Produce to Spare
By Beth Lipoff for “The Fence Post”
August 24, 2017
Any farmer knows that harvesting crops isn’t just a simple sweep of a field. Usually, there’s something left behind, whether it’s produce that just got missed or extra bounty that’s not worth the effort it takes to pick it. In the Kansas City area, that’s where After the Harvest comes into the picture.
The food rescue nonprofit organization has established relationships with 167 farmers in Kansas and Missouri to allow volunteers to harvest unwanted crops and deliver them to local shelters and food banks, such as Harvesters, that serve 26 counties.
“We have paid staff that goes out and supervises volunteers. We’re very precise about what they can harvest and how they can harvest,” said Emily Worm, gleaning network manager for After the Harvest. “We have volunteer insurance and liability insurance, and that calms some fears farmers might have about letting strangers come and harvest their excess.”
A gleaning can be 60 pounds of spinach or 15,000 pounds of squash, and each time is different. Last year, After the Harvest gleaned 240,000 pounds of produce with its volunteers.
“Most of our farms are on the smaller side. They’re selling commercially to local restaurants or farmers’ markets,” Worm said. The produce they glean can be anything from blackberries to potatoes, tomatoes to turnips and everything in-between.
On a recent rainy Saturday in May, volunteers were out in the mud cutting bok choy, mustard greens and arugula at Lee and Klaus Karbaumer’s 17-acre Platte City, Mo., farm.
PRODUCE TO SPARE
Three of those acres grow vegetables, and the Karbaumers supply some local restaurants and sell directly from the farm, but they often have extra to give to After the Harvest.
It’s a small operation there, where the Karbaumers literally farm with three horsepower — the kind that eats hay — and they don’t have the time to go to farmers’ markets. Farming is a second career for both of them, although Lee grew up on a farm in Nebraska.
“We had extra produce, and we always wanted it to go to somebody who was hungry, and this was just the perfect match for us,” Lee Karbaumer said. “We have two small flocks of chickens. They’re the ones who get what we can’t eat or sell. It’s not a bad thing to feed the extra produce to the chickens, but we consider it immoral when it could nourish people who don’t have enough to each, and that’s why it’s such a good partnership with After the Harvest.”
She’ll call After the Harvest if “we have a whole row of radishes or kale that are going to bolt.”
Sometimes they will harvest it themselves, depending on the timing, and just have After the Harvest pick it up.
“I think it can be tough sometimes to line up when the farmer wants us to harvest and when our volunteers are available. There’s a fair amount of juggling with farmers. If they call me on Saturday and want us to come the next day, I try to convince them to wait until Tuesday when we have a group scheduled,” Worm said. “There’s more volunteers available on weekends, but that’s not necessarily when farmers want us to come, because a lot of them are at markets or doing other things on the weekend.”
Each farmer interacts differently with them too.
“Occasionally, (Klaus Karbaumer) will give us constructive feedback, (like) ‘I needed you to cut the spinach shorter’ or ‘I wanted you take more radishes,'” Worm said.
Another farmer, Joe Steineger of Kansas City, Kan., is “a little bit more hands off. He’ll usually tell me what field it’s in, and he trusts me to lead the volunteers. I don’t know if there’s really an average, every farmer and grower is so different in their personalities in how they grow and what they grow,” Worm said.
Worm is mindful that the farmers they connect with also want to make a living from their farms.
“We want them to sell produce. We want them to succeed and make a living, but a lot of times there’s stuff leftover that they can’t sell, and those are the things we want to get,” she said.
Lee Karbaumer estimated she and Klaus give between 900 and 2,300 pounds of produce to After the Harvest each year. Most farmers “don’t have time to try to find a food pantry or soup kitchen who will take their produce on an hour’s notice. What could be more perfect than someone who will pick it up and deliver it?” she said.
She also likes the interactions she has with the volunteers.
“We enjoy it. We get to meet new people, and they’re always enthusiastic. We usually try to find time for cake and coffee before they leave, if we can keep their produce cool for an hour or so,” she said.
Joe Steineger said he feels the same way.
“I meet the most terrific people through After the Harvest —doctors, lawyers, kids — it’s just been a magical kind of thing. I see people play in the dirt like kids,” he said.
Three and a half acres of his 700-acre farm is devoted to vegetables. Steineger said he used to raise greens and simply turn them over each year to use as fertilizer.
“One year, the turnips looked just beautiful, I thought it was kind of a shame when there’s hungry people, to plow it under,” he said.
HARVESTED AND HAULED AWAY
He called a local food bank and asked if they wanted his three acres of turnips.
“They said they’d love to have them. They said, ‘You’d have to pick them and wash them and deliver them.’ I said if I could do all of that I’d probably just sell them,” Steineger said.
After that, he called Society of St. Andrew, a predecessor to After the Harvest, and their volunteers came right out and harvested the turnips.
“A lady walked up to me (at a market) and said, ‘I don’t know you, and you don’t know me, but I want to thank you because my children would not know what fresh vegetables taste like if not for people like you,'” Steineger said.
There’s no minimum age for After the Harvest volunteers, but children under 18 need to have a parent or guardian with them, and there’s always a staff member from After the Harvest with the group.
“We encourage parents to bring their children. We’ve had 2-year-olds out gleaning apples. They don’t necessarily pick as much as the adults, but we think it’s important for them to get the experience,” Worm said.
During the growing season, After the Harvest organizes an average of three to six gleanings each week.
In addition to its gleaning program, After the Harvest also partners with larger growers out of state to bring in truckloads of excess produce to be distributed through the Kansas City food pantry Harvesters. Last year, that program brought in approximately 3.3 million pounds of produce to feed hungry people in the Kansas City area.
— Lipoff is a freelance journalist and photographer from Overland Park, Kan. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org (mailto:email@example.com).