MIDCOAST — Each year, thousands of pounds of produce languish in gardens and farms around the Midcoast.

Maybe there was no one there to pick those vegetables and fruits. Maybe there was so much, it couldn’t all be eaten before it went by. Or maybe people just got tired of eating zucchini every single night for a month.

Regardless of the reason, Merrymeeting Gleaners solved two problems with a simple solution. Food pantries and soup kitchens are always looking for more food – especially fresh produce – and fresh produce was often looking for mouths willing to eat it.

“Gleaning” is the act of collecting leftover crops from fields after they’ve been commercially harvested, or when it isn’t profitable to harvest. The first-ever Maine Gleaning Week will take place from Oct. 7 to Oct. 16, with communities preparing to glean participating farms for fresh produce.

Gleaning week involves the Downeast Gleaning Initiative, Merrymeeting Gleaners, Central Maine Area Gleaners, Unity Food Hub Gleaners, Cumberland County Gleaning Initiative, Lincoln County Gleaners, and UMaine Cooperative Extension Harvest for Hunger, and Master Gardeners.

Merrymeeting Gleaners started in the spring of 2016 when a group of Midcoast residents got together to start the project. The group has donated over 12,000 lbs. of fresh produce so far this year, and most of that was delivered with volunteer vehicles.

Michelle Rines was one of the founders, and got started after her experiences on the Merrymeeting Food Council. “I just kind of did some research and looked at some gleaning groups,” she said.

A Master Gardener, Rines knew there was produce out there available for donation. After meeting with some gleaners farther north in Maine, she helped start the program to glean in the Midcoast. Six Rivers Farm in Bowdoinham was among the first to allow gleaning on site.

Gleaners harvest beets at Six River Farm, Bowdoinham. Courtesy photo

“Our initial goal was kind of modest; we figured maybe four or five thousand pounds of produce,” said Rines. But the gleaners sourced 14,000 lbs. of fresh produce last year, the rough equivalent of 17,000 meals, and donated it to local organizations like Mid Coast Hunger Prevention Program, Bath Area Food Bank, Bowdoinham Food Pantry, Bath Housing, and more.

“Our goals last year were to kind of glean what we could then reorganize in the fall, then expand the program to see if we could have more recipients,” said Rines.

To that end, Kelly Davis stepped in as the volunteer coordinator for the organization, with the help of Zach Hebert, an intern from Bowdoin College. Volunteers can now be recruited for the various farms that participate. Typically, a farm will have produce each week that can be gleaned, with some “pop-up” events on occasion. Once produce is collected, it is weighed and recorded and brought to the organizations that need it.

In return for the farmers’ generosity, the gleaners created a program where volunteers help perform extra work for the farms. Recently, they went to Pleasant Pond Orchard to clean up pruned branches.

“We really want it to be mutually beneficial, because the farmers are usually so generous,” said Rines.

Multiple farms and organizations participate in gleaning, including Crystal Spring and Scattergoods farms in Brunswick; Goranson’s Farm in Dresden; Six Rivers and Fairwinds farms in Bowdoinham; Bath Farmers Market; Squire Tarbox Farm on Westport Island, and Pleasant Pond Orchard in Richmond.

Merrymeeting Gleaners Linda Coit (L) and Rebecca McConnaughey (R) deliver fresh produce from Scatter Good Farm to Bath’s Head Start kitchen. Photo by John Newlin

Food goes to 21 different organizations that feed people all over the Midcoast. “Most are receiving produce on a weekly basis,” said Davis.

Food banks are definitely grateful for the fresh produce. “It’s been phenomenal. The clients seeing the fresh tomatoes come in and the peas and beans, they get pretty excited,” said Kimberly Gates, who manages the Bath Food Bank and Kitchen Table. “It is stuff they can’t afford at the grocery store, and it’s stuff I can’t afford to purchase all the time.”

Gates commends the gleaner’s frequent communication with her to keep menu plans up to date. “I get emails from them every week. Sometimes they tell me what’s coming in so I can plan our lunches around that.”

The latest efforts of Merrymeeting Gleaners involves organizing increasing number of volunteers, but another problem – cold storage of fresh produce – was solved recently. The gleaners got funding to retrofit a trailer with an air conditioner and some insulation to create a “cool box.” The new trailer will be christened during Maine Gleaning Week.

To learn more about the Merrymeeting Gleaners, or to learn about volunteering email [email protected]. For more information about Maine Gleaning Week and other gleaning events, visit www.mainegleaningnetwork.org.