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Diggin’ In: Crop mobs descend on needy farms

Young volunteers at the Suffolk farm include Charlie Williams, Brenna Aichley and Allison Stewart. (Courtesy Niki Park/MCT)

Young volunteers at the Suffolk farm include Charlie Williams, Brenna Aichley and Allison Stewart. (Courtesy Niki Park/MCT) Purchase photo reprints »

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, only 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, Tidewater Crop Mob purposely descends 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.

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 monthly daylong events - nicknamed MOBs - that are.

“Working side-by-side with farmers and consumers builds a better relationship of understanding and trust,” says Haner, 37, of Hampton, Va.

Under her leadership, Tidewater Crop Mob volunteers now cross cities and counties to help.

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 an upcoming MOB.

“The biggest challenge is getting volunteers to show up,” she says.

MOB participation is free, no money needed. Also, no experience is needed — just a willingness to work.

“Farmers are very grateful for any assistance,” she says.

As director, Haner reaches out to farmers, explaining the group’s intentions. Then, she and farmers in need of helping hands decide on a project — fixing fencing, planting or harvesting, even processing turkeys.

About 22 volunteers recently spent the day helping at the Brown Chicken Brown Cow Farm in Suffolk, Va. 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 1½ acres overgrown with inedible plants, some of which are poisonous to the animals that graze in the pasture

“We are thankful for this amazing community resource,” says Nicole, who maintains a farm blog at http://astewartfamilyhomestead.blogspot.com/

Hands and tools, no chemicals, were used to clear 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 hard work for a good cause,” says Debbie Storrin, a volunteer from Newport News, VA.

“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.

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