How Gleaning Could Reshape the Farm Economy

Each year, farmers like Joe Tisbert of Valley Dream Farm in Cambridge, Vermont, are challenged with finding an outlet for their surplus crop. Surplus crop is defined as the food remaining after a harvest that cannot be sold on the market, or which cannot be harvested. As a result, farmers make less revenue for the season, but it also poses a potential loss of food for people in their communities.

Farming is the genesis of our food supply, and it’s an industry that is wracked with labor shortages, weather impacts from climate change, food waste, price volatility, and unequal distribution of land.

In response to some of the challenges that some Vermont farmers face, one Vermont nonprofit organization, Salvation Farms, which is not a farm, is devising ways to work with farmers to manage their crop surplus and get it to people who need fresh produce.

Salvation Farms co-founders, Theresa Snow and Jen O’Donnell, piloted their model in 2004, which centered the agrarian practice called gleaning. Since ancient times, poor people or travelers would visit local farmed fields, whose owners would leave small sections of their land to be harvested, or gleaned, by those with lesser means. Snow, who now sits as the executive director of Salvation Farms, learned about gleaning while she was serving in AmeriCorps in the early 2000s on a farm in rural Virginia. She grew up with parents who Snow described as “modest homesteaders” and with grandparents who owned a dairy farm, and she says her upbringing was very rooted in home and land-based economies and not “just a monetary commerce-based economy.”

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Theresa Snow learned about gleaning while she was serving in AmeriCorps in the early 2000s on a farm in rural Virginia.. (Photo from Salvation Farms)

Theresa Snow learned about gleaning while she was serving in AmeriCorps in the early 2000s on a farm in rural Virginia. (Photo from Salvation Farms)

AmeriCorps later transferred Snow to New York City, where she was tasked with helping families and individuals who had lost their jobs, homes, and loved ones in and after the 9/11 attacks. There, Snow realized how far people were from meeting their basic subsistence needs.

“What I experienced providing service—essentially casework to individuals who are seeking support—was that these individuals had no ability to meet any of their essential needs because they had fully bought into a monetary economy,” said Snow.

Snow maintains this was not just an issue for people in metropolitan areas, but also in her home state of Vermont, where people could be just as removed from their food sources. After her time in AmeriCorps, Snow moved back to Vermont and returned to working on a farm. She struggled with what to do with her life and when asked by a farmer where she really wanted to put her energy, she said that she wanted to teach people about farming. On that farm, Pete’s Greens, she devised and tested the plan for Salvation Farms.

“I want to teach people about farms, I want to teach people and communities that, through relationship and appreciation with farms, we can have more personal and community agency,” Snow said. “We can have more control over meeting our needs.”

The United States has more than 2 million farms. According to the USDA, agriculture, food, and adjacent industries contribute $1.11 trillion to the U.S. economy. Of that amount, farming produces $136.1 billion. Snow, along with staff and volunteers at Salvation Farms, help farmers such as Tisbert find a place for their surplus food.

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Valley Dream Farm sits on a 300-acre tract made up mostly of streams, pastures, and woods, with 10 to 15 acres reserved for growing food. Its main crops are potatoes, cucumbers, and kale, which are sold through three channels: its own farm stand, wholesale buyers such as groceries, and a cooperative, Deep Root Organic Cooperative, which sells farmers’ produce to other food cooperatives, CSAs, and some grocery chains like Whole Foods.

The sign at Valley Dream Farm in Cambridge, Vermont. (Photo from Salvation Farms)

The sign at Valley Dream Farm in Cambridge, Vermont. (Photo from Salvation Farms)

“It’s great to grow something and say, ‘Wow, I really like to grow this little one. I like to really grow this and sell it and try to make a living on it,’” Tisbert said. “Well, you’ve got to find a market. Everybody has to have a niche. People are trying to figure out where to go. How can I sell it?”

That’s where Salvation Farms comes in.

“When I can’t market the product, I have Salvation Farms,” said Tisbert, who has been working with the organization since 2006. “They show up, and I give them things that I can’t sell in a timely manner. I need to get it out the door because I need my space.”

Salvation Farms is part of the Vermont Gleaning Collective, which consists of a number of organizations that glean throughout the state.

For some farmers of color, such as Amber Arnold, gleaning is not something her farm uses now. Arnold, who identifies as Black and multiracial, has other considerations in establishing her farm’s practices.

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