ON A PRIVATE ESTATE somewhere in the Alexander Valley, I’ve appointed myself Chief Cherry Tomato Tester. “This one’s good,” I’m telling Dani Wilcox, Program Director for Farm to Pantry, a nonprofit food gleaning program that collects 60,000 pounds of produce each year. Still warm from the sun, the golden fruit bursts open with the slightest pressure, releasing sweet, sour juice that’s better than any candy and exactly nothing like a grocery tomato.

Gleaning with the Farm to Pantry team in the Alexander Valley. Heather Irwin/PD

Gleaned heirloom tomatoes donated from the Farm to Pantry team in the Alexander Valley. Heather Irwin/PD

With Wilcox and Gwen Garloff, program assistant for the Healdsburg-based program, today’s gleaning targets include Truett-Hurst’s winery garden and a private residence to collect tomatoes of all stripes — from the tiny Sungolds and massive Oxhearts to Romas, Brandywines and wee red Teardrops. In the mix are also early apples, a few stray squashes, the last of some hot peppers and just a handful of leftover strawberries that will go to a nonprofit meal assistance program.

Gleaning is a fancy word for gathering the leftovers of a harvest, bit by bit. It’s an ancient practice to collect every bit of food, but has made a comeback in recent years as the cost of nutritious, fresh, organic produce has skyrocketed and food waste has hit an all-time high.

Gleaning with the Farm to Pantry team at Truett-Hurst Winery in the Alexander Valley. Heather Irwin/PD

Since 2008, Farm to Pantry has collected more than 170 tons of produce that is distributed weekly to 23 local organizations that provide food to low-income and in-need residents. Founded by Melita Love, the grassroots organization uses volunteers to collect surplus produce throughout the year.

It’s an arduous process, but intensely rewarding as our small team gently treads through impeccably maintained rows of vegetables and fruits that have continued to produce, and produce, and produce throughout the long summer. Though Wilcox and Garloff collect throughout the winter and summer with volunteers and school children, the peak season of harvest is clearly getting close. Though clearly we’re not the first to have come through picking produce, tomatoes hang heavy on the vine, eager for harvest.

Gleaning with the Farm to Pantry team in the Alexander Valley. Heather Irwin/PD

Gwen Garloff weighing food with the Farm to Pantry team in the Alexander Valley. Heather Irwin/PD

Sometimes it isn’t quite clear if something is ripe enough, which is where I’m eager to volunteer. A green apple, not so ripe. A few green tomatoes, not at all ripe. But finding those perfect specimens right from the vine at their red carpet moment? There’s nothing in the world like it. A few smushed and broken veggies get thrown to the goats who are eagerly standing by to test whatever fruit we don’t need.

After three hours in the August sun, it’s time to call it a day. We’ve gathered more than 100 pounds of produce that’s more perfect than anything you could buy at a store, and that would have otherwise gone to waste. With itchy arms, tingly fingers (we did pick a few Scotch bonnet peppers) and stray leaves in our hair, it’s been a good glean.

Wilcox and Garloff will begin again next week (they glean Tuesday through Thursday) responding to calls from some of the world’s most exclusive wineries, estates, farms and wherever else they’re invited to pick, pluck and collect, all for the benefit of those who need it most.

If you’re interested in volunteering or learning more about Farm to Pantry, go to farmtopantry.org for details