The agrarian life seems to be taking a turn for the hip. Urban gardens are receiving their fair share of press these days, as savvy city dwellers try to utilize every precious square inch of space. And increasingly, farmers are turning out to be young, educated folks who'd rather get their fingernails dirty than dive into the rat race.
This is the face of neo-agrarianism — a shift toward a more earth-friendly and community-conscious approach. Ironically, it tends to play out as a way-back-to-the-roots style of farming: Like the seasons themselves, farming is proving to be cyclical.
Recently, The New York Times featured a piece on a pioneering group of mostly 20- and 30-somethings in North Carolina's Triangle area who launched the nation's first "crop mob." The folks in the accompanying photo looked as though they'd be more at home at a Band of Horses gig than in a cow pasture, yet there they were.
Shaggy, T-shirted and flanneled, these passionate young people were helping a local farmer assemble a greenhouse, clear some brush and build an enclosure for a herd of pigs. While they labored, they cheerfully spoke with the reporter, sprinkling in buzzwords like "networking" and "community building." Their pay? Dinner, profuse words of thanks from a tired farmer … and personal enrichment.
In a recent e-mail to Xpress, Kari Brayman, the brains behind Asheville's own Crop Mob West, explained the theory behind her organization:
"A crop mob is a group of farmers and wannabe farmers that 'mob' a farm once a month to build community and help out local farms. It plays off our agrarian roots, when folks used to come together to prepare, plant and harvest to feed the community. Since small farming can be very labor-intensive, crop mobs are well received by family farmers that rely heavily on temporary apprentices."
The mobs, she continues, generally gather once a month to take care of farm chores — anything from digging ditches to picking tomatoes. As traditional as most of the tasks tend to be, the crop mobs themselves tend to rely on e-mail lists and other thoroughly modern methods to keep one another informed. And while no task appears to be too great or too small, what they clearly aren't doing is charity work: Crop mobs only mob other crop mobbers. (Say that five times fast.)
The experience of crop mobbing, says Brayman, gives aspiring agrarians a chance to learn more about sustainable agriculture — much like an exceptionally work-intensive internship. And for farmers, the benefits are immeasurable. "The exchange also allows seasoned growers to learn from other growers [by trading] tips and experiences," she says. "The side-by-side work has the added benefit of building community."
The Triangle area crop mob began organizing in October of '08, and since then, the concept has spread like wildfire among foodies and farmers everywhere. The Triangle group's blog, which maps all the known U.S. mobs, is at crobmob.org.
To get involved in Asheville's budding Crop Mob West, go to http://groups.google.com/group/cropmobwest or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.