It was a rainy Saturday -- a perfect day for sleeping late or lingering over a latte. But graduate student Sarah Burridge of Minneapolis was in a farm field getting wet and dirty with a bunch of people she didn't know. They got a quick demonstration on the stirrup hoe, then got to work planting tomatoes and mulching paths using mown alfalfa.
Burridge didn't get paid. She didn't even get much produce -- just a few radishes. She spent the day as a farm hand for "fun," she said, after a Facebook friend told her about having a great experience volunteering at a farm near Washington, D.C.
All across the country, similar groups of mostly young urbanites are gathering in "crop mobs" to provide farmers with a few hours of free labor. While the mobbers say they do it because it's fun, there's also a mission: to support small-scale local agriculture.
"I'm extremely concerned about how we grow our food," said photographer Mette Nielsen of Minneapolis, who took part in a recent crop mob at Cornercopia Farm, an organic teaching farm on the St. Paul campus of the University of Minnesota. "It's important to get food produced closer to where we live."
The crop-mob phenomenon started two years ago in North Carolina (according to www.cropmob.org), and has spread rapidly across the country, fueled by social-networking media.
"It's just an opportunity for city mice to get out to a farm and get their hands dirty," said Barth Anderson, chief blogger at Fair Food Fight ( www.fairfoodfight.com ), who organizes monthly crop mobs via his website and the Twin Cities Crop Mob Facebook page. "We focus on small, sustainable organic farms. We want to help farmers, and we ask for jobs that don't require training and aren't dangerous. It's idiot work, and we're the idiots."
Riverbend Farm in Delano, Minn., has been hosting crop mobs before the term existed. Tracy Singleton, owner of Birchwood Cafe in Minneapolis, said monthly trips to the farm started a couple years ago as a way to help the local farmer, build community and educate restaurant staffers about the origins of the food they were preparing. This year, her restaurant, along with Common Roots and Lucia's restaurants, started inviting its customers to take part, under the crop-mob moniker. "It's a new term people are using, and we adopted it," she said.
The mobs at Riverbend Farm are "a kid-friendly, family-farm experience," said coordinator Lee Zukor, founder of a local-food website ( www.simplegoodandtasty.com ). He brings his own children, ages 8 and 5. "They love it!"
But Anderson mobilizes only grown-up mobs. "I want this to be muscle, from adults, not child care," he said. "That defeats the purpose." Small farmers need all the help they can get, he said. "Farming can take 80 hours a week, and the burnout factor is very high. The odds are stacked against farmers. Anything we can do to lighten the load is good."
Of course, some city dwellers find farm work more physically demanding than they anticipated. "But people haven't done too much complaining," Zukor said. "They know they did it for only four hours, and this farmer does this his entire life."
Some dismiss crop mobs as urbanites playing at farming, a hands-on variation of the popular "Farmville" Facebook game. Pamela Riney-Kehrberg, a history professor at Iowa State University, likened crop mobs to "agricultural tourism."
"You go in, spend a nice weekend, get your fingers a little dirty. It's nice but not a significant contribution to agriculture," she said. "They're taking none of the risk. Farming is something you do 365 days a year. It's enormously difficult. (Attending a crop mob) doesn't really tell you what it is like to manage on a daily basis."
Farmer Lyle Rollag said he'd never heard the term "crop mob" and didn't think he'd have much use for one on his 900-acre family farm near Beaver Creek, Minn. "I'm a long way from an urban center, and we've gone to more of a mechanized system," he said. He runs Rollag Farms with help from his two teenage sons. "That's about all I need, although there are times you struggle, especially during the school season."
But he liked the idea of urbanites learning about agriculture.
"A lot of kids are two and three generations removed from farming," he said. "Anytime you can get somebody back in a rural setting, seeing what it takes to put food on the table -- that's great."
(Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service, www.scrippsnews.com.)
Copyright 2010 Scripps Media, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.
Four people including two children are being treated for dog bite wounds following a vicious attack in Lakeland on Thursday.