At Fields of Grace's first-ever gleaning, a dozen volunteers hand-picked 901 pounds of cherries at Gary Middleton's organic orchard near Eltopia.
That was July 1, 2006.
Earlier this week, the Tri-City nonprofit reached a landmark of providing more than 1 million pounds of fresh produce to hungry families. That is enough food to just about feed the entire population of the Tri-City area for a single day.
"We haven't outpaced the need, which is kind of the sad part about it," founder Alissa Watkins said.
Watkins never intended to start a nonprofit when she called Second Harvest to see if she could join a local gleaning organization after she and her family moved to the Tri-Cities from Virginia in 2005.
When she found out there wasn't one, she felt called, despite being terrified and having no clue where to start, she said. She couldn't stand letting perfectly good produce go to waste when the healthy foods are such an expensive luxury for low-income families.
And the community really rallied, she said. West Side Church, Cathedral of Joy and Central United Protestant Church have been key supporters of the effort. The generosity of area farmers has been impressive.
"For me personally, it has been an example of how God can use you if you step into the story that he wants to write in your life," Watkins said.
Apples and potatoes have made up the bulk of the million pounds. But Luke Hallowell, the nonprofit's program coordinator, said they've picked 47 different crops, including watermelon, apricots, peaches, corn and pears.
The group started out gleaning produce donated by area farmers. Most has been tree fruit because it has the biggest potential to be left to rot, Hallowell said. Farmers have to make a decision if it is worth the cost to harvest. If the fruit is sunburned or too small to be marketable, it isn't harvested, even if the fruit is perfectly good to eat.
Almost half of the million pounds of food has been picked by volunteers on commercial farms, Hallowell said.
Often, farmers have actually set aside a certain portion of their harvests for Fields of Grace, donating the "first fruits," Watkins said.
Farmers also have directly donated more than 400,000 pounds of already harvested produce.
Potatoes, for example, aren't something the nonprofit's volunteers have hand gleaned. Some of the donations have come from farmers who had difficulty with transporting the potatoes, such as having a trailer hit so the spuds weren't marketable or a conveyer belt break so potatoes couldn't be offloaded by machine, Hallowell said.
Food from commercial gleans heads to Second Harvest, which then distributes it to local food banks. Watkins said the nonprofit that acts as a food bank to area food banks has been a critical partner in making Fields of Grace a reality.
A few years after Watkins started the group, residential gleaning started bearing fruit. Backyard gardens and fruit trees have brought in 40,000 pounds of food for the hungry, Hallowell said.
Residential gleaning has been successful this year. Volunteers have harvested almost 8,000 pounds so far, compared with 1,000 pounds the same time last year, Hallowell said.
"We make a point of leaving the yards and the people in better shape then we found them," said John Neill, Field of Grace's executive director.
Just two years ago, Fields of Grace started picking up donations of leftover produce at local farmers markets. Already, that has brought in more than 50,000 pounds, Hallowell said.
The food from home gardens and the farmers markets is directly taken to local food banks, including the Tri-Cities Food Banks, St. Vincent de Paul Society Food Bank and the Tri-City Union Gospel Mission, Neill said.
Gleaning keeps the nonprofit's volunteers busy from May through November.
This year also marks a significant transition for the nonprofit. Watkins handed off executive director duties to Neill and the day-to-day management of the nonprofit to him and Hallowell earlier this year. Hallowell is the nonprofit's only paid employee.
Hallowell, who previously volunteered for the nonprofit and has served on the board, is well-suited to help Fields of Grace connect with other gleaning organizations, Watkins said.
Neill, the former executive director of the Tri-Cities Food Banks, has the vision to grow Fields of Grace's presence in the Northwest.
"The organization is in such great hands, and they have been able to do so much in a short period of time this year," she said.
Others also are taking more active leadership roles, allowing Watkins to sometimes just be a volunteer. She remains on the board. To be successful, the organization needs new ideas and to be able to reinvent itself, she said.
Neill said he hopes to grow the organization into the Yakima Valley, and maybe even to the other side of the state.
"It just breaks my heart to think of all of that fresh fruit and produce that is going to waste," he said.
But he and Hallowell plan to take slow, measured steps so growth happens at a pace the nonprofit can handle.
The challenge is the nonprofit growing its gleaning operations and volunteers at the same rate. Volunteers are needed near Sunnyside and Basin City to be able to glean in that area, Hallowell said.
Hallowell is on the hunt for more volunteers. They have an email list of about 500, but tend to get about 15 to 25 people to show up for commercial gleaning events.
Volunteers, in addition to donating their own time, also donate the use of pickup trucks and their gas.
Growing also will mean seeking more dollar donations. The nonprofit operates using two fundraisers a year.
The budget is small, with office space donated by Cathedral of Joy.
"The hunger is never going to go away," Neill said.
-- Kristi Pihl: 509-582-1512; email@example.com