• Tapping for Taste

    Tapping for Taste

    There are people in Vermont who prefer fake maple syrup—not just people who are looking for something cheaper but who actually prefer the stuff made of corn syrup. There are other people in Vermont who don’t talk to those fake syrup types. And there are Vermonters who stand by Grade B for all occasions and others who keep a little Fancy on hand.

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  • Last Morsel—Roots on the Rails

    Last Morsel—Roots on the Rails

    On summer evenings in the garden in Weathersfield, I know it’s nearly time to call it a day when the train whistle blows; over the river, Amtrak’s Vermonter is about to cross the highway in Cornish. As I stand up, knees cracking from too-long bending over the rows of carrots that want thinning, I think about the train on its trek north to St. Albans, and how tomorrow it will head south to Washington, DC. Back and forth, more than 600 miles, each day, every day.

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  • The First Localvores

    The First Localvores

    I have always been fascinated by wild foods. When I was a kid growing up in Indiana we had a copy of Euell Gibbons’ book Stalking the Wild Asparagus, and I remember how exciting it was to read about eating cattails, making acorn flour, and brewing sassafras tea. As I recall, the cattail stalks tasted a bit like mild turnips, the acorn flour was tannic and needed a lot of processing before being edible, and the tea tasted like something just this side of root beer. Little did I know as a kid that wild edibles such as cattails and acorns were just a couple of the foods historically gathered and consumed by the first people to inhabit the state I would one day call home.

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  • Taking it Slow in Italy

    Taking it Slow in Italy

    Getting together, the listening to and exchanging of ideas— that is the miracle of Terra Madre.”

    With this, Slow Food International founder Carlo Petrini welcomed us to the 2010 Terra Madre conference and set the tone for our four days in Turin, Italy. He addressed an audience of 5,000 representatives from 161 countries—small-scale farmers, producers, educators, and observers—who had traveled to Italy to meet with their peers and discuss global issues of food, culture, and justice. We came to take part in the conversation, too, along with two dozen other Vermonters. The experience renewed our appreciation for the value of gathering around a table to break bread and to exchange ideas.

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  • Cookbooks, Culture,  and Community

    Cookbooks, Culture, and Community

    The case for local nuts. No, I’m not talking about your odd mother-in-law, your bizarre ex-boyfriend, or that whacko who expresses herself, extensively, at town meeting. And I don’t mean aficionados or extremely enthusiastic people. I mean those portable nuggets of nutrition, held aloft by tree limbs. A nut, technically speaking, is a big seed enclosed by a hard shell. And even though you’re now fantasizing about almond and macadamia instead of weirdo and diehard, I’m here to tell you about what nuts we can grow in Vermont, and why.

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  • Post Oil Solutions at Five Years

    Post Oil Solutions at Five Years

    A strong regional food system—one in which the people of a region are participating in their own food production in both sustaining and sustainable ways—is community based. As much as this system grows food, it grows people, encouraging relationships of collaboration and mutual aid, respect and care. No longer at war with nature and each other, unburdened by that ancient power relationship of us over them, and having given up the self-destructive effort to control life, people actively work with life in a community-based food system. In this way, they practice “relational agriculture,” building the social fabric that leads to a truly sustainable food system for all.

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  • Halal in the Hills

    Halal in the Hills

    Art Meade is a 59-year-old livestock and poultry farmer with a thick Maine accent and a farm on Route 100 in Morrisville. He also happens to run the only state-licensed slaughter facility in Vermont that caters to Muslims who practice halal slaughter. This is the Muslim tradition of swiftly slitting the throat of a domesticated meat animal with a sharp knife; the animal is believed to be killed instantly and painlessly (though there is some debate about that). Muslims, who are directed by their religion to eat halal meat, can purchase such meat in Vermont stores, but some prefer to do the slaughter themselves.

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  • New to America,  Old Hands at Agriculture

    New to America, Old Hands at Agriculture

    There’s something exciting happening at the Intervale. “So what else is new?” you might say. “There’s always something interesting happening at the Intervale.” But not every day do you see families from more than four different countries, speaking a mix of different languages, planting lenga-lenga, molukhia, or Asian mustards side by side in a lush valley in Vermont. This summer that will be the scene at the gardens at Ethan Allen Homestead, a field at the Intervale Center in Burlington, and on farmland in Shelburne.

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  • Set the Table with Switchel

    Set the Table with Switchel

    Long a staple in Northeast hayfields as a thirst quencher and restorative, switchel—alternatively called “haymaker’s punch” —was a colonial era proto-Gatorade, a source of both hydration and electrolyte replenishment. Recipes vary, but the most common ingredients were molasses, cider vinegar, and ginger, mixed to taste in a jug of very cold well water. While the concoction could have provided benefit to all manner of laborers and sporting folks, its use was particularly common among the workers of the hayfield and the children who carried the switchel jug to them.

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  • Restoring Vermont’s Heritage

    Restoring Vermont’s Heritage

    “The farming of our fathers was exceedingly simple, content to draw from a virgin soil the supplies of simple wants, instead of aiming itself for their increase. With the impoverishment of the soil, with the forests almost swept off the face of the country and the consequent climate change, with the multiplied wants of society and development of so many new industries, the highest intelligence and energies are required to remodel our system of agriculture so that it may fully meet the demands made upon it.

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  • A Farmhouse Feeds Its Neighbors

    A Farmhouse Feeds Its Neighbors

    When Joseph Kiefer and Martin Kemple founded Food Works in 1987, phrases such as “food security” and “local food system” had yet to come into common parlance. It was ambitious—maybe even radical at the time—to think of using gardens and locally grown food to address the root causes of childhood hunger.

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  • Farming & Feasting with the Robinsons: Winter

    Farming & Feasting with the Robinsons: Winter

    In the not-so-distant past, eating locally was a way of life and a matter of necessity. For four generations, the Robinson family farmed in Ferrisburgh, at the place known today as the Rokeby Museum. The museum’s collection includes correspondence and household records detailing the family’s ways of farming, preserving, and eating. In the last of this four-part series, we take a look at how the Robinsons cooked, ate, and farmed in the late 1800s.

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  • How to Start a Community Garden

    How to Start a Community Garden

    Back in January, as my husband and I searched for a place to live in Middlebury, we had big plans to create a summer vegetable garden. But it quickly became clear that housing in town with gardening space wouldn’t be easy to find. Apartments that advertised a “big yard” always seemed to have a “scruffy lawn,” and few landlords reacted well to my desire to dig out a portion of that lawn to plant vegetables.

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  • Getting Everyone to the Table

    Getting Everyone to the Table

    Back in January, as my husband and I searched for a place to live in Middlebury, we had big plans to create a summer vegetable garden. But it quickly became clear that housing in town with gardening space wouldn’t be easy to find. Apartments that advertised a “big yard” always seemed to have a “scruffy lawn,” and few landlords reacted well to my desire to dig out a portion of that lawn to plant vegetables.

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Crop Mobsters

Crop Mob
Crop Mob

Written By

Helen Labun

Written on

September 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

About the Author

Helen Labun

Helen Labun

Helen Labun is the Executive Director of Vermont Fresh Network, a farmer-chef collaborative organization. After many years as a Local Banquet writer, she is also currently Local Banquet's publisher from her home in Montpelier. 

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