Sunday, 29 August 2010

Gleaning - Another Way of Harvesting.

The Gleaners
Jean-Francois Millet

And when ye reap the harvest of your land, thou shalt not make
clean riddence of the corners of thy field when thou reapest,
neither shalt thou gather any gleaning of thy harvest;
thou shalt leave them unto the poor and the stranger.

The villagers knew which field would be harvested on a particular day. Adults and children turned up long before the last horse-drawn cart had left, lined up along the field edge, awaiting the signal to start, which was usually just a wave of the arm as the farmer and his helpers followed the carts off the field at the other end.

My parents lined up with the rest of the villagers, with me beside them. In retrospect, I feel that I enjoyed these "outings", particularly in the potato fields. The days were hot, the atmosphere was not exactly jolly but calm and friendly; everyone was in the same boat, intent on gathering as many stray potatoes as they could find. You stayed in your row, hoed and grubbed in the freshly turned soil and dragged a basket or potato sack behind you. As with stealing coal later on in the winter, the rule was that you did not help yourself to another person's loot.

On rare occasions only half the potato field had been harvested before the farmer gave the signal freeing the cleared half for gleaning. I was very small, to keep me safe and keep an eye on me while slowly traversing the field on their knees, my parents had me crawling between them and the edge of the field which was to be harvested the next day, a field still full of large, healthy potato plants, some of them taller than me. In my eagerness to help, my little hands strayed more than once into the lush growth next to me, coming up with clumps of potatoes.

"Look", I shouted, "I have found plenty here". "Come away from there"; my father was angry with me and I didn't understand why, after all, we were there to gather potatoes and I had just found a large supply of them.

It had happened before, somebody getting too close to a row of plants had been barred from gleaning. Father did not want this to happen to us. Farmers were very suspicious, they gave nothing away unless you had goods in exchange for food.

It was much harder to collect grain. The stubble was sharp and painful and you could easily tear and scratch your knees until they bled. Being very small, I managed to stay in the gap between two rows, but even then I often cried out when a vicious stalk dug into my leg. I can see puddles of grain lying between the rows of stubble even now, neat little heaps, or sometimes little streams of grain, ready to be scooped up with bare hands.

Gleaning was backbreaking work for the adults, for whom it would have been a matter of survival. The gravity of the situation went straight over the head of a child; for me it would have been a game, a game of hunting for food, being in a competition to see who could gather the most.

This is part of a post previously published in July 2009.
Few people read this blog then, as it is once again harvest time,
it might bear repeating.


  1. I really like the metaphor of gleaning too. Going back to retrieve what may be wasted, filtering through the chaff to find precious kernels.

  2. An interesting post, I enjoyed reading it. I live in a growing area, mainly potatoes and onions and modern day gleaners can still be seen at times gathering up what would have been left; usually all that is collected like this is sold and money given to charities.

  3. It was a very humanitarian system. the farmers got the bulk of their harvest and the poor were allowed to gather the left overs so they would not starve. Nowadays with agribusiness this system and the huge efficient harvesting machines there are no fields to glean. I can imagine if the poor congregated at the field of a huge concern these days they would be run off. Our communities have become far less compassionate.

  4. I am so glad you repeated this post. I have always found the Millet painting moving, and now you have enriched my understanding of it with lived experience.

    Also, I have happened, for the first time, to see your list of books. A wonderful and varied collection. Many old friends there, and some new ones to try!

  5. I first learned about gleaning in Sunday School as a child-- the Book of Ruth where Ruth and Naomi her mother-in-law go gleaning.

    So interesting to read your first hand account!

  6. I remember this post. It's a look at a practice in which few of us today has had to engage.
    I remember once being invited to gather plums, and my surprise to find that I'd been invited to gather only the fallen plums. The owner of the plum trees had lived through too many hungry times to pick from the tree and leave fruit rotting on the ground.

  7. I remember hearing stories told by adults, as you said - a matter of survival for them. Very interesting to hear it now, from a child's perspective. I'm sure it was a wonderful game trying to find the elusive crop.

    I do remember being told we could pick as many apples as we could eat, and of course, ate them until we were feeling as green as those apples!

    Thank you for sharing!

  8. Same here with potato harvest, friends have potato fields and when we were over for aperos one night farmer mentioned to wife that someone wnated to buy a few sacks to cook down for his chickens or pigs, can't remember which, wife said tell him not to be daft go and pick up the leavings after the finished harvesting they are free...our boys used to love scrabbling for left over potatos in the fields nothing quite like free food but glad I have not been in position where it is the only food I have.

