Taken to the Gleaners

September 26, 2010

So here’s a recurring theme: tomatoes. It’s getting near the end of tomato season in Michigan. I just finished a wonderful meal of whole wheat pasta covered with some fresh tomatoes lightly sautéed with green peppers, garlic and onion in olive oil. Add a little organic mozzarella, open a bottle of Italian Valpolicella  and enjoy. For dessert, I made a special trip for cottage cheese to go along with one of the three heirloom tomatoes we have left. See “Fat Elvis” for the details.

Tomato distributions for the Thornapple CSA have probably ended, though diligent (or in my case desperate) members can still come out to Appleschram Farm and do a little gleaning. (I must say, I’ve loved that word for a long time. I look for occasions in which I can mention gleaning in casual conversation. I’ll talk about gleaning discarded manuscripts I’ve written for forgotten gems (not that I ever find any), or I’ll dig deep in the produce drawer of the refrigerator gleaning for soup fixings. Unfortunately, most of them are already a bit moldy, thus not fit for gleaning. And when I’m in the mood for a real stretch, it’s “gleaning on the everlasting arms,” or “Look at all that mold in the refrigerator produce drawer! It needs a good gleaning.”)

Actually “The Gleaners” is a famous painting by Jean-François Millet. It depicts three peasant women doing stoop labor in a harvested wheat field. They are going through the stubble looking for grains of wheat that fell from shaft as the stalk was scythed and bound into fagots or loaded onto wagons. I seem to have fallen into an “art” thing over the last couple of weeks, but I promise to avoid deep existential messages in this particular case. This is a beautiful picture, allegedly an inspiration to Vincent Van Gogh, and pretty straightforward in it’s depiction of a classic farming scene that was probably repeated every autumn throughout Europe for several centuries.

However, Millet’s painting is ambiguous about who actually benefits from the gleaning. I always thought that the peasant women were scrambling for little bits of usable food that were missed by the official harvest. And I suppose that I used to think that they were like the farm families of the American Midwest that I knew well: Pa had done the main harvest and was probably busy doing the threshing before bagging the grain and hauling it into town to sell. Ma, on the other hand, was out there gleaning because these family farmers are hard workers who would not want any least little bit of grain to be wasted. And like a lot of mid-century farmers, I tended to assume that bits of grain eaten by the crows or field mice would indeed be wasted.

A lot of my youthful assumptions about this scene are questionable. First of all, it doesn’t actually look nearly so bucolic to me today. As an environmentally sensitive guy, I’m ready to leave a little for the crows and mice. My use of the phrase “stoop labor” above is another tip-off: this is not joyful harmony with nature.  Neither of these thoughts would have occurred to me in looking at reproductions of this painting when I was growing up. What’s more, it’s not at all clear that these women are working on their own land. It’s quite likely that they are working for a landlord. They may get to keep a share of the crop, but their share will be determined from what’s left after all the other bills are paid. And what about that gleaning, anyway? Is there any chance that these women will be able to keep the meager pickings they manage to salvage from the harvested field? There are a bunch of wagons being loaded in the background of Millet’s picture, and this suggests that gleanings and all will be part of the landlord’s take.

A websearch on gleaning turned up this definition: Harvesting for free distribution to the needy, or for donation to a nonprofit organization for ultimate distribution to the needy, an agricultural crop that has been donated by the owner. But as my musings above indicate, it’s questionable that the gleaner’s of yore were engaged in a charitable pursuit. Agriculture has changed a lot since Millet worked in 1857, and not all of those changes are to be regretted. These are some things to keep in mind when you make the trek out Appleschram this week in a gleaning quest.

Paul B. Thompson is the W.K. Kellogg Professor of Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University

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One thought on “Taken to the Gleaners

  1. Fantastic blog! I definitely love how it’s easy on my eyes and the details are well written. I am wondering how I can be notified whenever a new post has been made. I have subscribed to your rss feed which need to do the trick! Have a nice day!

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