At 8 a.m. on a Saturday under a blue summer sky, Denise Sharp, co-owner of Sharp's at Waterford Farm in Brookville, Md., is preoccupied with a sick goat. On top of that, she's preparing for visitors.
"Usually there is pandemonium the first time a volunteer group comes here, because they don't know what to do or how to do it," she says.
Neither Sharp, 55, nor her husband, Chuck, 62, whose family started farming in 1903, should be worried. The DC Crop Mob's 22 members arrive wearing sunscreen, work shoes and clothes in which they can get down and dirty.
The group, one of dozens nationwide, is a fast-spreading variation on the ageless activity of communities uniting to help farmers. Mobbers or mobsters, as they are called, volunteer to spend one day a month doing whatever a farmer wants. Mobs operate independently, but all desire to make food something beyond a supermarket purchase.
At the Sharps' 530-acre farm, mobsters find a field with goats, pigs and a huge Scottish Highland bull. There are barns, a chicken coop, rabbit hutches and greenhouses. Among the things grown there are pumpkins, sweet corn and popcorn, as well as specialty herbs, heritage vegetables and cutting flowers. Three full-time workers tend to it all—Denise, Chuck and 22-year-old handyman Stephen Brookfield. They certainly welcome the free help.
Planting the seed
In fall 2008, the initial crop mob idea germinated in North Carolina's Research Triangle area. Young farmers were discussing sustainable farming practices such as avoiding heavy mechanization and rejecting chemical pesticides or fertilizers, which means more hand weeding.
Someone suggested that young farmers would be helped more if they farmed as part of a community. So once a month they began to work on each other's farms. By last February, the first mob had assisted 15 farms, and the New York Times published their story.
That sent the idea viral among socially networked foodies supporting small-scale farming, and crop mobs began sprouting nationally. Many mobbers already belong to the slow food movement, which supports healthy agriculture, or are "localvores," who prize locally grown or raised food.
They are ready to help farmers seed, plant, cultivate and harvest, and to meet people of like minds and appetites. Kirsten Santucci, 32, of Falls Church, Va., started the DC Crop Mob last March. She was already a co-organizer of Metro DC Localvores, which supports community-supported agriculture. CSA members pay a farmer a designated amount and share in the harvest.
Since then, DC Crop Mob members have planted onions, weeded, composted, built a greenhouse and cleared a pasture. The farmers provide lunch for the mobbers in exchange for the free labor.
Working like a farmer
At Sharp's, the diverse group of workers—from all races and walks of life—divide into teams to paint signboards, transfer fall vegetable seedlings to sales racks, wash gourds and fill seeding trays with soil.
Five mobsters pick sweet corn in a torrid field. The sweat-glistened group's only sounds are walking the rows, ripping stalks and the shssk that ears make hitting the pickup truck's bed. Washingtonian Kate Tibone, a 27-year-old management consultant, found the mob through an online search engine. "It was great to get out of the city, meet new people and get our hands dirty," she says.
Elsewhere, in the shade, D.C. resident Veronica Murphy, 58, a nurse and midwife, is joined by her husband, Peter, 57, who works with an international organization. They use chopsticks to transplant vegetables. "What could be better, there's food, and it's outside," she says with a laugh.
In a space under the barn, Kass Kavasseri, 31, of Arlington, Va., filled seed trays with soil. The Freddie Mac analyst says his long-term interest is sustainable living by helping small communities survive. "For some people," he says, "crop mobs will be a hobby, and for others it will be real and about the farmers."
Other farms, other mobs
Nearly 40 crop mobs have been organized across the country. In Georgia, Crop Mob Atlanta members join through an online social network and send 50 participants to each outing. They assist people like Greg Brown, 48, who has been a farmer only four years and owns two-acre GreenLeaf Farms in Barnesville, Ga., which raises restaurant favorites like red-veined Malabar spinach, lemon cucumbers and Jerusalem artichokes. The mobsters "saved days of labor mulching, and weeks of weeding," Brown says.
In Seattle, Alleycat Acres mobsters don't visit farmers. Instead, the group created its own urban farm, Beacon Hill. The first harvest sent 120 pounds of produce to a local food bank. Mobber Pat Saunders, 52, says that the group reclaimed dormant land "and now children know where food comes from."
Most D.C. mobsters had read Michael Pollan's book, The Omnivore's Dilemma, which relates how food travels from field to table. But when the group leaves Sharp's, none will know the full-circle journey the corn it picked and sorted will take. The Manna Food Center, a food bank in Gaithersburg, Md., will pick up the corn and give each client six ears. GrowingSOUL, a sustainable foods training center, composted the refuse, and will return the mixture to local farmers like the Sharps.
Denise Sharp says the crop mob saved the farm a lot of repetitious work. She hopes that some mobbers will "find out if they want to be this hot, sweaty and tired, or just do this as a hobby. We hope some young people get into farming."
Frank McCoy is a writer in Maryland.