So there I was, hurtling along the West-Tisbury-Edgartown Road in my 1948 red Willys Jeepster convertible, the wind blowing in my hair, sun shining on my face and 200 pounds of patty-pan squash riding comfortably along with me in my open-air vehicle. Was this a dream, had I robbed a farm stand or was I planning to feed famished friends? No, no, and well, maybe, sort of. Let me put on the brakes and explain. (Don’t worry, the squash are securely boxed. I installed seat belts. And the Jeepster is not that fast.)

A few days prior, I tried to operate a DVD for Noli Taylor of the Island Grown Initiative to explain her efforts at a meeting of the Martha’s Vineyard Democrats. Unfortunately, I am a technological novice, and Noli had to forgo the DVD. Instead, she gave an endearing, engaging, energizing explanation to eager Democrats about IGI and local efforts to connect farmers with Islanders, through the schools, through beekeeping, through a Vineyard slaughterhouse project, a poultry project and gleaning.

Gleaning, you ask? Isn’t that some 14th-century program where serfs pick through the fields of the manors to find a bit of sustenance, a leftover turnip or forgotten grains? Right! And we have gleaners on the Vineyard in 2011? Right again! You’re starting to follow the thread of this tale.

Three days after the meeting of the MV Democrats, I received a “squash alert” from Jamie O’Gorman, IGI gleaning coordinator, inviting me to join a group of volunteers to pick squash. Now I’ve picked blueberries, strawberries and even raspberries, but never squash. And it’s one thing to mouth support for a cause; it’s quite another to wade into a field of prickly, floppy squash plants and actually put my hands and feet where my heart is. Especially when Jamie’s e-mail indicated some 1,500 pounds of squash had to be distributed. Hey, I do the body-pump class at the Y; do I need to heft hundreds of pounds of squash around under the broiling sun?

But then I found myself with a dozen compatriots in the back forty of Morning Glory Farm in Edgartown. Our assignment, as explained by Jamie, was to harvest the patty-pan and zucchini squash from several rows. Morning Glory had already picked all they could sell at their stand; the rest of the crop was to be plowed under, because there was nothing else the farmers could do with it.

We set to work. Kelly was a volunteer who eagerly picked the first squash. Uma was in her third week, and initiated me to the experience. At first I felt a bit like a migrant farm worker or feudal serf, but the experience grew on me, as I picked pound after pound of fresh, yellow squash, and carted box after box off the field. A dozen fellow gleaners were likewise engaged in this effort to preserve and protect a crop which would go to waste if not for our energies.

Some of the workers are interns at the Farm Institute. Katie Mayhew loves the program and is happy to be part of the gleaning project. “The student workers from the Farm Institute have been such a great help these last few weeks,” Jamie wrote in an e-mail. “They really boost our numbers and make it possible for us to harvest as much as we have.”

In a little over an hour we harvested more than 600 pounds of squash; another contingent brought in 145 pounds of lettuce. (FYI: bags of lettuce are lighter than boxes of squash, so if you have back issues, I’d head for the lettuce.) All this produce was rescued in a morning’s work! A sense of exhilaration permeated the group as we assessed the mounting display of our efforts, spread out under a shady tree.

Jim Athearn, proprietor of Morning Glory, strode by to see the fruits of our labors. He notes that people say it’s a waste to plow all the excess veggies back into the fields, but he cannot use the product. He supports IGI’s efforts to harvest unwanted vegetables and put them to good use. In his understated manner, he’s not looking for praise or fame, he’s doing what he can to help the community. “And I’m impressed at all you volunteers, willing to do the work,” he said with a smile.

Jamie was already on the next leg of the project, sorting the crop, boxing, then assigning delivery of the product. Hillside and Woodside Villages were on the list. The Wampanoag Tribe and several senior centers use the produce for meals for elders. Two Island schools take the vegetables and process and freeze them for later use. The Edgartown house of correction was on the list. It was an orderly distribution of 1,000 pounds of Vineyard vegetables, going to people who could use it. (The 200 pounds I transported to the Oak Bluffs School was processed the next day into 27 gallons of squash. I don’t want to hear that Oak Bluffs students don’t like squash!)

The day’s harvest exemplified living locally, helping feed those in need, and taking advantage of volunteers or interns to accomplish a worthy goal. It was a rewarding experience: fun in the sun and we got the job done.


For more information about the gleaning program, contact the Island Grown Initiative or Jamie O’Gorman at 508-687-9603 or Volunteers are welcome.