Although the temperatures were edging into the high 80s by 9 a.m., Fields of Grace volunteers continued reaching high into the trees, picking handful after handful of crimson cherries.
The group, which consisted of 15 or so, spend their springs and summers gleaning everything from fruit to spuds to donate to various food banks in Benton and Franklin counties.
June 7, volunteers stripped Rainier and pie cherries from two trees at a Richland home. The following weekend they planned to converge on a commercial cherry orchard in Kennewick whose owner has invited Fields of Grace to harvest his fruits for years.
“We generally schedule residential gleanings during the week, because the amount of produce is smaller and fewer people are able to participate. Saturdays we reserve for commercial gleanings when we’re able to recruit more volunteers,” said John Neill, Fields of Grace’s executive director.
Gleaning opportunities follow the harvest season, beginning sometime in June with cherries and strawberries and drawing to a close in October with apples and potatoes.
Fields of Grace began in 2006 with a single phone call by Alissa Watkins to the director of Second Harvest Tri-Cities. She and her family had just moved to the Tri-Cities and Watkins was trying to locate a local gleaning group. Told that one didn’t exist, Watkins began to organize one, contacting various churches asking for volunteers.
Over the years hundreds of volunteers have rallied to the call for pickers.
“Off the top of my head, I’d have to say we’ve had 900 to 1,000 volunteers,” Neill said. “Maybe even more.”
The current volunteer list has about 500 names on it, but when Fields of Grace sends out an email, usually only 20 to 25 respond.
“What often happens is we get very short notice, usually only a couple of days,” he said.
Which is why Fields of Grace is always on the lookout for volunteers. Anyone can be a volunteer, and sometimes entire families sign up.
“Grandma and grandpa want their grandkids and great-grandkids to realize that produce is grown, it doesn’t magically appear out of the back of an Albertsons’ truck,” Neill said.
Fields of Grace accepts just about any fruit and produce donations. However, it must be in good condition.
“We don’t accept anything that’s overly ripe or hasn’t been treated with pesticides. We don’t want to use our volunteers’ time picking buggy fruit that the food banks can’t use,” Neill said.
Volunteers provide their own transportation to the site, but Fields of Grace provides ladders, buckets and other harvesting equipment. The group also provides safety training for the volunteers, and supervisors are always on site.
The group also accepts donations from large corporations like Douglas Fruit, a Pasco fruit packing plant, which regularly contributes apples to the fight against hunger.
Farmers markets, are also a regular source of contributions. Volunteers take large plastic totes marked with the Fields of Grace logo to Pasco, Kennewick and Richland markets.
“The vendors all know that if they donate whatever produce they have left when the market closes for the day it’ll be picked up and taken to one of the food banks. It’s a perfect win/win situation for everyone,” Rob Koenig, residential gleaning coordinator said. “We get more diverse foods at the markets, items you don’t get from gleaning.”
Some of the produce gleaned by Fields of Grace volunteers is taken directly to one of the food banks for distribution.
“Others go to Second Harvest to be divided among several food banks. If we picked 500 pounds of apricots for example, they would go to Second Harvest,” Koenig said.
Since Fields of Grace started, volunteers have logged more than 14,000 hours of service to harvest nearly 1.7 million pounds of produce. In total, the group has provided nearly 4.7 million individual servings of healthy fruits and vegetables to Benton and Franklin county families.