An urban craze sowed by the local-food movement and fertilized by social networking is sprouting across Minnesota and the country.
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 onions, 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. In the Twin Cities, there are at least two groups organizing mobs this growing season.
"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 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 staff 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.simple goodandtasty.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."
Last month, Anderson organized a mob at Living Song Farm near Delano. "We threw bales of hay and eradicated buckthorn," he said. "They had to show me how to identify it -- the stuff is evil!"
Leslie Kruempel of Shoreview attended that mob, her first. "I had seen a piece [about crop mobs] in the New York Times," she said. "When Barth sent out a tweet, I was very excited. My grandpa was a farmer.
"But he retired before I was born. My mom grew up on the farm, and I heard her stories, but it was not my experience in suburbia."
Kruempel admitted she was a little nervous. "I'm not used to manual labor. I had to borrow work boots. And it was intimidating -- we had to sign a liability waiver."
But she said it "felt so good to be outside" and that the lunch the farmers prepared for them was "one of the most amazing meals of my life." Now she's recruiting friends online to come to future crop mobs.
Of course, some city dwellers find farm work more physically demanding than they anticipated. "I hear it a lot the next day: 'I didn't realize how sore I'd be,'" Zukor said. "But people haven't done too much complaining. They know they did it for only four hours, and this farmer does this his entire life."
'Farmville' come to life
Some dismiss crop mobs as urbanites playing at farming, a hands-on variation of the popular "Farmville" Facebook game. Pamela Riney-Kehrberg, 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."
Paula Pentel, coordinator of undergraduate advising for the University of Minnesota's urban studies program, disagrees. "I don't see it as agricultural tourism. There isn't any exchange. And there's a true interest in local food and farming. It's taking your labor and your time and putting them to something that's going to make a difference. For folks who need a little bit of help, I think it's wonderful."
And volunteers do make a difference, said Courtney Tchida, program coordinator at Cornercopia Farm. During the spring, the farm is worked by students enrolled in an organic farming class at the U. But come summer, the available crew dwindles to a few interns, she said.
"The need is huge," agreed Laura Goetsch, one of those summer interns. "The 10 of us can't manage this farm on our own, not in a sustainable way. The labor at an organic farm also has to be sustainable."
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. "My need for large groups of labor is few and far between." 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."
Kim Palmer • 612-673-4784