The weathered hands tremble as they touch the leaves.
The sun is burning morning dew off the fields, but raising beads of sweat on Lester Begley's furrowed forehead. He's had to take it easy since his stroke a few years ago, but he thinks he'll pick a few more buckets anyway.
A few rows over, Norm Rohn, wearing a battered Panama hat and a wild gray beard, vigorously lops a cauliflower off its stalk, and looks over the green rows for further booty.
He finds it--plenty of it--as do the hundreds of other gray-haired laborers who come to Ventura County fields with a spirit of charity in the hours just after dawn. Because of them, the offerings on the Thanksgiving Day table will be more abundant for many who would have a difficult time providing basic foodstuffs.
Last year, the folks who call themselves "gleaners" retrieved about 2 million pounds of vegetables and fruits from fields about to be plowed under and orchards that pickers had already worked. The bounty was funneled to thousands of poor people through about 150 organizations, and traded to food banks outside the county for other kinds of produce.
The average age of the gleaners is about 70, but that--and a purpose in their picking--is all they share. Some are retired physicians, bound for the golf course after a few hours of harvest; others once were pipe-fitters, plumbers, firefighters, homemakers and ordinary people who enjoy the feel of damp soil underfoot and warm sun overhead.
Started in 1978
The gleaner program started in 1978 out of the two-car garage of Harry Fox, a retired oil-field mechanic, and his wife, Evelyn.
"When I used to check on oil wells and work on compressors over in the fields, I'd see farmers plowing half of the crops back into the ground," Fox said. "It seemed a shame so much was being wasted."
The Foxes joined about 15 other people in a campaign against hunger spearheaded by Oak View minister Virgil Nelson. Nelson also had been thinking about the bounty that is plowed back into the fields.
"We were just reviving something several thousand years old," Nelson said. "There is a strong injunction in Leviticus for people to take care of the sojourners and the poor. One of the ways is to not strip the fields, to leave corners of the fields for the widows and the orphans and the poor and the sojourners."
In Ventura County, people had been gleaning, at least for themselves, for some time. "There'd probably always been gleaning going on here," Nelson said. "I remember it from when I grew up in the early '50s, but it was always somebody who knew somebody who knew a field had been picked and knew the farmer. We needed something more organized."
The tough part was convincing the agricultural community it was a good idea.
"We had to assure the farmers we were not going to trample the food, destroy the fields, that we would have trained people and supervisors and that we were not selling what we picked," Nelson said.
Harder yet was convincing the middlemen, the food brokers, that free food distribution would not infringe upon their profit margin.
"To the brokers who are managing and marketing these crops, food is not food," Nelson said. "It is a commodity, something to make money with. I've stood in a broker's office when he gave the order to plow under a field of lettuce. I stood there and I cried."
But the group eventually gained the confidence of most of the farmers, he said, and convinced the brokers that their market would not be affected because the poor rarely bought produce, but survive on cheaper fare, such as beans and rice.
About a dozen people went out to reap those first tag-end harvests, and within six months, they had doubled their crew and given themselves the name FOOD Share. The acronym stands for Food On Our Doorsteps.
Grew More Sophisticated
For four years, "Evelyn ran it on one telephone and two clipboards out of our garage," Fox said. The enterprising gleaners kept expanding the operation. They learned how to tie into other food banks, trading extra green beans from Oxnard for kiwis from Bakersfield. They arranged to pick up day-old bakery products and other expired stock from supermarkets. They added government commodities like surplus cheese to their stores and solicited donations from packing houses.
The day 2,000 boxes of bananas were delivered to the Fox's home, "it began to get to us," Fox said. They soon found a new base of operations in the old Saticoy firehouse, which the city of Ventura rented to them for $1 a year.
Evelyn Fox died two years ago, illness forced Harry Fox to retire from the fields, and Nelson has gone on to a new crusade to help the homeless, but FOOD Share kept growing.
The organization received a United Way grant and moved into a 12,000-square-foot warehouse in El Rio. It has five full-time, paid staff members, more than 500 volunteers and will supply 8 million pounds of food from all of its sources to charities this year.