Community Supported Agriculture

I’ve been wanting to give Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) a try for a few years now, but I always think of this at the wrong time of year and miss the window to sign up. For those who haven’t heard of it, the idea is that you essentially invest in a farm for a year, and receive dividends in the form of a share of the harvest throughout the growing season. This reduces the risk to the farmer, as their crop is sold ahead of time, and any loss due to weather or other natural disaster is distributed among supporters (as is any surplus, of course), and it allows them to plan better. For the CSA supporter, you get a weekly supply of fresh, seasonal vegetables, and an insight into the ups and downs of farming.

Also, if you are interested in supporting farmers but too lazy to get up early on a Saturday and go to a farmers’ market (and with my very poor sleep patterns, that is definitely me at present), this brings the farmers’ market to your door in a pleasing fashion.

Anyway, this year, by very good fortune, my urge to explore CSA struck on January 17 – the last day to sign up with Angelica Organic Farm, and I did so with alacrity and spent several days being OVERWHELMINGLY EXCITED ABOUT VEGETABLES before receiving an apologetic email citing hail and locusts (shades of Little House On The Prairie, or possibly just the book of Exodus) and letting us know that our deliveries would start and end one week later this year. So I had to contain my excitement for a whole extra week, which was very hard, especially on my husband and my office mates.

But our first box arrived on January 31, with an array of leafy greens, kohlrabi, beetroot and a startling quantity of garlic, and we were off to the races. At the time of writing, we have now received five boxes, which I think is sufficient for a preliminary review.

The short version is that I am still OVERWHELMINGLY EXCITED ABOUT VEGETABLES, and my office mates have to suffer through my gleeful squeals when the weekly CSA email hits my inbox and I find out just what will be in my box this week. Also, I have a freezer full of roast garlic.

I want to talk a bit about Angelica Organic’s set up, which is very appealing to the likes of me. There is the aforementioned weekly email which provides a list of what vegetables to expect, a bit of an update on how things are going at the farm and what’s nearly ready to pick, and a selection of recipes for the more obscure vegetables. And some of them are quite obscure – Tokyo Greens had never previously crossed my consciousness, and I fear that the one time I bought kohlrabi it languished unused in my fridge because I didn’t know what to do with it. Zucchini flowers, on the other hand, I know *precisely* how to deal with – but they aren’t typically available at the local shops.

We are warned up front that we can’t order specific vegetables, but we do get to nominate up to two vegetables that we do not want or want very rarely. No more than two, because they want everyone to get a good variety of vegetables, and if some people will only eat the same five or six things, then nobody else will ever get their share of those things. So you have to be prepared to be adventurous. For this year, I’ve said no to celery, because I have had way too many veggie boxes in my life that provide us with a gigantic bunch of celery week after week and it’s more than I can ever use, and I’ve asked to make potatoes an occasional treat, since Andrew isn’t fond of them. I might pick other vegetables in another year, once I have a sense of how often those items turn up in the first place…

The subscription is paid up front, but averages out to about $59 per box, including delivery, and so far, it’s been giving me enough veggies to cover 5-6 dinners for the two of us, with lunchy leftovers from some of these. I gather that the season has started slowly, so we may find ourselves a bit more inundated at some point (I’m secretly hoping to be overwhelmed with zucchini or tomatoes, and I gather that there will be more Epic Garlic in our future).

The boxes arrive on a Friday morning – for us, they are arriving quite early, before I leave for work, which means that if I’m quick I can get things rinsed and into the fridge immediately (and if I’m less quick, I can at least get things into the fridge). The emails mean that I can start thinking of my menu plans on Thursday and refine them on Friday evening, and be able to do any non-supermarket shopping required on Saturday morning – or place an order for things like dairy and eggs from CERES, and have them delivered on Monday ready to cover most of my week’s cooking.

One thing that I’m finding both challenging and useful is that I’m really having to plan my meals in advance now. I don’t want to waste anything, and Andrew and I are both picky eaters in slightly different ways that mean that just randomly picking a vegetable accompaniment for a meal and not doing much with it isn’t an option. While I have a few go-to vegetable dishes, man cannot live by pasta bake alone, which is what happens when I don’t plan ahead. So I am spending an hour or two each Friday night or weekend working out just how I will be using my vegetable bounty.

Angelica try to give us a good range of veg each week, harvests permitting – which is to say, there is always a root vegetable or two, something from the onion and garlic family, something from the brassica clan, salad greens of some sort, and then whatever is in season. And that’s interesting, too, because they are about 100 km away from us, in a cooler region of Victoria, so while local gardens are full of zucchini and tomato, we are still getting a lot of leafy greens and cooler weather crops.

(Though this week, it was Revenge of the Brassicas, with cabbage, kohlrabi, cauliflower and four heads of broccoli, which, my dears, is a lot of broccoli.)

Another nice thing is that they alternate a fair bit between weeks. There’s never more than 4-5 overlapping vegetables from the box, so you don’t wind up with a thousand carrots. I mention this, because other veggie boxes I’ve ordered sadly do tend to have a lot of overlap, week-to-week, but I think there is more of a recognition here that it’s the same people getting the box every time and not everyone needs kale every week.

