Five miles north of the Adel town square, off of highway 169 at the entrance of what is now the Dallas County Human Services Campus, loom two massive, 30-foot pear trees.
The trees sit on land that used to house the Dallas county “poor farm” until it was renovated into office space for several health and human services departments in 2016.
County “poor farms” could be found across Iowa in the 19th century . In an effort to help care for the state’s dependent population, Iowa passed the “Poor Law” in 1847. This system of facilities/farms housed those with physical or mental disabilities who would then work and live there. During those years, these two large pear trees were most likely picked and used to feed the residents. However, in the past six years since the space was converted, the pears haven’t been properly harvested, usually ending up on the ground.
Through a connection at the Health Department, EGDM heard about the trees and thought this would be a great match for our gleaning program that aims to reduce on farm food waste. Operations Manager, Steven Williams, worked with the Health Department to get approval from the Dallas County Board of Supervisors to glean the pears this year and for years to come. After the motion was unanimously passed, EGDM reached out an recruited a team of 10 volunteers to help glean the trees on September 1st.
From 4pm-6pm on a cloudy Tuesday afternoon, armed with buckets and fruit pickers the volunteers went to work. The long, 25-foot poles shot up into the trees as the volunteers strained their necks and tried to get the right angle to reach the ripe fruit. The small basket fastened to end of the pickers has one side that extends longer and bends to act a claw for the gleaners to twist and gently pull down, plucking their prized pears before (almost always) landing softly in the basket.
As the pickers worked, sporadic cheers of joy could be heard as they finally got the pesky pear they had been trying to reach. Meanwhile another group of volunteers sorted through the filled buckets looking for any signs of decay before boxing the pears into apple boxes, where they will be stored until being distributed to our food rescue partners.
“It’s just so great to not let produce go to waste,” said one volunteer as she recalled the first time she heard the word “glean” from a pastor who talked about it as an ancient practice referenced in the bible.
Gleaning, the practice of harvesting extra crops from farms, gardens, or orchards isn’t new. EGDM dove into the world of gleaning last year harvesting apples from the Henry A. Wallace Center in Orient as well as potatoes and more apples at a home orchard. This year, in the wake of a global pandemic and the recent derecho, we’ve gleaned sweet corn from Carlisle, peaches & apples from Des Moines Public Schools and now these pears.
Another volunteer performed her own act of food rescue as she collected a bag of recently fallen pears from the ground or others that were a bit too blemished for distribution to take for herself. Her plan was to let them ripen, cut the good parts out and cook it down into a preserve or use it to bake.
After two hours, thanks to the hardworking volunteer gleaners, we harvested 300 pounds of fresh pears. The pears, like the other fruits and veggies we’ve gleaning through this program, will be distributed through our food rescue transportation program where drivers deliver rescued foods to affordable housing communities, childcare centers, clinics, refugee/immigrant service center, and more.
“My mom grew up after the depression,” said Jenni, a first time gleaner, as we chatted about her experience with the word gleaning. “Back then farmers would leave a margin of the field unharvested for the homeless or traveling workers to for sustenance. They weren’t shunned or left to be hungry it was just part of the way society was at the time. It’s a neat thing to think about how welcoming and willing people were to help others access food. It’s definitely a lesson we can learn from and use today.”
Eat Greater Des Moines is excited to continue partnering with the Dallas County Healthy Department next year to harvest these pear trees and make sure that the fruit from these 100-year-old trees gets to organizations and people in need.
Know of a farm, orchard, garden or just 2 trees with extra fruit, veggies or nuts? Contact Steven Williams, Operations Manager at firstname.lastname@example.org