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'Crop Mob' volunteers help small farms in North Carolina

In the age of industrial agriculture, the group's mission is small-scale sustainability in the fields.

March 10, 2010|By David Zucchino

Reporting from Moncure, N.C. — "Hey! Crop Mob! Over here!"

Rob Jones, his boots smeared with mud, was trying to get the attention of a ragged group of young men and women dressed in jeans and work boots. They were toting shovels and rakes as they stomped across a barren field toward a plot of freshly turned earth.

This was Crop Mob, a roving band of volunteers dedicated to helping young farmers build sustainable small farms. It's a modern version of a barn-raising, with volunteers brought together by Google and Facebook.

Jones, a Crop Mob founder who grows his own vegetables at home, gathered up the volunteers to help farmer Jason Oatis build rice paddies. They were to be taught by Oatis, a bearded 40-year-old who is trying to carve out a sustainable farm on a few acres of sticky clay soil on a pine-studded plot in central North Carolina.

"It's fantastic -- these people love working the land, but they don't have their own farms, and I could definitely use the help," Oatis said as the mobbers' shovels smacked against wet clay, pounding out low earthen walls for each rice paddy.

Jones and several other young, back-to-the-land enthusiasts started Crop Mob on a local biofuels farm. Nineteen volunteers showed up for the first mob in October 2008, harvesting 16,000 pounds of sweet potatoes in a few hours.

There have been 15 Crop Mobs since, each one bigger than the last as word spreads over the Internet. More than 80 volunteers dug rice paddies, cleared fields and repaired a roof on Oatis' rough little farm on a crisp Sunday last month.

Gathering once a month, the mobs have dug, weeded, mulched and cleared land for farmers across two North Carolina counties. Some mobbers are office workers and backyard gardeners. Others are striving young farmers. All are connected by social networking websites anchored, naturally, by the Crop Mob website at www.cropmob.org "> www.cropmob.org .

The idea is to help small farmers work plots that are far more labor-intensive than industrial agriculture, Jones said. But the broader goal is to support sustainable farming of locally grown food -- and to inspire people to get their hands dirty and grow something.

"Crop Mob is not a charity," said Jones, who has a master's in environmental education and now has a fellowship with a community development nonprofit group. "At its core, it's about community -- farmers helping farmers. And when the 'agricurious' come out to help them and learn, well, that's just icing on the top."

As the number of independent farmers dwindles nationwide, central North Carolina is enjoying a resurgence in small farms. The sustainable agriculture program at nearby Central Carolina Community College has attracted students from around the country, many of whom settle locally after graduating.

The Crop Mob farmers are in their 20s and 30s in a nation where the average age of farmers is 57, according to the Department of Agriculture.

The Chapel Hill-Durham-Raleigh area is well stocked with farmers' markets, food co-ops, organic-food stores and restaurants, as well as crop and dairy farms. It is home to thousands of the young, organic-loving, eat-local volunteers of the sort who dominate Crop Mobs.

"We work together, share a meal, play, talk and make music. No money is exchanged. This is the stuff that communities are made of," the Crop Mob Facebook page explains, promoting the motto, "Dirt Don't Hurt."

Like many innovations, Crop Mob was born under mundane circumstances -- at a meeting of young farmers. At one point, Jones said, a young woman said she was tired of sitting around talking about their problems with nothing getting done.

"That resonated with people," Jones said. "So we all agreed -- let's come together, help each other out, and go to work."

Crop Mobs have helped Oatis twice on his farm, which he calls Edible Earthscapes. He has reciprocated by joining mobs at five other farms.

Oatis and his wife, Haruka, lived and farmed in Japan for 11 years before starting their North Carolina farm two years ago.

They tried growing rice last year, harvesting 20 pounds from an experimental paddy. With the help of Crop Mob and a grant from a farming foundation, they hope to grow 2,000 pounds this year.

Kristin Henry, 30, is the group's ad hoc spokeswoman -- when she's not helping raise heirloom vegetables, goats and 40 chickens. More than 450 volunteers have signed up via the Internet, she said. An urban Crop Mob is in the works for nearby Carrboro, known for its food co-ops and community gardens.

"I hear from a lot of people that this is their source of inspiration -- just coming out and working the earth," Henry said.

People from around the country and in Britain have contacted her to ask how to start Crop Mobs in their areas, she said. Two mobbers are heading to Spain to spread the word.

Bonnie Barrow, a massage therapist in nearby Pittsboro, cleared rocks and dug wet clay for rice paddies on Oatis' farm after hearing about Crop Mob from a Facebook friend.

"I like dirt, and I like food," she said.

Some Crop Mobbers are interns who work at local farms to learn farming techniques in exchange for food, lodging and small stipends.

Devin Ross, 25, who met Oatis at a Crop Mob, has lived and worked as an intern on Oatis' farm since September.

"I knew absolutely nothing about farming when I started here," Ross said, plunging a shovel into sopping wet dirt. "But I definitely do now."

david.zucchino@

latimes.com

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