Here’s what we’ve had so far:

Week 1: Garlic – 1 kg (this was about twenty bulbs), sweet basil, spring onions, chioggia beetroots, bok choi, lettuce mix, red chicory, baby red russian kale, Tokyo greens, purple kohlrabi.

Week 2: Leeks, sweet and purple basil, spring onions, yellow carrots, bok choi, 2 kinds of lettuce, baby fennel, red kurly kale, purple kohlrabi

Week 3: Leeks, Italian parsley, zucchini, yellow carrots, chocolate cos lettuce leaves, baby fennel, Tuscan kale, Tokyo greens, curly endive, silver beet

Week 4: Red Onions, basil, zucchini, red and yellow carrots, red oak leaf lettuce, tatsoi, russian kale, broccoli, caulifllower, heirloom tomatoes, zucchini flowers!!!!!

Week 5: Spring onions, broccoli, cabbage, kohlrabi, cauliflower, red, yellow and orange carrots, Thai basil, tatsoi, oak leaf lettuce, yellow tomatoes, zucchini

As you can see, we found ourselves eating a lot of green and purple things in January, despite the summer weather. This is actually a pretty good thing – I like leafy greens, and of course they are very healthy, but I tend to be a bit lazy about them because the washing and sorting part is tedious, but I’m now ‘processing’ them all on arrival – washing them, stripping off stems or dodgy bits, and getting them dried and into containers in the fridge, which makes using them during the week less of a hassle.

As you may also have noticed we have a LOT of garlic. I decided to roast most of the first batch, and then freeze it in ice cube trays, so now I have tablespoon portions of roasted garlic in a big bag in the freezer, which is useful.

Here are some of the meals I’ve made so far:

  • Roast beetroot and bok choi salad with lemony labneh and roast garlic (so good I’ve made it twice)
  • Pasta with roast carrots and basil pesto
  • Wilted endive salad to go with carbonara
  • Salad of wilted tokyo greens, carrots, chicken, soba noodles and edamame in a sesame and ginger dressing
  • Fettucine with saffron and zucchini and zucchini flowers
  • Green rice with roasted leeks, parsley and chilli, to accompany chicken mole and a bright carrot salad
  • Sautéed kohlrabi greens, fennel, kale and spring onions – on sourdough toast with haloumi, and then the next day mixed with beans and spicy calabrese salami and served over rice.
  • Kohlrabi and sweet potato rösti, which were better in the idea than the execution, but I’ll be trying them again to see if we can improve on that.
  • Fennel, leek, kale and silverbeet pie with ricotta and feta
  • Pasta bake. Because man cannot live by pasta bake alone, but that doesn’t mean we don’t love a good pasta bake.
  • Yoghurt rice with pesto, quince-balsamic roast carrots, and roast cauliflower with haloumi and honey
  • Warm pasta salad with broccoli, pesto, strawberries, tomatoes, chickpeas and carrots
  • Chocolate and beetroot pots with candied chioggia beetroot.

I’ve also been experimenting a lot with fancy salad dressings. We don’t normally eat much lettuce, so I’ve been using interesting vinegars and infused oils, and sometimes fruit, to spice up green salads – we might have a green salad with sliced apples and a dressing that features pear balsamic vinegar, or a green salad with cucumber and a dressing made with smashed raspberries and rhubarb vinegar and a little oil and mustard. I am suddenly getting a lot of use out of the fancy vinegars that I buy and never remember to use, so that’s fun.

In terms of value for money, I honestly don’t know how to judge this. For me, it’s fantastic – for $59 a week, I’m getting an adventure in the form of high quality vegetables, low food miles, and a connection with an actual farm. These are all things I value highly, and so $59/week is a very good price for me.

The quality is excellent, too – the vegetables keep well in the fridge and don’t come pre-nibbled or with resident wildlife. Compared to other organic vegetable boxes that I have ordered, I’d say that I’m getting a slightly lower volume of vegetables for the same price; however those ones really were coming with free bonus slugs that had eaten half the broccoli, there was less variety between consecutive boxes, and the vegetables themselves were a bit more conventional. So far, the CSA vegetables have been significantly superior in quality and variety – and the quantity is picking up now, too.

Obviously, on the level of pure price, you can’t compare CSA vegetables to supermarket vegetables, so if you are on a low budget it may not be within your reach – but of course, that’s a whole different boardgame and set of priorities. I know that we are lucky to be able to afford to do this.

As for me, I am having so much fun with this. By Wednesday evening each week, I’m bouncing up and down like a child waiting for Santa on Christmas Eve, watching my inbox obsessively as I wait for that email to arrive. And when I get my hands on my veggies every Friday morning, it’s a struggle to leave them and go in to work because VEGETABLES. (I have not yet called in to work VEGETABLES, but it could happen.)

Also, I’m becoming quietly obsessed with weather patterns in the Daylesford region.

I’ll review again at the end of the season, but one month in, I am so very glad I signed up. You do need to be a bit organised, but I’d definitely recommend this to anyone who is interested in supporting farmers and loves their vegetables. (You don’t have to love them quite as much as I do, but you might find that you start doing so after a few weeks…)

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