Crop Mobbed: Reclaiming community agriculture
By Ramsey Nix
photos by angelina bellebuono
Tewksbury Farms in Buckhead got mobbed last Sunday. A group of approximately 50 landless farmers, mostly from Atlanta, descended on Tate Tewksbury’s fields, wielding shovels, hammers and drills. By the time they left, his corn was harvested, the weeds pulled, and two brand new greenhouses stood on fallow ground.
A group called Crop Mob Atlanta organized the event, which could best be described as a good old-fashioned barn raising. In exchange for a locally grown meal and entertainment, this loosely connected group of “wannabe farmers” donated time and toil to help build “an interconnected agrarian community.”
Tewksbury welcomed the crew of volunteers at 9 a.m. on Sunday morning, telling them, “For three years I’ve been trying to get these greenhouses up.”
After signing waivers and organizing in three different groups, the volunteers quickly got to work. Some mulched a field with hay and picked bushels of corn, and others built the framework for two 2,000-square-foot greenhouses.
Hovering over an instruction manual open on a sawhorse, several leaders emerged. They called out directions and delivered appropriate tools to worker bees eager to follow their lead. Two volunteers held heavy poles in place while one pounded the ends with a sledgehammer until they were able to slide one end into another. Pole by pole, they lifted the heavy framework and secured it in place.
Three young women chatted together while digging foundation trenches. Nadia Behizadeh, 31, pushed her long hair behind her ear and looked up from the hole she was digging to explain her motivation. “It’s a nice escape. You make connections with people who make your food. I’d rather know my farmer,” she said.
Beside her, Jen Petrie, 37, further explained. “It’s so hard to operate a business like this. Large, industrial farms are subsidized. I think small farms deserve our help.”
Petrie grew up on a small farm in upstate New York, but her family sold out because they couldn’t afford the cost of operations. “It was hard to see that small farm fail,” she said.
Not all of the volunteers had prior farming experience. Jimmy Lo, 32, works full-time at the DeKalb County Library, where he sits behind a computer most days. He shops for groceries at local farmers markets, where he first heard about Crop Mob. Now he rarely misses an event. “It’s just fun,” he said.
Several Morgan County families joined the big city farmers. Ken and Nancy Kuperberg brought their three children to help. “On our way over, I told [my children], ‘Mr. Tate is a farmer, and he can’t afford a staff like Walmart can, and we want him to stay in business,’” said Nancy.
Her children relished the opportunity to pick corn, ride on a tractor, and milk a cow. When they weren’t working, they chased each other and climbed up piles of mulch. As their mother watched them, she explained how she’d been trying to feed them natural, hormone-free meat and dairy. “It’s more expensive, so that means we eat less meat,” she said. “That’s probably the way we should be eating, anyway.”
“Just look what happened last week with the egg recall. Our food has gotten too far away from the source. When you see your farmer at church or in the grocery store, you know their reputation is at stake and you can trust them,” Kuperberg explained.
Principles like these inspired the day of work. One of three founding members of Crop Mob Atlanta, Kimberly Coburn, read about the original North Carolina Crop Mob in a New York Times article last February. She thought the concept was brilliant and contacted the original founders for guidance in establishing a subsidiary group.
After kicking off Crop Mob Atlanta with a Website and a recruitment meeting at the Peachtree Road Farmers Market last March, over 50 “mobbers” attended the first workday at a farm in Douglasville on May 5. Tewksbury Farms marked their sixth farm event.
When Tewksbury explained his greenhouse dilemma to friend Darby Weaver, she brought the Crop Mob to the rescue. The founding member knew her group would be well suited for the task. Tewksbury recruited his friend and fellow farmer, Russell Bennett of Plow Point Farms in Walton County, to help with lunch. Bennett harvested 30 chickens for the event and his friends, Robert Bishop and Kenny Scruggs, cooked them slowly over a giant smoker while the volunteer farmers worked up an appetite.
By noon the mobbers trickled up from the fields to the Tewksbury homestead, where Suzi Sheffield, an Atlanta caterer, set a farm table full of delicious salads to accompany the barbecued free-range chicken. The Morgan County-based Bearfoot Hookers provided homegrown musical entertainment, while hungry farmers drank beer and ate lunch together.
The Morgan County Citizen wasn’t the only media outlet covering the event. A CNN crew was there filming a piece they said would air sometime soon on Weekend Edition. After several hours of hauling his heavy camera and tripod, the CNN cameraman jumped on stage with the Hookers to sing.
Thanks to the volunteers, Tewksbury will now be able to cultivate crops for an additional four months out of the year inside his climate-controlled greenhouses. This means year-round work for the farmer and uninterrupted fresh, organic veggies for his customers. Tewksbury plans to plant lettuce, broccoli, kale, and collards inside the greenhouses in late fall.
“Morgan County is hugely agricultural, but most farms are large-scale conventional farms. The more things like this happen, the more other farmers will see [sustainable, organic farming] as a viable option,” said Tewksbury.
Massimo Romano, a mobber originally from Sicily, took a break to wipe sweat from his brow and appraise the progress of the greenhouses. “We’re always feeding off the countryside. It’s time for the city to give a little something back,” he said.