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Retired ag scientists glean UW crops for food pantries

Helping harvest organic squash from the UW West Madison research station: UW undergraduate Mike Muehlbauer and Tom Parslow, former UW-Extension ag program leader.

Although the organic carrots and squash are fat and flavorful, they’re just byproducts on Erin Silva’s plots at the West Madison Agricultural Research Station. She plants them so that she can harvest data. But that doesn’t mean that all of that goodness goes to waste.

“For the past couple of years, we’ve been working to get that excess to area food pantries,” reports Silva, an organic crops research specialist in the UW-Madison’s agronomy department. “Volunteers have been coming to pick up what we’ve already harvested or sending a crew of volunteers to do the harvesting.

“They just picked up a truckload of winter squash, and we’re getting ready to give carrots away,” Silva adds.

“They” refers to a group of retirees from CALS, UW-Extension and elsewhere, who collect fresh produce and deliver it to area food relief agencies.

“We call ourselves the Geezer Gleaners,” says Dan Johnson, who until several years ago was research manager for the sweet corn breeding and genetics program run by agronomist and CALS interim Dean Bill Tracy.

Among other gleaners are Emmett Schulte, Professor Emeritus of Soil Science, and Tom Parslow, who helped lead UW-Extension’s agriculture and natural resources program. The vegetables and fruit they harvest get distributed through Community Action Coalition, Second Harvest, the St Vincent de Paul food pantry, the Middleton Outreach Ministry food pantry and similar programs.

Silva grows vegetables on two acres of certified organic land at West Madison to identify varieties suited to organic production—for example, varieties that compete well with weeds and resist insects and diseases, and which have characteristics that appeal to buyers in organic markets.

Her plots are just a few of many at West Madison, Arlington, Hancock and other CALS Agricultural Research Stations that supply bounty to food pantries, notes Judy Reith-Rozelle, Assistant Superintendent at the West Madison station. West Madison also contributes produce from it’s demonstration gardens and the proving grounds the station maintains for the national All-American variety evaluation program.

“We’ve provided hundreds of pound of watermelons, tomatoes, squash and cucumbers,” she says. This year the station has also begun sending food—including large quantities of grapes from its demonstration vinyard—to the Goodman Community Center on Madison’s near east side. The center uses the produce in a program aimed at teaching youth how to cook and preserve food.

Know of additional sources of produce? Want to help glean? Contact Dan Johnson at 608-836-1638 or