BOLTON — Want to help local farms, get your hands dirty in the field and learn about how food is grown? Join a crop mob.
Teams of volunteers — from would-be farmers to local food lovers and those who want to support local agriculture — descend on fields helping with everything from weeding and harvesting crops to putting up or cleaning up greenhouses.
The extra hands can be a boon to small farms during the busy seasons.
At Maple Wind Farm in Bolton, Vermont, late last week, a crop mob of eight picked mounds of jalapeno peppers and weeded rows of celeriac in nearly half the time the small farm crew could have.
"It's just shocking how much work you can do with so many people," said Margaret Kane, the farm's vegetable manager.
Crop mobs have descended on farms in California, Colorado, Massachusetts, North Carolina, Oregon and Pennsylvania in recent years.
There's a strong tradition in agricultural areas of neighbors helping one another, from barn raisings in Amish country to chipping in during the harvest, said Roland McReynolds, executive director of the Carolina Farm Stewardship Program, in Pittsboro, North Carolina, where crop mobs were reported to have originated in 2008.
But as rural communities became less populated and agriculture more mechanized, that type of help may have declined for a while, he said. As people have become interested in restoring vitality to rural areas, crop mobbing is a way to build community and build "mutual assistance networks that help keep everyone prosperous," he said.
And the work is not just out in the country.
The Denver Crop Mob attracts between seven and 30 volunteers for help at mostly urban farms during the spring and fall.
"The underlying idea is to actually generate a genuine community who steps up and helps each other because we recognize our interdependencies," said coordinator Oz Osborn.
City Market Onion River Co-op, a food cooperative in Burlington, Vermont, organizes about four crop mob events a year at area farms as part of its mission to strengthen the local food system.
Heather Gibbons of Burlington helped out last week at Maple Wind Farm in part to be an example for her 4-year-old son. She's teaching him about community giving and what it takes to grow food. The work also gives her a discount on groceries at City Market.
"To be able to come home and say, 'I worked on a farm, we grew food, this is what we did,' and that helps him connect better," Gibbons said of her son.
Her boyfriend, Tim Ruel, said the work gives him a respect for food.
"Believe it or not, these people are the unsung heroes," he said of farmers. "These are not the ... corporations. These are the little guys that grow real food that tastes better, that's more expensive to grow. And I would rather have the slightly more expensive stuff that tastes better and I know I can pronounce everything in the ingredients list."
For Hallie Schwab of Burlington, joining the crop mob was a way to learn more about farms in the area and how food is grown, connect with the community and meet new people.
"It sort of satisfied all those things," she said.