Monday, 18 March 2013

Supporting local farmers with CSA/food connect fruit and vegetable boxes!

If you are a regular blog visitor you may have noticed that despite having a rather large block in the subtropics, growing food seems to impossible. Too much sun, too much rain, not enough rain, a week away and poof - all that hard work turns to dust again.

All the reading I have been doing lately has been about globalisition (for my uni assignments) and its got me thinking again about local farmers and how to connect to them. Many of the "food sustainability" books that I read are wonderful but most of them are based in America. They talk a lot about CSA - which is community supported agriculture - and if I understand it correctly, you pay a fee to a farmer (or a group of farmers or a group that buys from farmers direct) and at harvest time, you come and collect your bounty. I hadn't heard of any such thing here in Australia and even though we have a lot of Farmers Markets, I have noticed that quite a few of them are middle men and have been to the big commercial  Fruit and Vege markets here in Brissy and are selling what Coles and Woolworths left behind... or rejected... I know, I have asked.

That's not to say all sellers at a Farmers Market are doing that but after working at a "side of the road fruit and vege stall" for a few months I came to realise that that's what quite a large number of them were doing. Yes, my boss used to be a farmer, and Yes, the house across the paddock is the original family homestead but every single one of these items came from the big commercial markets - Fresh this morning. Its still all a mono-culture, still full of pesticides and still full of added fertilizers... and not may human hands went into the production of these veges.

Not what I was keen on continuing to eat.

One day - just for the sheer hell of it, I googled "CSA Australia" maybe, just maybe, there was such a thing in Australia, or maybe if I was very lucky, Brisbane.

And you know what? There is!

Here's what I did...

First I explored the Food Connect site thoroughly. And that's a fun thing to do!

Food Connect buy produce in from over 80 farms in the Brisbane area each week and then box it into a variety of boxes (small veg, large veg, gourmet, fruit, mixed, etc) and then on specific delivery days they deliver these boxes to their city cousins. City cousins are families like you and me that agree to have the boxes delivered (usually to their back deck) and the people who ordered the boxes, go around after lunch and grab their box of goodies that they ordered and paid for on the net the week before, and sign for them.

I guess there are many schemes like this, some even deliver to your door or work place, but what I really like about this one is that you know where the food is coming from. Its not left overs from the big commercial markets, its been picked and delivered to Food Connect, packed and sent out to me, almost on the same day!

There is a small blurb about each of the farmers on the Food Connect website and even contact details - you can actually ring and talk to the farmer. Food Connect organise Farm Tours where you can go as a group to a farm and actually see how its all grown! I think that's wonderful.

There is seasonal variation  That means if its not apple picking season, there are no apples. There are weather variations; not much sun and 3 weeks of rain makes for smaller but just as tasty lettuces. Most of the farmers practice organic or bio-dynamic techniques even if they are not certified. And.. The fruit and veges are so crunchy! - that's the bit that really impressed me after so many years of limp supermarket produce. The quality is very high. The taste is fantastic and I can get much more storage time without the drop in quality out of these veges than I can with what I have been buying at the supermarket.

They rotate some items like garlic, ginger and herbs as you don't use them as regularly as lettuce and tomatoes for example.

There are a few things that you have to get your head around though, if you are going to use Food Connect...

First. It will seem expensive compared to buying at the supermarket. My first reaction was; "Is that all I get??" when I first opened my box. I decided to see just how far it went and tracked our vege consumption for the week. As it turned out, we just used up all the veges as the next box was picked up. It seems to me after a few weeks of using Food Connect, that I must have been buying lots of veges at the supermarket and storing them until they were unfit to eat and them giving them to the chooks or throwing them into the compost because I know I bought more veges, now I wonder if I used more veges...
It looked more expensive initially  but after actually tracking what we eat and wheat we threw out, I reckon I'm spending about the same but actually eating it all. (Man, I must have some expensive compost at the bottom of the garden!)

Second: You don't get to "choose" what goes into it. If there are no lettuces because the road was closed because of the rain, you might get extra tomatoes or lemons or something. So you have to put on your big girl undies (as my neighbour is fond of saying ) and just deal with it. If you were growing your own and it got eaten by bugs, torn up by a storm or stolen by the local kids - you'd just deal with it. It makes meal planning a bit harder, as until you get your box, you don't know what you are definitely going to get.
Food Connect does have a list of what they are expecting to have in the boxes on their website based on what the farmers tell them they will be harvesting. You can check that if you are planning meals in advance and you can order individual veges as extras when you order if you want extra peaches, mushrooms or a kohl rabi for any reason.

Third: There is a set day for your area for picking up your box. That means that you cant have yours delivered on Monday for the week or Saturday morning for the weekend as you can with some vege box companies that deliver to the door because it suits you. So far it hasn't been a problem for me as my city cousin is only a suburb away. I thought I'd prefer a Monday but Wednesday seems to work just as well for me. I'm guessing if I changed the pick up location I could get my Monday... but how far do I want to travel? Part of the fun of collecting orders is the potential to chat to the city cousin and other subscribers and learn new things and if I make a new friend just down the road - so much the better.

So if you are super organised and need certain things on certain days, then this might not work for you. If you like to store your fruit and vege until they are ready for the compost so your fridge looks full - again, this may not work for you.

But if you want to eat seasonally, be able to contact the farmer (or even visit the farmer) and care about where your food comes from and how it is grown - then definitely - this is for you!

Food Connect also sells some other food items (honey, bread, milk, nuts for example) and you can just order what you need when you need it and it will come with your regular order.

If you are keen on eating a bit better, I would like to encourage you to look into Food Connect or whatever your local version is and make that change. I'm still trying to align the practice and the principles but suspect that I'm probably a convert already!

Score card:
Green-ness: 5/5 for buying locally and ethically grown food
Frugal-ness: 5/5 if you eat it and don't throw it in the compost...
Time cost: Maybe an extra 15 minutes to go and get it out of a normal routine.
Skill level: Actually making that leap - much harder than I imagined it to be!
Fun-ness: Great fun to know who grew your veges! Extra fun to eat!


africanaussie said...

I love the sound of CSA boxes, and it does look as though you have some really nice fresh veggies there. We are in such a remote area though that I really need to work at growing as much as I can myself. Hard in this climate, but when I do get something out of the garden onto the plate I am over the moon.

Practical Frog said...

I get so little to the plate... that's the problem! So for me this might be a solution that works. In spring and autumn I get a few lettuces, spring onions and a some herbs. This way I'm not supporting the big monocultures and eating locally into the bargain! And the veges are great! - K xx

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