Gleaning at the orchard
Nancy Miller of Cortland Hill Orchard in West Brattleboro, demonstrates how to pick apples.

Gleaning at the orchard

A community gathering rounds up the last of an abundant apple crop to share with local food shelves

WEST BRATTLEBORO — Nancy Miller of Cortland Hill Orchard threw an impromptu outdoor party on a recent sunny Saturday. Across Miller Road from her farm stand, she set up a table with chilled and mulled cider and a big box of cider doughnuts from Paradise Farm Sugarhouse.

The snacks were the guests' reward for a bit of hard work.

Participants headed up the short, steep hill to the orchard, then came down with fresh apples - mostly Cortlands - that otherwise would have shriveled on the trees or fallen, becoming fodder for deer and bees.

This was a gleaning party. Gleaning, an ancient agricultural tradition, is when individuals sweep through a farm or orchard post-harvest and collect what the pickers (or machines) left behind.

It is not often economical for a farmer to harvest every bit of produce from the fields or trees. Some fruits are too small. Some vegetables, too big. Maybe the shape is funny. Or, there's a small blemish. Sometimes the produce is perfect, but there's too much of it to sell.

So it remains and rots.

Or, ideally, gleaners come in and either keep it for personal use or send it to a local food pantry.

Weather is another variable in agriculture, said Miller.

“It's always a juggling act” when harvesting or scheduling gleaning, she said.

A growing movement

In the greater Brattleboro area and in Chittenden County, the Vermont Foodbank organizes more than 600 volunteers annually who glean at approximately 80 farms for Vermonters who are at risk for hunger.

On its website,, the Vermont Foodbank says that “each year, we distribute approximately 465,000 pounds of fresh, local produce to Vermonters through food shelves, meal sites, senior centers, housing sites, schools and hospitals throughout the state.”

Although Nancy Miller's gleaning party wasn't organized by the Vermont Foodbank, that's where the apples will go.

“I put together this spur-of-the-moment gleaning event,” said Miller, because “I had the energy and inclination, and it seemed like a good way to celebrate the good harvest season.”

Miller has called in the Foodbank for gleaning in previous years, and she said she hopes to have their volunteers do another sweep later in the week, depending on the weather.

“This was a good apple season,” Miller said, “and we had a full crop of peaches this year, too. Last year, there were no peaches.”

Miller's stepson, Dean Miller, grows the apples and peaches, and his daughter, Olivia Leonard, is one of the pickers.

Cortland Hill Orchards doesn't ship their fruit, Nancy Miller said. “We do pick-your-own, we sell locally, and there are always apples left over” after the paid pickers are finished. “So, whatever's left, we glean,” she said.

Cider press stories

When planning the gleaning event, Miller invited Peter Gould to do a reading from his recent book, Horse Drawn Yogurt: Stories From Total Loss Farm. But it was such short-notice, Miller was worried he would have to decline.

Instead, Gould told her, “I'd love to read at high noon!”

So, as the low autumn sun cast its midday slanted shadows, Gould read a chapter, “The Big Cider Press,” while guests sipped cider and wiped sugar from their fingers.

The story was about the narrator's adventures buying and restoring a generations-old cider press that was bigger than the average garden shed.

After the reading, Gould and his wife, Mollie Burke, hiked up the hill to the orchard, baskets in hand, to hunt for good apples to glean for hungry neighbors.

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