless.

And now, with February only days away, experience tells us they are about to burst back to life with the warming light in this unheated greenhouse.

winter beet greens in hoophouse It's as if the cold season offers us a free pass to "rearrange and revitalize the furniture". What in the past I'd write off and abandon as the soon-to-be-dead, worthless dregs of summer (broccoli stumps, runty leeks, languishing chards and kales, frost nipped lettuces...) suddenly hold new promise to survive and produce (albeit modestly) through the winter, and, in some cases, to burst again back to life in late February (and then bolt). Even the ultra-hardy Asian greens, some leeks and kales, which on a good year can sometimes indeed survive unprotected outdoors, do so much better indoors, in the hoophouse.

gleaned January hoophouse greansWhat most people don't realize is that it's the wind, not the mean temperature that's the dealbreaker for winter survival. Even if the interior of the hoophouse freezes solid at times, many of these remarkably resilient plants have the capacity to "defensively wilt" or even to freeze totally solid and/or go semi-dormant. When conditions improve they bounce back from (near) dead, time after time and continue to slowly grow. It's quite remarkable to think about. And what's more, as many folks know, one of the unplanned side effects of this repeated frosting is to sweeten them dramatically such that raw beet leaves, tatsoi, arrugula, spinach, turnip and baby chard, (greens which I usually find coarse and unpalateable in summer) all become candy sweet salad material in the cold winter, unheated hoophouse. A January stir fry of our own coldhouse bok choy, chard and dinosaur kale has the intensity of flavor and vitamins to transform like a potion.

finished stir fry of hoophouse greens, January 09 The other hoophouse epiphany is that, since we're really just "tucking in" these remnant plants to store and preserve for winter we don't really have to give them much space (or heat, or light... ) at all, at least not yet. So in our 65' x 26' unheated tunnel there are already hundreds of variously sized leeks, garlics, lettuces, kales, beets, turnips, onions, chards, broccolies, etc, hunkering down... and still room to tuck in more! Turns out that October and November are pretty darn good growing months -- inside the hoophouse.

Now there are definitely going to be caveats with this self-gleaning, plant recycling method
(like pest control issues, high labor inputs and spring bolting...) But the fundamental idea here of gleaning what is already alive and of thereby shifting the paradigm of vegetable production as a "one and done", warm weather affair, to more expanded growth cycles and harvest windows -- holds great and growing interest to all of us backyard permaculturists, discerning foodies and salvage fanatics...

Ironically, when all is said and done, "gleaning" may prove as valuable to us as a philosophy and as a state of mind -- as it is for the tonnage of food actually salvaged or the number of winter larders enhanced... Let us glean forward together!


chard, parsley and celery leaves from January hoophouse
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