By Kathy Van Mullekom
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, 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. They also help out with community projects like a spring planting of 450 trees at a regional landfill.
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 promoted on the group’s social media page — Facebook@TidewaterCropMob.
“Working side-by-side with farmers and consumers builds a better relationship of understanding and trust,” says Lara, 37, of Hampton, Va.
“These green-thumbed volunteers are a community that helps empower and support local farmers through their efforts.”
Tidewater Crop Mob began as Norfolk Crop Mob, started by Bryn Bird four years ago. Lara encountered the group after reading food and farm books by authors Michael Pollan and Barbara Kingsolver, and then attending a Sustainable Living fair in Norfolk, Va., where she saw the group’s sign “Wanna be a farmer for a day?”
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.
“My research about the difference in food justice between cheap available food and wholesome local food and how local farmers can ‘make it’ when big box stores can sell products for half the price and most of the time half the nutrition,” she says.
“I felt I could do more than purchase at farmer’s markets. I wanted to be an active participant in my food sources.”
In everyday life, Lara 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. Sometimes, depending on the job, a farmer will ask you to bring an extra shovel or rake, Lara says. Lifting and bending is occasionally part of the volunteer work.
“Farmers are very grateful for any assistance,” she says.
As director, Lara 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 -- chickens, geese, cows, sheep, goats, guinea hens and turkeys — 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,” Lara 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.
To end the day on a festive note, the owners cooked a hog, provided drinks, paper plates and all the fixin’s 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.” says Lauren and Dan Ruane of Portsmouth, Va.