  9. Being a city girl, I guess I'd never thought about gleaning, although I'm sure there was plenty of it on southern farms and plantations. What a beautiful telling along with the gorgeous masterpiece painting.

  10. I would have missed this one, the first time around. Friko. So glad you chose to give it a re-run.

  11. Loved this story so much. I do hope you do some more reruns for those of us new to the blog. That story was too great for just one telling.

  12. You've made me think (again). When I was a child my family had cotton farms in West Texas. Actually, most of them still do, though now, we are absentee landlords.

    I remember seeing the families that followed the crops and seasonally hoed or harvested. But I didn't really think about what that life was like, nor did I consider the children. And I find myself appalled, now, by the conditions in which they lived, that also went without thought and seemed normal.

    There were old railroad cars set on the property and given to these people as a place to live while they were there: a boxcar door, no windows, no facilities, no trees for shade... OMGoodness. It seemed normal to me.

    Thanks for opening my eyes. I actually feel relieved that, as a child, you failed to understand the real seriousness of what your family was doing.
    My own farming experience consisted of one morning of hoeing followed by endless complaints of heat, sun, bugs, and allergies that made me miserable and caused whining, but no compassion.

    I can do better than that, now. Thanks, too, for letting me find more things for which to be grateful.

  13. That's a nice piece with an insight into the countryside I don't normally think about. And I really like the Millet picture.

  14. I love that painting too and The Angelus by Millet. Times have sure changed. Farmers don't want anyone to get anything extra these days. They would rather just waste it. Wonderful post. Thanks for redoing it.

  15. Backbreaking work for survival. Now days, I can't imagine anyone being able to bend over that long, even if they were starving. That was extremely interesting. Thanks.

  16. How extraordinary! - to me, a North American city girl, at least. I went back to read the quotation at the top and was struck by how imbedded in history this practice was. Is. Does it still happen? I must really be showing my ignorance, Friko. You lived in a completely different world from the one I knew. The image of your parents protecting you from danger stayed with me throughout.

  17. PaulC - Gleaning was a fact of life for centuries, not so much a metaphor as reality.

    Marilyn - It would otherwise go to waste; I am surprised that people don't use it for themselves as well.

    ellen abbot - I would have to agree with you. Agribusiness is not in the business for compassion's sake.

    Raining Acorns - thank you, glad to repeat the more meaningful posts. as for the books, I really must freshen the list, it is almost as old as this blog.

    Vicki Lane - thank you Vicki, there will be many people who did likewise in the first few years after WW2.

    Pondside - I too pick up fallen plums to eat right away. The very best of the crop goes into the freezer in some form or other. This is a habit I am not likely to lose. I watched my mother preserving against a time of hunger which never again came and I have learned the habit from her.

    Reflections - you are welcome. I wish people wouldn't waste quite so much food nowadays.

    her at home - no indeed; I have never consciously had to experience this myself. But there are people in the world who still have to go hungry.

    marciamayo - thank you. I think you find that plenty of people will have gone 'collecting' free food in your part of the world too.

    MartinH - I am glad too - we can't always find new things to say, well I can't. And some things are worth trying out again.

  18. Arkansas Patti - Thank you Patti. There are too many of these to resurrect. If you are really interested about life in Germany after WW2 these appear under 'Reminiscences' in the sidebar.

    Kate - what a lovely comment, thank you so much. if the post brought back memories, that is perhaps a good thing. Learning in retrospect is still learning.

    Fran - another townie. perhaps you are too young to know of the hard times in the UK after the last war. There are still people here who can tell a bitter tale or two.

    daylily - thanks QMM; I am afraid farmers never did and still don't want to give anything away. Perhaps they have to work too hard for it?
    Farmers are the least sentimental people on earth.

    Manzanita - if you were starving you'd bend over soon enough. For as long as it takes too. There are countries where people do this and worse every day.

    Deborah - You and yours sent me food parcels, did you know that?
    I don't really have any clear recollections, a lot of it is family lore, a bit of research and history. It is all true, nevertheless.
    I don't think it still goes on today in Germany or anywhere in the
    West, but I am sure gleaning still happens in poor countries.

  19. I remember this post from July 09. I liked it then and I like it now. I did not get much food in those years too, but it seems I had no appetite anyway.


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