Many Hands Make Light Work: Wolfscratch Farm Gets Mobbed!

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Atlanta Crop Mobbers hard at work

BY LORAYNE BRYAN
PHOTOS COURTESY OF WOLFSCRATCH FARM

My father grew up during the Depression on a family farm in the countryside east of Atlanta. My grandparents, Ruth Lee and James Selma Bryan, fed their eight children well on the crops they harvested from their land. But the acres of earth that once yielded healthy fresh food have been buried for decades now beneath layers of hot asphalt and the pandemic, impermeable suburban sprawl.

A generation removed from my agricultural roots and unfortunately more accustomed to navigating crowded aisles of garishly packaged groceries than rows of living, edible foliage and fruit, I decided it was time to explore my farming instincts. Could my green thumbs—or some sequence in my DNA—that had afforded me year-round colorful ornamentals in my yard also help me feed myself?

And so for a season, one day each week I became a field hand. I signed on to work in exchange for food at a community-supported agriculture (CSA) harvest subscription farm in the rolling hills north of Atlanta, and reported for duty to a picturesque valley with soil so rich, beautiful and alive, I could not help but gingerly run my fingers through it and caress it with my fingertips. It was love at first sight.

Wolfscratch Farm, a former equestrian center, is nestled in a valley in the Appalachian foothills beyond the reach of the Atlanta suburbs near the quiet town of Jasper. Entering their third year as a boutique CSA, owners/farmers Jamie and Kristen Rosenthal strive to exceed FDA standards for organic production and focus on sustainability and biodiversity.

The energetic young city dwellers turned 21st-century homesteaders take their stewardship of the land seriously as they seek to find a successful, earth-friendly business model that supports their vision and delights their CSA members. So they offer worker shares to a group of people like me who work for a day in exchange for a basket of whatever is being harvested.

Week in, week out—from the chilly beginning of March through the end of the long hot summer—I looked forward to my day of toiling on the farm. The first month, I could barely walk at the end of the arduous day. It was a punishing full-body workout. But as the weeks passed, the aches subsided. My core hardened and my heart grew softer with work that brought me serenity, satisfaction and wonderful colorful organic groceries. We planted heirloom tomato seedlings with names as exotic as prize roses: Cherokee Purples and Brandywines. We harvested lovely dainty lettuces and sweet strawberries, in the cool spring rain … and bushels of bizarre-looking beans in the drenching July heat.

And always, we weeded. Dock weed with its long taproot was my nemesis in the spring, but that was just a little-girl weed compared to the stinging relentless pigweed of summer. I could pop the dock out with a hand weeder or level it with a disk weeder, but the pigweed required reinforced gloves and, if left unchecked for a week, a sizeable hoe, freshly sharpened.

A competitor by nature, I was determined to have dominion over the interlopers that thrived right along with the vegetables, and to become the best “hoer” on the farm. But I was no match for the flourishing flurry of weeds that followed a good soaking summer rain. As my farmer friends labored from dawn to dusk just to harvest and plant new crops, weeding crept further down the to-do list. The pigweed was becoming hog size …

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Wolfscratch Farm

But then, one glorious summer Saturday, I watched as carload after carload of smiling people—men and women, young and old—arrived at Wolfscratch ready to pitch in and help. We were being mobbed— Crop Mobbed, that is.

The principle behind Crop Mobs is ancient: “Many hands make light work” is a saying that has been around for centuries. But the Crop Mob phenomenon is only a few years old. It started in North Carolina in 2008 and seems to be following the usual sleep-creep-leap plant growth pattern familiar to gardeners everywhere. The Atlanta group, formed in April 2010, was one of the early ones to become organized, and now there are more than 70 groups listed on the national website.

Kimberly Coburn and Mike Lorey started the Atlanta group and are the reputed “mob bosses.” For Wolfscratch’s farm manager, Corey Deyette, crop mobbing with the Atlanta group was a gateway to fulltime farming. He knew first-hand what an impact mobbers can make in just a few hours and invited them to Wolfscratch.

“When people find out how broken the food system is and how important it is to eat locally and sustainably grown food, they want to get involved, but often don’t know where to start. Crop mobbing provides a hands-on opportunity for people to get started changing the sustainable food system,” Coburn says. “Organic farming is so much more labor intensive than most commercial farming, so we help provide much-needed manual labor. It’s a great form of community building— working with our hands together for a common goal unites diverse people who share a common belief. And when you get out, get your hands dirty and see a field transformed, you feel so productive. It’s a fantastic feeling!”

Coburn, a copywriter for an Atlanta advertising firm, says that the Atlanta Crop Mobbers usually gather about 15 times a year to help out local small-scale sustainable farms. “Depending on the needs of the farmer, between 10 and 50 people—many first-timers—sign up and come out to help. We plant, harvest, weed—whatever needs to be done—and there’s always a pervasive good energy and lots of friendly conversation,” she adds.

In the spirit of an old-fashioned quilting bee or barn-raising, we had ourselves a weeding party on the farm that day. “Our visit to Wolfscratch Farm was certainly one for the books. We headed for the hills of North Georgia to do what we do best: weed. And boy, did we ever! We cleaned up rows of okra, tomatoes, eggplant, beans, squash, asparagus, berries and peppers—all to the dulcet tones of goats bleating, roosters crowing, guinea fowl running amok … it was pretty great,” Coburn recalls fondly.

“The timing was perfect, because as the summer workload progressed and things got busy, the crop mob was there to help manage the weeds and give us a boost,” says Jamie Rosenthal. “Working with like-minded people, who appreciate our philosophy of sustainable farming, and with urbanites, who want to get their hands dirty but don’t want or can’t have the responsibilities of a farm, reminds us of what we initially set out to do and re-affirms our goals and belief in what we are accomplishing— farming with integrity.”

After the pigweed was herded up into wilting piles, in the homespun Crop Mob tradition, everyone sat down and shared a meal together. We proudly served our 40+ agrarian guests a hearty lunch of farm-fresh tacos filled with slow-roasted, locally and humanely raised pulled pork and chicken, a colorful fire-roasted veggie medley and fresh garden tomatillo and heirloom tomato salsas. Then we loaded up and headed out to a spring-chilled swimming hole tucked away in the local foothills.

“The tacos were delicious,” affirms Coburn. “And you can’t beat a cool swimming hole in July. We will definitely be going back to Wolfscratch again.”

I plan on being there, too.

Lorayne Bryan is a longtime local freelance writer/editor and newbie farmer wannabe. For more info visit lorriebryan.com.

Crop Mobs Taking Root Nationwide

More than 70 Crop Mob groups—from Olympia, Washington, to the Florida Keys—are included on the national website. The rules are simple and the intent is pure:

  1. No money is exchanged.
  2. Work is done on small-scale sustainable farms and gardens.
  3. A meal is shared, often provided by the host.
  4. This is not a charity—we crop mob for crop mobbers.

For more information, visit cropmobgeorgia.com or cropmob.org.

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