BOONES MILL, Va. — Technically, the orchard on Apple Road nestled in the mountains already has harvested for the year.
To some, it might look picked over. But not to a group of gleaners.
“Good golly,” said Sarah Ramey, taking in all the apples on the ground and in the trees that for whatever reason — perhaps they were too small, imperfect in shape or color — were not harvested.
“This is a treasure here,” she said.
The Society of St. Andrew, based in the Bedford County, Va., community of Big Island, organizes expeditions of volunteers to travel to local farms and “glean” edible produce left behind after the harvest. Ramey serves as the organization’s Virginia gleaning network director.
On the morning of Oct. 10, she and five others collected the remaining fruit, which would be distributed at churches, shelters and food banks. Ramey said it could be eaten as soon as that evening. She estimated the small group of gleaners would collect around 500 pounds of apples from that single orchard.
In addition to feeding the hungry, the initiative reduces food waste. The Natural Resources Defense Council indicates as much as 40 percent of America’s food goes uneaten.
“Farmers take pride in what they produce, so instead of letting it go to waste they’re able to get it to people who need it and otherwise can’t afford it,” Ramey said.
Many of the volunteer gleaners are affiliated with churches, Ramey said, but her organization also works with civic groups and students looking for community service opportunities.
Apples, some of them mushy but others perfectly fine, litter the ground and emit a sweet smell. The orchard is quiet on this gray morning, save for the occasional gentle shake of a branch, followed by the thud of apples hitting the ground.
Lawrence Cantrell, pastor at Maple Gap Church in Russell County, puts his height to good use, plucking apples from upper branches. He gleans often.
“Every time somebody says there’s something available,” Cantrell said.
He learned about gleaning after spotting a truck full of turnips. Cantrell was curious and followed the truck until it pulled over. The next week, Cantrell tagged along with the driver and was connected with Ramey.
“Six years and thousands of pounds later, here we are,” he said.
Cathryn Smith, with the Gate Ministries in Lynchburg, Va., got involved when she heard Ramey on the radio. Now, Smith said she sees food wherever she goes.
“It’s funny because we drive on the roads going, ‘There’s a pear tree that needs picking,’ ” she said.
The first time Smith went out gleaning, she jokes, Ramey nearly killed her. They were picking asparagus that day, which is low to the ground and labor intensive.
Apples are a bit easier. Many are on the ground, and pickers can be used to grab apples from high branches. Alternately, you can just give a branch, or even the whole tree, a good shake.
When Smith found a tree with many apples still attached to its branches, she asked Cantrell to do just that.
“Give it a good shake for me,” Smith said.
Suddenly, it’s raining apples.
“That’ll keep me busy,” Smith said, as she began filling a red mesh bag with the fallen fruit.
Cantrell took a bite from one of the apples and declared them good for making apple butter. The produce he collected from a nearby tree would be perfect for pie, he said.
The group will glean for about three hours, Ramey said. They are careful not to tire volunteers out. But on their three-hour trek home, Cantrell’s group will be stopping at another farm to collect tomatoes. There’s just so much to glean.