Every Last Leaf

The harvest isn’t over in Hancock County until Hannah Semler gets gleaning.

By Rebecca Martin Evarts
Photographed by PJ Couture

Hannah Semler, Maine Gleaning, Down East MagazineAt 7:45 on a chilly Monday morning, Hannah Semler, Maine’s only full-time professional gleaning coordinator, is hurtling toward Sullivan in pursuit of giant mushrooms. She cranks the car heater up as the calls start rolling in on her speakerphone.

“Hi, Hannah,” a voice says. “We have a whole lot of beautiful salad mix that I’d love you to find a home for.” An apprentice at King Hill Farm over-picked for the previous week’s farmers market.

“Shoot,” Semler says. King Hill Farm is all of five minutes from her house in Blue Hill, and she could have collected the lettuce as she left town. Now she’s 20 minutes away, in Ellsworth, with me along for the ride. “They’ve got a big walk-in cooler at the farm,” she says, thinking out loud, “so the greens are probably better off where they are.” As she drives, she starts punching buttons on her cell, figuring out the fastest way to connect the perishable produce with the nearest community meal, which, on Mondays, is the Simmering Pot Community Supper at Blue Hill Memorial Hospital.

Semler works for Healthy Acadia, a nonprofit organization dedicated to improving health resources and building community in Hancock and Washington counties. Her particular project, a partnership between Healthy Acadia and the University of Maine Cooperative Extension, is called the Gleaning Initiative, and the idea behind it is simple: 1) Semler fields calls from Hancock County farmers who have surplus produce that would otherwise go to waste. 2) She makes sure that it doesn’t. In between those steps, however, are dozens of unique potential arrangements.

Armed with a Subaru, a secondhand iPhone, and an abundance of good cheer, Semler drives up to 500 miles every week to match excess produce with the county’s 12 food pantries and six weekly community meals. For help with in-field gleaning — harvesting leftover produce from the fields where it’s grown — she relies on a squad of community volunteers and participants in UMaine’s Master Gardener Volunteers program, all of whom are “paid” with a bag or two of veggies. All the while, she consults with farmers and nonprofits to streamline food systems and make the gleaning process more efficient and sustainable. Recently, she’s started conducting trainings in other Maine counties to show how gleaning can be adapted to local circumstances.

Farmers aren’t just looking for a new business relationship. They want to connect on a human level too.

Hannah Semler

The tradition of gathering — or gleaning — leftovers after the harvest is an ancient one. Art buffs might recognize the term from Jean-François Millet’s 1857 painting The Gleaners, which depicts three peasant women plucking individual grains from the ground after the reapers have finished. Today’s professionalized gleaning seeks fresh food from many sources. There are one-time serendipities, like the 250 pounds of frozen organic beef donated in light of a looming sell-by date. There are the tomatoes raised by Master Gardener volunteers and destined specifically for food pantries. Long-term partners, like College of the Atlantic’s Beech Hill Farm — from which 2,600 pounds of produce were gleaned in 2014 — strategize early in the season with Semler and regional food pantry directors about what kinds of surplus are most useful.

The goal is the same, regardless of the source: get more food into the mouths of people who can’t afford to buy it.

“It’s a win situation for all,” says Tina Keagley, one of Semler’s community volunteers. “Those without access to fresh fruits and vegetables are able to get some, and the excess that’s usually left to rot gets used.”

Hancock County has towns with some of the highest income levels in the state, but it also has towns where up to 91 percent of students qualify for free or reduced school lunch. According to 2014 USDA statistics, nearly 15 percent of Maine’s households experience “food insecurity,” meaning they lack access to enough food to ensure adequate nutrition. That rate rises 23 percent — the highest in New England — when it comes to child food insecurity in particular. A 2014 study by the Good Shepherd Food Bank estimates that some 178,000 Mainers utilize food pantries and meal programs — that’s about one in seven people, more than half of them children and seniors.

Back in the car, Semler fields calls and checks her GPS as we head up Route 1.

Hannah Semler, Maine Gleaning, Down East Magazine“This is my third season,” she says. “I pretty much know now when things are needed where.” She turns onto a dirt road in Sullivan, passing a hand-lettered sign: “Beware! Cats! Dogs! Old Woman with Gun!” A mile farther on, Semler pulls up to find Toby Klein painting her tiny roadside farm stand. With her husband Sam, Toby operates the 20-acre, MOFGA-certified Run Water Farm. Sam had called Hannah the day before after reading an article about her project. When he steps out to meet us, he’s carrying two boxes of enormous mushrooms, their tops a half-foot in diameter and their stems as thick as rope. No wonder these Stropharia rugosoannulata are nicknamed Godzillas.

“I sold 18 pounds at a farmers market on Saturday,” says Sam, “but some of these are kind of ratty looking.” Wet weather followed by heat means that Sam has more giant mushrooms than he can handle, and once picked, they don’t last.

Semler hasn’t met the Kleins until today, though she’s familiar with their farm, and she chats leisurely with them as we walk through the fields, asking whether more regular gleaning might work for them. Could volunteers come to glean from their fields? How many and what kind? Older people, master gardeners, teenagers? Would they rather call for pick up?

“A lot of my work is about relationship starting,” Semler says, after loading 20 pounds of mushrooms into her car. “New farms sign on, and relationships change as the program evolves. If I hadn’t come out today, they might never have called again.” Farmers aren’t just looking for a new business relationship, Semler says. They want to connect on a human level too.

