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Source: USA Today article by Judy Keen

The mob descended on Chris Wimmer's farm on a rainy Saturday bearing pitchforks and shovels. They went to work quickly, relocating a compost pile, digging weeds and hauling fencing.

The Jefferson County Crop Mob, a group of mostly urban volunteers, spends one Saturday a month sweating for small-scale farmers such as Wimmer. In return, they learn about the food they consume and tips about organic and sustainable farming.

"It's like farming 101," says Derek Bryant, 38. He and Jamie Drake, 34, tackled the compost heap, shoveling the muck into new storage bins. He works for a commercial construction company and she's an interior designer, but their dream is to turn land that's been in his family for seven generations into a sustainable farm.

The first U.S. crop mob was formed in North Carolina in 2008, and now there are more than 30. "It's going to explode," predicts Kirsten Santucci, organizer of a crop mob in Washington, D.C., that's in its first season and has about 200 members.

The idea is a logical offshoot of the local-food movement, which emphasizes consumption of food grown near where you live, she says. Organizers use social media such as Facebook to enlist members and publicize gatherings.

Wimmer, 51, who grows vegetables and raises goats and hogs on his 10-acre farm, was thrilled that strangers were willing to do chores for a day. "To find there's a bunch of people who want to help on a farm is amazing," he says. "People have been really working. ... I'm overwhelmed with their support."

Perfect for small-scale work

Crop mob members often compare what they do to old-fashioned barn-raisings, where neighbors gather on a farm for a day to build a barn. Pamela Riney-Kehrberg, a professor of agricultural history and rural studies at Iowa State University, says it's more like agricultural tourism. "People stay in a bed and breakfast ... and take part in the business of a farm for a weekend and pay for the experience," she says.

She says crop mobs wouldn't fit in on large farms where dangerous heavy equipment is used. "Most farmers don't need large groups of unskilled laborers," Riney-Kehrberg says. "This only makes sense in places where you're talking about small-scale, low-tech work."

That's the point of crop mobs: to help small farmers who really need the extra hands, says Erik Froelich, owner of a 40-acre vegetable farm in Harmony, N.C., and a member of the Piedmont Crop Mob. The mob will gather at his farm Saturday to transplant tomatoes and build greenhouses.

Besides the satisfaction of working hard for an appreciative host, Froelich says, participants also feel more connected to their food, the earth and each other. "It meets a philosophical need and a community need we feel has been lost," he says.

"It's an antidote to food alienation," says Rachel Schattman, a basil and garlic farmer and a member of Vermont's Green Mountain Crop Mob. It was formed three months ago and has 125 members. "Everybody who goes is interested in working hard, and it's satisfying at the end of the day when you're tired."

Get to learn a lot

The Jefferson County Crop Mob has 283 members on Facebook, but about 10 showed up at Wimmer's farm amid a day-long downpour. They worked non-stop for several hours and prepared an unused garden for planting - a task that Wimmer says would have taken him all summer.

"Everyone's so cheerful in the rain," Wimmer says. "I really didn't know what to expect." He served burgers and brats to the volunteers at the end of the day.

Pat Quigley, 33, organizer of the Jefferson County mob, is an unemployed cabinetmaker who hopes to start his own farm. He quizzed Wimmer about his growing techniques. "I'm a sponge," Quigley says. He can't wait to buy land "and do something that's right for me and my family and the environment."

Photographer Katie Redell, 30, brought her kids, ages 10 and 6, to Wimmer's farm. "It is hard work, but there's something very satisfying about that," she says. "You get to learn a lot and just enjoy being outdoors."

There are deeper purposes, too, says Kelly Childs, 39, a co-leader of Slow Food St. Louis, which promotes alternatives to fast food. Crop mobs support small farmers, help change attitudes about food and prove the power of social media to organize people, she says.

Bryant and Drake want to learn to do what Wimmer does. "It's a good opportunity to get around to other people's farms and learn some things," Bryant says. "We also just like the work."