Written onSeptember 01 , 2011
Barley is furry. It is, in the eyes of Nick Cowles, “…golden and beautiful and furry…and it might tickle.”
Nick was preparing a group of Green Mountain Crop Mob volunteers to enter his fields at Shelburne Orchardsthis past July. He was responding to a question about appropriate clothes for that morning’s work. The furry warning, and a gesture to the bathroom (recently cleaned in our honor), were all we needed before setting off through the orchards toward the five acres of barley we’d signed on to weed that morning.
The Crop Mob concept is simple: volunteer workers of any experience level come together to put in a half day of light labor on local farms. In return, the farmer provides food and a morning of tasks that are useful but, in the words of one organizer, “not tedious.”
Crop Mob events are part work party, part field trip. As co-founder Rachel Schattman phrases it, “This is a low stress learning environment…farmers put a lot of effort into making it fun.” Or, said another way, everyone knows that the number of volunteers corresponds directly to the quality of the promised lunch. The best attended mob featured a pig roast.
Rachel, from Bella Farm in Burlington, and Emily Curtis-Murphy, from Fair Food Farm in Calais, began the Green Mountain Crop Mob in 2010 after reading about the idea in the New York Times. The newspaper profiled a group in North Carolina, which inspired volunteer groups across the country to try their hand at crop mobbing. One growing season later, the Crop Mob Blog, which links any mobs that want to be listed, shows 66 different mobs.
Rachel and Emily chose the first group of participating farms through word of mouth, e-mail lists, and some early coverage in Seven Days and the Burlington Free Press. They helped with general marketing, figuring out liability, and passing on lessons learned from previous events—such as the importance of having activities to occupy small children (moving dirt is popular), paying a professional farm worker to help supervise, and offering a tour and an opportunity to sample a farm’s products. Farmers are expected to spread the word in their local communities and to manage activities once the mobsters get to their farm.
Even though the organizing was simple, Rachel and Emily found it difficult to spend precious summer hours coordinating workers for other farms when they had their own farm work to do. So this year, organizing duties shifted to the UVM Center for Sustainable Agriculture (where Rachel also works as local foods coordinator) and AmeriCorps member Jessica Longobardo took over for the 2011 season.
Crop Mobs add another dimension to the Center’s goal of building relationships between local farmers and consumers. A hands-on experience at a farm is different from an interaction at a farmers’ market or CSA pick up. “In any group activity with four hours of pretty mundane work, new dynamics definitely emerge,” says Rachel.
“It’s slower and you don’t have to talk…or you don’t have to talk about anything in particular,” Emily explains. “There’s just something about working hard and being hot and sweaty and tired. I think farm work is really fun…I can’t think of anything more fun than picking cases of kale or weeding acres of carrots.”
Some of us can, in fact, think of something more fun than picking a case of kale, but we don’t mind getting out in the fields on occasion and broadening our Vermont food experience. Crop Mobs are a good match for that audience.
The mob that I attended at Shelburne Orchards was advertised as a morning of weeding, but as the organizers had promised, it offered more of interest than “weeding” implies. For example, we began with brandy making. (Nick is currently experimenting with apple brandy.) On the 80-plus degree morning when we arrived, the wood-fired still was in action—which was a great demonstration, even though it created a sauna corner in the packing house.
Once we reached the fields, we learned that the volunteer rye (the weed) was left over from when Nick raised the grain for the local Bread & Butter Farm. (Their rye bread was on sale that same morning at the Shelburne Farmers’ Market, where I stopped on the way home.) The barley (what the rye was being weeded from) would go to a new malting facility in Massachusetts and provide the basis for brewing local beer. A nearby airplane hangar-turned-storage shed gave evidence to local history lore that the orchards were once an airstrip.
Rye turned out to be the world’s easiest thing to weed. It stands a good foot higher than barley and comes out with only the lightest tug. “It’s a bit like a treasure hunt,” one volunteer observed, a path of uprooted rye extending behind her. Looking ahead to the field stretching in front of her, she added “It’s beautiful, it’s all gold—it glows.” And tickles.
Communities of volunteers are a long way from becoming a major part of Vermont’s agricultural workforce. Only two mobbers showed up at Champlain Orchards that day, although other local events have drawn dozens. What’s more impressive is how these crop mobs highlight the distinctive character of agriculture in Vermont. This year’s Crop Mobs have planted 1,200 grapevines at East Shore Vineyard, inoculated shiitake mushroom logs at Dana Forest Farm, and recycled parts of a damaged greenhouse at New Leaf Organics. The most interesting thing that Jessica Longobardo remembers from the 2011 lineup is learning that camels and llamas are guard animals and farmers grow the hair on the animals’ necks long to make them look scarier.
Rachel remembers a work day at High Mowing Seeds where they taste tested 15 different types of carrots, each with a very different flavor. “I know wine tasting…I just hadn’t ever sat down with so many varieties of a common vegetable,” she recalls. Those types of experiences are easy for High Mowing Seeds to provide, with their abundance of different trial plots, but not for the average consumer or home gardener.
Although many Vermonters want to know more about their local farms, it’s also easy to spend summer wrapped up in our own chores; sometimes we need an organized expedition like Crop Mob to break out of our routine.
Looking back on her own experience, Emily hopes the Crop Mobs grow into a network that can build statewide momentum, while also encouraging individual farmers to mobilize their own neighbors to come out and participate. When that happens, Vermont farmers won’t just have a few extra sets of hands bringing home the potato harvest or putting up a hoop house —they’ll have a community that’s fully engaged in what they’re doing.
To find out more about Crop Mobs, visit the UVM Center for Sustainable Agriculture website at uvm.edu/~susagctr/.
Photo by Rachel Schattman