Senior Gleaners Take to the Field. A CALL TO FARMS

AT one end of a 30-acre field of broccoli, His-panic farm workers move swiftly through the deep-green rows, cutting vegetable stalks close to a dull-red harvesting machine. Behind them, in the rows where the workers have already picked, dozens of mostly gray-haired Anglos fan out slowly but purposefully across the field, stooping over the knee-high greens to collect in hand-held bags what the others left behind.

They are gleaners. And the chief gleaner here is Arthur Schoerner - better known as ``the Bulldog'' - who uses a bullhorn, no-nonsense commands, and determination to direct a gleaning operation that benefits charities and the poor throughout the Rio Grande Valley.

``I was always one to believe in taking care of our own people first, and there's a lot of children and other people in our country who are hungry and can use the help,'' says Mr. Schoerner, explaining why he began the gleaning operation four years ago.

``There's so much grown in this valley, and it didn't make sense to me to see what was left over after the harvest being turned under and going to waste.''

Schoerner is a retired steel mill foreman who splits his time between his native Wisconsin and south Texas. He felt sure that other ``snowbirds'' or winter Texans - retired Midwesterners who spend the winter months in the balmy Rio Grande Valley - would donate part of their leisure time to harvesting the leftovers of the valley's bounty for a good cause.

Once he got permission from a large grower to test his idea, Schoerner found out he was right.

``From the beginning it's worked out fine, and the people love to do it,'' he says, waving his bullhorn in an arc toward the dozens of individuals spread out across the field. ``Now whenever I get a field, I call 75 mobile home parks and RV parks to get the people out, and the next day they're here.''

On this particular day, 27 large crates are loaded with broccoli for delivery to a food pantry in colonia El Gato, one of many unincorporated neighborhoods where the valley's poorest residents often live.

After the crates are filled, the gleaners are free to take what they want for themselves, their neighbors, ``and any of the needy people we may not reach,'' Schoerner says.

Schoerner's Rio Grande operation is by no means unique. Similar gleaning efforts exist in regions across the country where field crops are grown.

In Sacramento, Calif., for example, Senior Gleaners Inc. lists about 2,000 retired volunteers who help glean in the rich fields of the Sacramento Valley or otherwise participate in the organization's charitable activities.

``There are other gleaning organizations up and down the state,'' says Ralph Stevens, a Senior Gleaners spokesman.

Gleaning is concentrated in states like California, Arizona, and Florida that have year-round growing seasons, according to Al Brislain, director of support services at Second Harvest, a national food bank clearinghouse in Chicago.

Some isolated pockets exist in places like the orchards of the Pacific Northwest, ``but it's difficult to sustain enthusiasm when it's only a couple months of the year,'' Mr. Brislain adds.

Still, gleaners bring in thousands of tons of fruits and vegetables each year, primarily for distribution to charities, that would otherwise be plowed under.

What makes the south Texas operation special is that it involves people who in a sense are visitors helping others for whom the valley is a year-round home.

The local Chamber of Commerce estimates that 150,000 people come to spend the winter in the four counties that make up what is called the Lower Rio Grande Valley, pumping an estimated $163 million into the local economy. Many of these retirees volunteer with churches and other local charities, or put professional talents to good use - installing plumbing for free in shanties that previously had no running water, for example.

``I think the volunteer work makes a lot of us winter Texans feel we really belong here,'' says Barbara Monson, who since 1979 has been coming with her husband to a McAllen mobile home park to escape the snows of Hackensack, Minn.

``Some of us go to the orphanages on this side and that side [of the US-Mexico border], and a lot of people volunteer in the schools and hospitals,'' she says.

THE Monsons work every Saturday at their church's food pantry, where, as Mrs. Monson says, ``We serve the poorest of the poor'': families that earn less than $200 a month and often do not speak English. For the past two years, the Monsons have also been gleaners under Schoerner's strict eye.

``As you can see, we're like ants out here,'' says Mrs. Monson, gesturing toward the field. ``But none of this would be happening if it weren't for the Bulldog.''

The fruition of the gleaning operation was actually the fortunate coming together of two similar desires. Almost since he started coming to south Texas from Sheboygan, Wis., in 1975, Schoerner lobbied for an opportunity to save some of the valley's wasted crops. And Ray Hunt, the Dallas oil man and philanthropist whose Hunt Consolidated owns Sharyland Plantation, comprising 60,000 acres of vegetable farmland in the valley, was thinking it would be nice to find some way to get unharvested produce to people who need it.

``I knew some of the big wheels in the plant,'' says Schoerner, referring to the Sharyland packing house, ``and I finally convinced them I'd be able to keep things in line.''

On cue, Schoerner raises his bullhorn and bellows, ``You ladies, don't forget to sign in! Sign in, please!'' to two gleaners arriving in the field. They obediently retreat to a man with a clipboard to sign a waiver of liability.

Schoerner says Sharyland's concern over being sued was the biggest obstacle he faced in setting up his operation. Indeed, Second Harvest's Mr. Brislain says concern about farmers' liability far outweighs worries about property damage or lack of volunteers, in discouraging gleaning.

That doesn't seem to be an issue for Sharyland, however. ``With Art and his bullhorn out there, we don't worry about anything going on we wouldn't like,'' says Gail Lancaster, Sharyland's office manager.

At 11 a.m. the Bulldog clears the remaining gleaners from the field, then loads his truck for El Gato. ``I'll tell you,'' he says, ``when the people see my truck coming, the smile on their face is worth more than all the money people could give me.''

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