CASTLEFORD, Idaho — The golden tassels of cornstalks begin to shake as Lance Phillips makes his way to the edge of the field.
Phillips emerges, parting a row of 7-foot stalks, the bottom half of his shirt bulging. He unfolds his shirt and dumps eight ears of corn into a yellow wheelbarrow.
The low amber sun and the slight chill in the air mean fall is near — the perfect time for gleaning in the Magic Valley.
This is the second time Phillips' group has gleaned this cornfield — or collected from a field that has already been harvested — and they haven't even made a dent in the field's 50 rows and 100,000 plants.
"This is what the Native Americans used to do; they would go out and find areas where there would be prickly pear out in the desert and gather the fruit and preserve it," Phillips said.
Gleaning is the traditional Biblical practice of gathering crops that would otherwise be left in the fields to rot or plowed after harvest.
"We hate to see it all go to waste," said Andrew Jarvis.
Jarvis co-owns Rock Ridge Dairy in Castleford along with Don Gaalswyk and Bill VonderPol. The three of them own the cornfield and planted it so their employees could take what they needed. Because of the field's plentiful crop, it turned into a community garden where the owners allow people to glean as they need.
"I tell neighbors to help themselves," said Jarvis, who was in the field Sept. 4 to pick four ears of corn for dinner.
"This can take $100 to $200 off a grocery bill," Phillips said. "This is a tough time for people."
Phillips is the executive director of the Farm Service Agency's Twin Falls County office and a member of the Kimberly Church of the Nazarene. While meeting with the owners of Rock Ridge Dairy, Phillips overheard them talking about the cornfield. He asked if members of the Kimberly church could come out and glean the field.
The corn will be donated to the soup kitchen at St. Edward's Catholic Church in Twin Falls, the Shoshone Food Bank and The Salvation Army, in addition to elderly church members and families. The gleaned vegetables will also supplement meals made at the church every Wednesday night for the price of $1; the meals use fresh produce from a garden co-sponsored by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Kimberly Church of the Nazarene through a program called the "People's Garden Initiative." Phillips is the coordinator for the Kimberly garden and four other People's Gardens statewide.
According to Feeding America, more than 2 million rural households experience food insecurity, which means they don't have dependable access to enough food to sustain a healthy life. And almost 42 million Americans are food insecure.
"Gleaning ... is a blessing," Phillips said.
Phillips said he is not aware of a network of gleaners or gleaning opportunities in the Magic Valley but said there is plenty of opportunity for it. Because of his job with the FSA, he keeps his ears open for gleaning prospects.
But Phillips theorized that two reasons might be at the root of few gleaning opportunities: Gleaners have to be ready to pick immediately or be "Johnny-on-the-spot" as Phillips put it, and owners may be reluctant to take on the liability of people in their fields.
"I think we are missing out on something," he said.
The USDA used to run a gleaning hotline that gave people information on where they could volunteer to glean, but now 1-800-GLEAN-IT directs callers to the National Hunger Hotline because more people were calling to find out where they could get food rather than volunteer to glean.
The Gleaning Network, operated by the Society of St. Andrew, a national ministry, coordinates volunteers, growers and distribution agencies in 20 states. In 2012, 16.9 million pounds of food was gleaned, according to the Society of St. Andrew website. Idaho is listed as one of the non-gleaning states and is not part of the network, but the Gleaning Network still donates food to all the 48 contiguous states. Since its inception in 1979, it has sent 191,304 pounds of food to Idaho.
Tami Masarik of Boise gleans at Peaceful Belly Farm in Boise, and the food is donated to the Idaho Food Bank.
She is part of a network of gleaners who volunteer their time to pick over a crop if there is excess or the crop is getting close to overripe.
Masarik, who used to work at Peaceful Belly for four years, said owners Clay and Josie Erskine always donated food, but the gleaning network makes the donations more consistent.
In one day gleaners picked 200 watermelons from the 60-acre farm. Masarik said on a farm that size you have to plant extra just in case some crops don't make it.
"It's good to glean so that younger veggies can grow ... (and) to have people come in instead of wasting it," Masarik said. "It feels good to help the Idaho Food Bank."
Information from: The Times-News, http://www.magicvalley.com