Gleaners enjoy end-of-season harvest to help feed the region's hungry

Ledyard - Seven harvesters outfitted in thick gloves, coats and heavy boots faced rocky fields with pockets of slushy, icy mud on Friday as they dug up approximately 400 pounds of turnips and rutabagas.

But the cold and muck could not compete with the manic bundle of energy that was Eastern Connecticut Community Gardens Association's co-founder Patrick Kelley. He could hardly stand still, waving his arms and weighing turnips as he delivered an enthusiastic speech against genetically modified foods and the use of pesticides.

"We want people who grow earth-friendly, organic food," said Kelley, whose mission is to eliminate food waste and feed the hungry.

On Friday, Kelley was "gleaning" at Hidden Brook Gardens in Ledyard - a practice from "back in the old days," he said, in which farmers allow people to freely collect their leftover crops.

Gleaning is described in the Bible, as Kelley will quickly tell you, and portrayed in paintings like Jean-François Millet's 1857 "The Gleaners." Although the practice is not as common today, it's still around, said Kelly.

"Dumpster diving is a modern-day form of gleaning," he explained, before launching into an explanation of the nonprofit organization the Society of St. Andrew, which has been working to introduce the more traditional form of gleaning in the United States.

For the past four years, Kelley and the ECCGA have been trying to establish a "pocket" of the practice in Connecticut and have held about a dozen gleaning events.

"Serving others via this method is very cool and (Connecticut) is behind the ball," said Kelley.

Traditionally, gleaning allowed the harvesting of unprofitable crops that would otherwise be left in the fields to rot, and that is a large part of what the Society of St. Andrew promotes.

Hidden Brook owner Anita Kopchinski, however, said she could have sold the smaller turnips and rutabagas that were collected Friday, but was more interested in helping the hungry than maximizing profits.

Kopchinski was reluctant to have her name or farm appear in the newspaper because she wanted to keep the focus on the volunteers helping to dig up and distribute the vegetables, and the charitable organizations receiving and preparing the food. She's among the group that Kelley refers to as "farmers (who) are humble and don't wish for publicity."

This year is Kopchinski's second year of gleaning, which she learned about from Kelley and his friends after meeting them at Northeast Organic Farming Association events. She said she likes the feeling of giving back, and she's impressed by the volunteers who help harvest the vegetables - they're "part of the solution," said Kopchinski.

Three volunteers digging the turnips on Friday were young men with Community Solutions Inc., an organization that helps at-risk or disadvantaged people through contracts with the juvenile and adult criminal justice systems and social services agencies.

The three young men were joined and supervised by Joel Roth, who said he felt they enjoyed the unusual service opportunity.

"It got them outside and connected with the earth," said Roth.

"They like the physicality of it," he added, "and they like where it's going, the end use of it."

So, of course, does Kelley, who helped gather and distribute the buckets of Golden Globe and Eastham turnips, and heirloom Gilfeather rutabagas, with his friend Serena Rice.

"It's a beautiful thing," said Kelley.

This morning, he and Rice began delivering the food collected this weekend at Hidden Brook Gardens and other locations - which will eventually be cooked into soups, stews and other meals - to various community organizations.

The two weren't sure of their exact drop-off itinerary on Friday, but planned to visit 30 to 40 locations and target the Greenville section of Norwich, Ledyard Food Bank, several veterans' homes and perhaps the AHEPA senior affordable housing in Norwich.

Sometimes the donations will go to New London's Gemma E. Moran United Way/Labor Food Center or to homeless camps in Montville and Norwich, they said, among other places.

Kelley and his friends coordinate all sorts of food donations - squash, bagels, the planting of apple trees and tomato plants - but it was gleaning that he was most enthusiastic about on Friday.

Insisting that "everyone sits at the table," Kelley said he's determined to get more farmers, gardeners and volunteers involved with his gleaning effort and asked people to get in touch through the ECCGA website: getgrowingct.org.

"I want to inspire other people to join our gleaning team," said Kelley.

k.catalfamo@theday.com

Twitter: @kccatalfamo

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