THOUGH DARK SWOLLEN clouds filled the sky on Saturday morning, the sun leaked through and warmed the backs of the thirty or so people who converged in the field at Kestrel Perch Berry Farm for the second Ithaca Crop Mob.
Even without the cool temperatures and stiff breeze, the Crop Mobbers would still have been clad in long pants and long-sleeve shirts to protect them from the thorns of the black raspberry bushes they weeded. Katie Creeger, the farmer, bustled around the volunteers and gave instructions. As she squatted beside two women, her big straw hat flopped over her face, and she showed them how to flatten the loose dirt away from the new shoots as they weeded so the bushes could grow freely. Creeger was so busy handing out tools, teaching people about plants and coordinating lunch that she declined to pause for an interview.
Snuggling her six-month-old son in her arms, the Crop Mob’s farm liaison Katie Church sat amidst a sea of dandelions, offering direction to late arrivals and answering questions. Her face shone with passion as she described the efforts of this budding, hands-on volunteer effort.
The word “mob” conjures up images of a crowd of angry villagers with torches who are demanding the surrender of Frankenstein. In more modern times, the phenomenon known as a flash mob refers to large groups of happy young people who congregate in public places for unexpected dance-offs or other antics choreographed in advance via the Internet. What these activities have in common with the Ithaca Crop Mob is the somewhat spontaneous convergence of strangers coming together for a common purpose.
A new phenomenon in Ithaca (this event is the second gathering of its kind), the Crop Mob has caught on quickly. Based on a similar undertaking two years ago in North Carolina’s Triangle area, the Ithaca Crop Mob grew out of conversations between Groundswell workers and Church, who is also the Full Plate Farm Collective coordinator. Groundswell is a project of the EcoVillage Center for Sustainability Education that provides opportunities for young people and adults to experience hands-on farm work.
As Church described it, the Crop Mob serves two intents, the first of which is to connect community members to their food sources by inviting them to volunteer at monthly work gatherings on various farms. Church emailed around forty area farmers, and more than half expressed an interest in hosting or supporting a Crop Mob. No money changes hands, but farmers provide a meal in exchange for a morning or afternoon of labor. Interested people are asked to RSVP for the crop mob, and a cap is placed at 30 people per mob. Common tasks include weeding, pruning, harvesting and picking rocks out of the soil.
The second main function of the Crop Mob is to mobilize smaller groups of people on short notice to “glean,” or harvest the last of the food left in the field that is too labor intensive or cost-ineffective for a farmer to harvest him or herself.
Church explains that there is no shortage of food in our part of the world, “But at the end of the day, an exhausted farmer doesn’t have the time and energy to figure out who can use [the food] and how to get it to them.” The extra harvested food from Crop Mobs will be donated to local projects like the Beverly J. Martin fresh fruit and vegetable snack program, the Greater Ithaca Activities Center’s hot meals for children, or Loaves and Fishes community kitchen.
The Crop Mob is not a new concept. Back in the old days, before electricity, the Internet, Google groups and certified organic farms, communities used to come together for barn raisings and other such endeavors. Interdependency was necessary for survival, but as cities flourished, so did a fierce sense of independence.
In recent years, a consumer focus on local agriculture has become trendy. Though corporate farms produce the majority of the food in this country, the 2007 USDA Census of Agriculture found that 87% of the farms in the United States are owned and operated by families. The USDA also reported the overall number of farms in the U.S. increased 4% from the previous census in 2002, and the number of micro-farms (farms with sales less than $1000 annually) increased from 580,000 in 2002 to 700,000 in 2007.
In the 1980s, a community supported agriculture (CSA) movement began to sprout in the United States. CSAs are subscription-based farms, where an individual can pay for a share in the farm for a season, and in turn receive a portion of the harvest. Buying into a CSA means financially sharing the farmer’s risks as well as their bounty. For example, in the summer of 2009, tomatoes were in short supply to CSA members in the Northeast due to widespread late blight in the region. A drought could have a similar devastating effect on a harvest, and the burden is then carried by all of the members.
Such inherent risks have not deterred the growth of CSAs in recent years. LocalHarvest.org, which claims to be the most comprehensive online directory of CSAs, listed over 3,200 U.S. farms in January 2010. According to the USDA 1997 Census of Agriculture, 12,549 farmers reported marketing their food through community-supported agriculture that year.
CSAs are only one aspect of our culture’s increased interest in sustainable living and self-sufficient communities. Catch phrases fly around like “locavore,” “sustainable agriculture,” “living off the grid,” “farm-to-table,” and now, “crop mobs.”
The volunteers at today’s Crop Mob knew the lingo so thoroughly they almost sounded rehearsed. Deanna Eberlin, 28, a fiber optics technician from Corning, said she wants to know her food is local, organic and not covered in pesticides. Rachel Firak, the social networking and Google group moderator for the Crop Mob believes we need to reconnect with the importance of farming in our society. Grad student Steven Ibara, 26, wants to encourage the local food system by supporting small farms with a focus on sustainability.
One volunteer was more down-to-earth (no pun intended). “I’m learning to tell the difference between what the weeds are and what the plants are,” Monique Rembert said, laughing. Rembert is a 27-year-old nurse who lives in Binghamton and works in Ithaca. She saw a sign for the Crop Mob in Greenstar and hoped to bring her kids with her on Saturday, but she changed her mind when the weather forecast looked grim. “So many children—and so many adults—don’t know where their food comes from,” she said. “I’ve gained a greater respect for farmers and food. I’ll definitely be back, and I’ll absolutely bring the kids next time.”
Church stresses that the Crop Mob is a way for people to participate in a local food system without being just a consumer. Steve Snyder, a 40-year-old cook, summed up his crop mobbing experience with the statement, “It’s more than supporting the community with your dollars; you can build a community with your hands.”
The June Crop Mob will transplant eggplant, pepper and tomato plants at Early Morning Farm. To receive details on this event and notice about future Crop Mobs, interested individuals can sign up for the Ithaca Crop Mob’s Google group at http://groups.google.com/group/ithaca-crop-mob/web. Crop Mob photos and recaps are also posted on this site.