“These community-based relationships are difficult to technologize,” says Katie Freedman, Healthy Acadia’s food, farm, and nutrition manager and Semler’s boss. Digital communication is unreliable in Washington and Hancock counties — and anyway, face-to-face contact is prized — so gleaning involves lots of driving. Not that it bothers Semler. “I don’t mind,” she says, “because the scenery is so beautiful.”

I tell people I’ll sleep with my vegetables if I have to.

— Hannah Semler

The best part of her job, Semler says, is interacting with farmers. “I had a passion to work with farms, but I knew I wasn’t cut out to be a farmer,” the lively 33-year-old explains. Though she was born in Blue Hill, the fourth generation of “summer people,” she was raised in Barcelona by her American parents.

“I grew up with repurposing,” she says. “I got hand-me-downs from my older siblings and we rescued furniture off the street.” She became attuned to issues of hunger and food waste on a college research trip to Guatemala, which has Latin America’s highest malnutrition rate, when she noticed how much food deemed unsalable was left on the ground to rot there in industrial operations growing food for the first world. In 2006, she graduated from College of the Atlantic, and in 2011, she completed a master’s degree in international food business and consumer studies at the University of Kassel in Witzenhausen, Germany. Her thesis was on retail food waste prevention in Europe.

The seeds of the Gleaning Initiative were sown in 2010. Healthy Acadia and the UMaine Cooperative Extension gathered volunteers to glean unsalable apples at Johnston’s Apple Orchard, then distributed the fruit to food pantries. The venture’s success sprouted bigger plans. In 2013, the group secured funding to hire Semler as a full-time coordinator.

Hannah Semler, Maine Gleaning, Down East Magazine

Even then, Semler confesses, she knew a lot about waste but hadn’t done much in-field gleaning. On her first day, she fumbled her way alone through a row of spinach and came up with 8 pounds. “I filled two bags and quit; honestly it felt a little strange,” she wrote recently on her blog. Most of the haul went to the Emmaus Homeless Center, and she used the rest to recruit volunteers at a plant sale — a free bag of spinach to anyone who would sign on.

Two years later, a marathon greenhouse session yielded 450 pounds of spinach, gleaned by five “powerful volunteers” — enough food for 900 meals. Semler’s gleaning in 2013 topped 20,000 pounds and in 2014 rose to 35,000 pounds. This year, she’s aiming for 50,000 pounds. (These figures are estimates, cautions Freedman, noting that the group isn’t always able to weigh and track everything that gets gleaned.)

“The Gleaning Initiative has had a tremendous impact on our food pantry,” says Kate Sebelin, manager of the Bar Harbor Food Pantry. Five years ago, Sebelin’s group offered little in the way of fresh food. That’s changed thanks to reliable supplies from both in-field gleaning and unsold produce collected by volunteers at farmers markets. “We’re able to start each week with two refrigerators stocked with a variety of fresh greens, herbs, and other seasonal veggies, all locally grown,” Sebelin says.

The tradition of gathering — or gleaning — leftovers after the harvest is an ancient one.

Semler makes a couple of stops on the way back to Ellsworth — two hours to train bakery workers to use a computer program that tracks food waste, then a half-hour to investigate refrigerator space that a farmer has offered in exchange for minor repairs. After the delays, Semler worries her mushrooms are suffering.

“I tell people I’ll sleep with my vegetables if I have to,” she laughs. If the weather is cool enough to leave less-perishable ones in her car, she’ll overnight with friends to cut down on driving. “Luckily, I have friends in all corners, so I can connect my gleaning with my social life.”

Semler hustles to the Healthy Acadia offices on Ellsworth’s Main Street, where she pops the fungi into a commercial refrigerator in a locked garage, then goes in to consult with Freedman about how to present such an uncommon food to the pantries. “Maybe draw up an information sheet to go along with them?” Semler offers. The worst fate for a gleaned food is to be rejected by food pantries on grounds that their clientele won’t touch it.

Half the mushrooms can go immediately into Ellsworth’s weekly community meal, Everyone Eats, being prepared next door at St. Dunstan’s Episcopal Church. Semler grabs a box and heads over to the church basement, where a handful of volunteers excitedly greets the rare ingredient. Within two minutes, a volunteer is chopping them to combine with sausage, bread, and cheese in an egg bake. The journey from farm waste to free food has taken just four hours.

Several times a week in high harvest season, Semler and her volunteers can be found at farms throughout the county, scouring the earth on their hands and knees. One morning, she meets me at Horsepower Farm in Penobscot, where a team of Suffolk Punch horses does much of the plowing, tilling, and carting, aided by a couple of machines. She is standing, smiling, next to her 91-year-old grandmother’s rusted pickup, on loan to Healthy Acadia for the season in exchange for the organization buying a new cover for its bed. For Semler, the new rig means expanded transport capacity and less driving.

Farmer Andrew Birdsall points us to a row of lettuce. Semler hands me a knife and explains how best to cut while leaving stalk enough for a second harvest. Lettuce is a first-time gleaner’s dream, easy to harvest and light to carry. Blessed with cool temperatures, we chat as we work. Fog shrouds the farthest rows, and the breeze carries the scent of sea.

“There have been many times in my life when I have received help when I’ve needed it,” my fellow volunteer Tina Keagley tells me. “This is my way of giving back.”

Or as Semler puts it, “Gleaning is a way of making sense of the world.”

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1 Comment

  • November 16, 2015

    Brega

    Bravo! Way to go Hannah and Healthy Acadia!
    People with money looking for a great organization to support should look into Healthy Acadia.