Think about that . . . 100 billion pounds. There is no reason anyone in this country should go to bed hungry; the trick is effectively gathering and distributing that food.
On Wednesday morning, a group of two dozen volunteers did their part. Dirt under their fingernails, mud caking their knees, they pulled beets and beans from farmer Dave Dumaresq’s field on Parker Road in Dracut. They were loaded into a truck and sent off to the Merrimack Valley Food Bank.
The event, dubbed “Let’s Get Gleaning” was attended by City Manager Bernie Lynch, Massachusetts Commissioner of Agriculture Greg Watson, State Sen. Barry Finegold, Dracut Board of Selectmen Chairwoman Cathy Richardson, Merrimack Valley Food Bank Executive Director Amy Pessia, Boston Area Gleaners Executive Director Laurie “Duck” Caldwell, and Lowell Department of Planning and Development Community Development Specialist Linda King.
Why were Lowell officials hanging out at a Dracut farm? It all ties in with the city’s 10 year plan to end homelessness, which because Lowell is the hub of the region, is a truly a regional effort.
“A big part of it is food security,” said Lynch.
So, what exactly is gleaning?
Harvesting the crops that otherwise would be left in the field.
Caldwell explained it is an ancient practice mentioned both in the Bible and the Koran. In fact, in those days, farmers were mandated to leave a portion of their field unharvested so those who were in need could avail themselves of the bounty.
“Food security was built in,” she said.
Today, there is a separation between us and where our food comes from, she added.
“We take it for granted because there is so much abundance,” Caldwell said.
Dumaresq, who spent six months in the Republic of Georgia with the U.S. State Department assisting in building that nation’s economy through agriculture, said the average Georgian’s connection to their food source is very strong.
Eating at a restaurant is a time-consuming experience, because the Georgians will ask the servers if the tomatoes were grown in Turkey or Georgia; they will ask about the origin of the pork.
“They understand the difference in quality,” he said.
“Agriculture is an economic driver,” a reality, Dumaresq added is sometimes lost locally as we focus on the high-tech sector. “Without that (agriculture), many countries have fumbled.”
Dumaresq farms 85 acres on five parcels in Dracut and Tewksbury. He has a staff of 40 people and sells his crops at two farm stands, 10 farmers’ markets and to 1,100 CSA shareholders.
A CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) allows people to purchase a weekly “share” of the bounty of the farm. The weekly box is packed with whatever produce is fresh out of the field that day, providing a 30 to 50 percent discount over purchasing the same amount of produce from the grocery store. Additionally, through the Share-A-Share program, Groundworks Lawrence offers shares to low-income families at an additional 50 percent discount.
Marjie Sath, of Lowell, joined the CSA two years ago because she was exhausted by schlepping from farmers’ market to farmers’ market from Westford to Lowell to Chelmsford in an attempt to purchase fresh food for the week for herself and her young son.
“I didn’t want to go to the grocery store,” she said. “We were forgetting who our farmer was. I want my son to eat squiggly carrots that have a little dirt on them.”
Today, her 3-year-old son isn’t bringing peanut butter and jelly for lunch at pre-school; he has a tomato and basil salad with braised beet greens.
Last year, Sath was awarded a full scholarship from Middlesex Community College to study in China, where the grocery stores carry very little fresh food because the people obtain produce from the source, shopping at farms nearly every day.
Sath recently published a cookbook based on her experiences in China called “A Great Chinese Feast.”
Watson said Dumaresq epitomizes everything the state has been doing to support agriculture since the late 1970s, starting with preserving the land.
“Everything starts with the land,” he said. “Once you pave over it, it is gone for good.”
The APR (Agriculture Preservation Restriction) program, under which Farmer Dave’s farm falls, the state and local community pays the farmer the difference between what the land is worth for agricultural use and what he could earn by selling it to a developer.
Six years ago, Dumaresq purchased the agriculture rights to the 35 acre parcel on Parker Road. The state and town owns the development rights on the land through an Agriculture Preservation Restriction, for which they invested $500,000 to guarantee the land remains farmland.
Circling back to agriculture as an economic driver, Dumaresq pointed out the public investment in his farm will be repaid through the income taxes his employees pay within 10 or 20 years.
At the same time, he is providing accessibility to fresh, nutritious, locally grown food to everyone. Not the 99 percent, not the 1 percent, not the 53 percent or the 47 percent, but the 100 percent.
“I’m trying to make sure the food we grow is available and approachable to all regardless of their income level,” he said.
This year, Farmer Dave has provided 40,000 pounds of food to the Merrimack Valley Food Bank and Greater Boston Food Bank, as well as other smaller food pantries.
Watson said former Commissioner Fred Winthrop understood the need to start preserving farmland in the late 1970s. At that time, Watson said, “Massachusetts agriculture was spiraling out of control,” losing 10,000 to 20,000 acres of farmland to development a year.
No one was concerned about importing and trucking food because energy was cheap. It was a short-sighted way of thinking.
But, when the Blizzard of 1978 paralyzed the state, people stated to realize how vulnerable the food source was – the state only had enough food to last about 13 days.
That sparked an emphasis on farm stands and farmers’ markers, which has evolved into CSAs.
“It is more economical and healthier for people to have access to fresh local food,” Watson said.
On October 26 at the UMass Lowell and Inn and Conference Center, the City of Lowell will host a day-long conference on Food Security and Healthy Living, the latest in the Keys to End Homelessness series.
For more information, contact Linda King at firstname.lastname@example.org.
For more information about the Boston Area Gleaners, including how to volunteer visit http://bostonareagleaners.org/
For more information about Farmer Dave’s CSA visit: http://www.farmerdaves.net/