From the driveway, a path carved by tractor wheels took an upsweep, curved and muddy, before straightening to reveal a phalanx of corn stalks that appeared to stretch to eternity. It was the haze of an already steamy morning that obscured the end of the crop. The haze would lift before I could get there.
I was looking for a crew of gleaners, volunteers for the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank and its produce specialist Jeralyn Beach, when I saw something blue moving within the rows. Then I saw a hat. So I cut across the field to get to them. The grasses were knee-high and tough, and the ground was rutted by tractor imprints.
Wrong shoes, I thought. Pants already muddied by a friendly farm dog. How long it's been since I went rural.
Art King of Harvest Valley Farms had directed me to this site, one of several that he, his brother Larry and son David farm straddling Allegheny and Butler counties. He had called the gleaners "real troopers."
In three hours of gleaning as much viable corn that was left for them as possible, they had picked 1,685 pounds.
Ms. Beach came out of the corn to greet me. She said her goal for each gleaning is between 2,000 and 4,000 pounds, depending on the produce. Cabbage weighs a lot more than collards.
"We picked more than 5,000 pounds of cabbage at a glean last week," she said.
The food bank has about 10 farms that give volunteers dibs on whatever the farmers leave in the fields until the growing season sputters to a halt. The food bank distributes it at no charge; the corn glean in Valencia was gone the next day at the food bank's Produce to People distribution site in Natrona Heights. Produce to People is a monthly, free distribution at 15 sites, and it is a supplement to regional food pantries.
Harvest Valley Farms, like many area farms, also sells food to the food bank at discount. The free stuff is just as delicious; it just doesn't look perfect, Mr. King said.
"Plenty of ears of corn aren't filled out at the end," he said.
Some of the husks the gleaners grabbed that day weren't the beautiful greens you see at markets. Volunteer Bob Danehy held an ear whose husk was speckled purple. He pulled back the husk and silk to show me a few inches of gorgeous bread-and-butter kernels.
"I grew up on a sweet corn farm in upstate New York," he said. "It put five of us through college."
A food bank volunteer since the 1980s, Mr. Danehy used to live closer to the food bank in Duquesne and would go there with a church group to do repacks. Now he lives in Butler County and works as a volunteer gleaner.
"I love to be outside, to be active, and this is some of the prettiest scenery anywhere," he said, looking beyond the farm to a horizon of undulating hillsides that stood in hazy blue-green layers.
"We've been out almost every week," he said. "I find it very rewarding."
Ms. Beach said the gleaning schedule varies from days of advance notice to the next morning.
"We sent an alert out for Tuesday on Friday," Ms. Beach said. "We also have groups who contact us."
She has a band of go-to volunteers but also gets newcomers. Three of the volunteers at the recent glean at Harvest Valley were students enjoying the short-lived teacher's strike in Shaler.
One, Eric Dudgeon, was there with his mother, Pam, on day six of the strike.
"Eric is lucky he has two friends willing to do this," she said of Tyler Owens and Adam Kirasic. "They've been sleeping in every day."
As the crew picked, I looked at all the ears the farmers had rejected as less than saleable and thought about the imbalances in the world. We have so much food in this country and there are so many hungry people throughout the world, and yet people paw over all the produce in the grocery store to get the specimen that looks most perfect.
We've been conditioned to wince at and reject anything with a blemish, but a perfect specimen only looks perfect.
I recalled the visits I would make to my aunt and uncle's in the eastern panhandle of West Virginia, where we would visit orchard after orchard in the fall for apples.
The apples on the ground would usually have brown spots but when you bit into them, that crispy ripping sound was followed by the sweetest nectar I'd ever tasted.
When people really need food, a purplish streak or two on a corn husk is no deterrent. For several years running, the food bank has reported that more and more people have more tenuous expectations of affording sufficient food for their families.
Which makes the piles of corn in bins on the flat bed of Art King's tractor, which he let the gleaners use, look perfect enough.
Diana Nelson Jones: email@example.com or 412-263-1626. Read her blog City Walkabout at www.post-gazette.com/citywalk.