It’s harvest time in the fertile farmlands of central California, and Homer’s armies are on the march. Not long after crop-picking machines have trundled over a tomato field near Woodland, they arrive in a cavalcade of cars. Stooping over the rows missed by the giant harvesters, the 30 pickers salvage buckets of ripening fruit. Most are senior citizens who get to keep half of what they pick. Under Homer’s law of the division of spoils, the balance goes into a van for later distribution to the sick and needy. “We call ourselves scroungers,” says Homer Fahrner, a spry 80-year-old former stockbroker. “Gerontologists say that to have a really long life you need fresh air, sunshine, exercise, fresh food and a reason for living. We have it all.”
Seven years ago, Homer was working in a Sacramento senior center when he noticed people taking home part of the skimpy meals in doggy bags. “I kept asking why,” he recalls, “until someone told me, ‘Don’t embarrass these people. They take food home because it’s all they have to eat for the next 24 hours.’ ” Comfortably off himself, Homer has had a lifelong commitment to charity work. He started looking for a way to link those hungry people with all the food going to waste. He appealed to senior citizens, then founded Senior Gleaners. Cooperative farmers invite Homer’s armies to comb their fields after the commercial harvest. If all the leftover produce were picked, Homer declares, “we’d have enough to feed the poor, the elderly and the unemployed.”
In 1978 Homer expanded his territory beyond Sacramento, starting a new organization called Gleaners Statewide. So far 500 people have paid the $25 per family membership fee, entitling them to pick and obtain produce cheaply. This year they have collected 450 tons of pears, melons, carrots, sweet potatoes, onions and other crops. “There is so much abundance here,” insists Clayton Jones, 65, “you could feed the world.” The gleaners were once offered 200,000 tons of undersized fresh oranges. They rose at 4 a.m. and hauled 50 tons before exhaustion overtook them. “We miss out on a lot,” says Homer, but as usual he has a plan—the purchase of a large truck to transport their harvest. Donations of $10,000 are still needed.
Among the people who benefit from the gleaners’ largess is Pat Cayler, who uses their fresh produce for the home meal service she provides to 300 housebound people in Sacramento. “We can’t afford to buy at market prices, so I go out once a week and load up at the gleaners’ warehouse,” she says. Other beneficiaries include a soup kitchen, a boys’ home and a shelter for battered women.
Homer has twice been summoned to Washington to pick up awards for volunteerism. But he still runs the army from his modest apartment in Sacramento. Homer likes to be the boss, though. Directing a recent tomato roundup from the edge of the field, Homer remarked, “People wonder why I don’t pick, too. Well, then I wouldn’t know where to take the group next.”