NEWPORT NEWS, Va. — Lara Haner has been a gardener since childhood days, when she helped her mother plant Swiss chard and tomatoes.
Three decades later, she still nurtures that green thumb, now as the director of a group of gardening volunteers – Tidewater Crop Mob – who lend a helping hand in southeastern Virginia.
While a flash mob assembles suddenly in a public place, crop mobs purposely descend on a farm to assist local farmers with anything from planting trees and clearing out weeds to harvesting garlic, planting potatoes and cleaning out a goat barn. They also help out with community projects.
Anyone and everyone, including church, school and club groups, as well as families with kids, with an interest in agriculture is invited to participate in the daylong events – known as mobs – sponsored by the Tidewater group each month and promoted on the group’s Facebook page.
“Working side-by-side with farmers and consumers builds a better relationship of understanding and trust,” says Haner, 37, of Hampton.
“These green-thumbed volunteers are a community that helps empower and support local farmers through their efforts.”
‘An active participant’
Haner encountered the concept after reading food and farm books by authors Michael Pollan and Barbara Kingsolver, then attending a Sustainable Living fair in Norfolk, where she saw a sign – “Wanna be a farmer for a day?” – posted by the Norfolk Crop Mob.
She did, so she signed up.
Under her leadership, volunteers now cross cities and counties to help throughout Hampton Roads and to Virginia’s Eastern Shore.
Haner is motivated by a sense of “food justice,” which she describes as the difference between cheap available food and wholesome local food, and how difficult it is for local farmers to succeed when big-box stores sell products for half the price “and, most of the time, half the nutrition.”
“I felt I could do more than purchase at farmer’s markets. I wanted to be an active participant in my food sources,” Haner says.
In everyday life, Haner is an occupational therapy assistant swim coach with Virginia’s Hampton City.
In a farm field, she’s always behind a wheelbarrow. In her spare time, she’s on the computer, drumming up interest in upcoming mobs.
“The biggest challenge is getting volunteers to show up,” she says.
Mob participation is free, no money required. Also, no experience is needed – just a willingness to work. Sometimes, depending on the job, a farmer will ask volunteers to bring an extra shovel or rake, Haner says. Lifting and bending is occasionally part of the job.
“Farmers are very grateful for any assistance,” she says.
‘Great way to connect’
About 22 volunteers recently spent the day helping at the Brown Chicken Brown Cow Farm in Suffolk.
Owners Nicole and Brian Stewart, along with toddler-age daughters, bought the 9-acre farm in January with the goal of selling duck and chicken eggs and wool. They needed help with 11/2 acres overgrown with inedible plants, some of which are poisonous to the animals.
“We are thankful for this amazing community resource,” says Nicole Stewart, who maintains a farm blog at astewartfamilyhomestead.blogspot.com.
Hands and tools, no chemicals, cleared the land.
“The ground was just soft enough, even the little ones were pulling out the weeds,” Haner says.
Why volunteers participate is as varied as the work they do.
“It’s is a great way to connect to our community and to also teach our son, Truitt Flippen, to understand and appreciate what goes into getting our food from the farm to the table,” says Allison Jarvis of Norfolk.
To end the day on a festive note, the owners cooked a hog and volunteers brought side dishes.
“It’s a good way to meet people with similar interests, build a sense of community around sustainable agriculture, and contribute to the success of local farmers.” say Lauren and Dan Ruane of Portsmouth.