October 7th, 2010
12:00 AM ET
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"You don't get dirty at a desk," says Amy Rentenbach.

That's why she joined around 40 other would-be farmers on a Sunday morning in a field nearly one hundred miles from her suburban home. They are volunteering on Tewksbury farm in central Georgia, building greenhouses, harvesting corn, and spreading straw.

Retenbach, who grew up on a farm, says, "This kind of gives me the opportunity to just get out and do what I grew up doing, and what I loved doing growing up, and get dirty."
The group of volunteers is organized under the aegis of Crop Mob Atlanta, started in May by a few friends interested in sustainable agriculture. They were inspired by a New York Times story about a group in North Carolina called "Crop Mob". But, this massing has nothing to do with flash mobs. As the organizers are quick to point out, the farmers are aware in advance that a bunch of (mostly) city dwellers are about to descend on their property.

The concept behind Crop Mob is that "landless" people still take interest in food production and enjoy an occasional bit of manual labor. It is also connected to organic agriculture, which is more dependent on manual labor - and Crop Mob gets a lot of hands in one place at one time.

Many participants cite a support for organic agriculture as a reason for joining the mob. Crop Mob Atlanta organizer and web guru Mike Lorey says, "It's just some hands-on knowledge of what it takes to grow food organically. There's a lot of work involved."
"Personally I always was very curious about learning just all kinds of agricultural basics" says organizer Kimberly Coburn, "And I didn't really know where to go to learn things, and you don't want to just show up to a farmer and say 'Hey, let me come to your farm, I don't know what I'm doing.'" The solution: she organized groups to go to farms and work while learning about agriculture. 

It's a crisp day for late summer in Georgia, in contrast to past Crop Mobs according to Coburn, "One time it was 103 degree heat index, but luckily that farm had a river so it ended up being OK."
Some Crop Mobbers are themselves farmers, like Tate Tewksbury, the host of this Crop Mob event. One of the core principles is that no money is exchanged at a gathering, but the group is not a charity. Farmers who get help are supposed to then contribute to other Crop Mob events.

Tewksbury says a friend suggested he contact the group for help with the greenhouses he'd been trying to put up for years. "I'd heard about them, but didn't know if they'd come this far out and what they would be willing to do, and after talking to them they were more than happy to, in fact they kind of wanted to work on a greenhouse, so it was a win-win for both."

He had participated in a Crop Mob before the event at his farm, and plans on mobbing in the future. Besides farmers and novices, there is a smattering of people knowledgeable about gardening and the culinary arts. In exchange for their labor, mobbers get exposure to each other's expertise.
Crop Mob Atlanta has done a couple of events a month since this past May. Most involve weeding and farm cleanup, but some have small construction projects like Tewksbury's greenhouses.

The group gets its word out online, as Lorey explains. "We have a website where we post all the information, e-mail lists, Twitter, Facebook, and we also work with Georgia Organics which helps pass around information a little bit."
The original Crop Mob in North Carolina has been going since 2008. Now there are there are currently 50 or so groups in over 25 states according to Trace Ramsey, one of the "Crop Mobbers" of the North Carolina group. It originated as, "A group of 11 landless farmers [who] got together to talk about the issues that they faced such as access to land and insurance."

They soon realized that none of them much liked meetings, so they organized an event - a sweet potato harvest - so they could "Talk over issues while getting work done," Ramsey says. Crop Mob was born.

The North Carolina Crop Mob does not direct the nationwide offshoots, rather it provides a few principals they agree on and lends the name to groups who want to use it to organize. Lorey says, "We're loosely affiliated with the original crop mob of North Carolina. We use their name, we got approval from them to start it, but then they aren't really involved with it after that point.  We do our own thing, try to stay to the same beliefs and stuff that they used to start it."

Ramsey says the nationwide spread of the concept is, "Pretty incredible, but the model of reciprocity is what is actually on display and what we are most proud of."

While no money is exchanged, there is food. And on Teksbury's farm there was a full blown party. The lead singer of Georgia band the Bearfoot Hookers announces, "A bit of local grown music here," before launching into a set of country rock songs. Heritage chicken from another small farm is smoked and served. A caterer provides gorgeous sides of bean salad and slaw.

One Crop Mobber sums up the day, "Food tastes better when you work hard."

soundoff (5 Responses)
  1. Mike Lorey

    Would love to see a pic of Wes signing with the Bearfoot Hookers up here! This was a great event, thanks for coming out.

    October 7, 2010 at 3:24 pm |
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