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Kai Ryssdal: It's easy to lose track of or ignore where a whole lot of our food comes from. Processed meats, certainly. But tomatoes and corn and a lot of what you can find at a supermarket or at a roadside stand don't pick themselves, you know. So there's a growing movement that has the landless helping out on sustainable and community farms. Not for money. But not for free either.
Janet Babin reports now from North Carolina Public Radio.
Janet Babin: It's just before 9 a.m. on a sweltering Sunday morning in the South. A few dozen people, most in their 20s and 30s, converge onto several acres of farmland just outside of Pittsboro, N.C. They're here for an event called a Crop Mob.
Co-organizer Trace Ramsey sips coffee and directs foot traffic.
Trace Ramsey: Crop Mob is meeting kind of around the corner, there are a couple tables and we'll get started once we have a bunch of people. There's water over there. A little bit of shade.
A Crop Mob is a bit like a community barn raising. Here's how it works: Each month a host farm is selected. Facebook and e-mail lists announce where and when. And people just show up, ready to do whatever work the farmer needs done.
Today, the Mob attacks Bermuda grass. It's overtaken some rows of organic watermelon. Farm manager Hillary Heckler picks up a shovel and shows the group how it's done.
Hillary Heckler: So we got to get under it, get the roots out. Any questions? All right, one, two, three, dig!
Soon, more than a dozen people are whacking the weeds with all they've got. The work is hard. The sun today, relentless. But the conversation is lively.
Trace Ramsey, the greeter, was part of Crop Mob's genesis in Chapel Hill, N.C., back in 2008.
Ramsey: Crop Mob works on the model of mutual aid. It's not a free-for-all, it's not a charity. It's basically a model of reciprocity.
There are few rules to starting a Crop Mob, but one thing's non-negotiable: No money can be exchanged. And farmers who want Crop Mob to help out on their farm must first agree to work a Mob somewhere else. Many smaller farms are more labor intensive than larger ones, because they don't tend to use a lot of big equipment. So the helping hands can be invaluable.
Today, farmer Will Cramer is paying it back after a Crop Mob showed up on his farm a few months ago.
Will Cramer: They helped us build beds and putting down a lot of mulch, which really set us up well for the spring, especially when we started having tractor problems, we already had the beds made.
Mixed in with the farmers are people with little or no experience. In exchange for their labor, the newbies get a meal, and learn from professionals how to grow stuff. And that's it.
Twenty-eight-year-old Jeffrey Bailey lives in the city, and works in a restaurant.
Jeffrey Bailey: Our generation, and the generation behind us have this blatant sense of entitlement. I think we're realizing that everything has come a little too easy for us. So putting our hands back and actually sweating a little bit is a lot more fulfilling than just being able to look something up on Google.
And Crop Mobs are spreading: At least 40 have sprouted up in 24 states.
Trace Ramsey says its popularity is tied to a growing disillusionment among 30-somethings with white-collar careers. He and his peers were taught that manual labor is beneath them. But Ramsey says they're no longer satisfied with office jobs either.
Ramsey: At the end of the day sitting in your cubicle, after you've been done playing Solitaire and hanging out at Facebook all day, what have you really done? So they're looking for an authentic work experience.
The Pittsboro Crop Mob breaks about an hour early because of the heat, but they made a dent in that Bermuda grass. Now, it's time to share a meal: Eggs, tomatoes, greens, all from the farm...
Heckler: Hey, you guys, a moment of silence. For you guys, we just want to thank you so much for coming out here and sweating with us. Whoo! Yeah!
It's just a few hours a month, but Crop Mob is convinced that this work strengthens community and fosters a connection with the land.
In Pittsboro, N.C., I'm Janet Babin for Marketplace.