Get the dirt on your vegies, and your farmer, with community-supported agriculture.
On Saturday mornings, somewhere in Ashwood in Melbourne’s south-east, a front yard looks like this: flocks of neighbours swap their backyard produce and chirp to one another over tea and cake. Kids buzz around. Then they all chat with their farmer.
It’s the Damper Creek Co-operative. About fifty families collect a box of organic vegetables, weekly or fortnightly, for $28 each. The boxes are delivered by the farmer, Rod May, from Captain’s Creek Farm near Daylesford. “He comes and hangs out with us for morning tea,” says co-op founder Katie Greaves. “People get to ask him questions about the food. The kids call him Our Farmer Rod.”
The vegie box group is a type of community-supported agriculture (CSA), where growers sell directly, and regularly, to eaters. “We want to know where our food comes from and we want to build a relationship with the people who grow it,” Ms Greaves says.
The co-op, run by volunteer members, began buying boxes in January. “We were concerned about our climate impact and dependence on fossil fuels,” she says. “I wanted food that hadn’t travelled halfway around the planet. I wanted to ride my bike to collect it, and to create a world where my young children get to know their neighbours.”
Members receive produce according to season. “We get vegies pulled straight from the ground, covered in dirt. We never know what we’re going to get, and people have really embraced that,” Ms Greaves says, noting the keen cookery discussion that followed delivery of daikon, an East Asian radish.
The co-op held an excursion to Captain’s Creek Farm, and plans to return for a spring feast and working bee. “Rod took us on a tramping tour around the vegie paddocks. The kids were hanging off his legs and asking questions about beetroot,” she says.
Ms Greaves is full of encouragement for people who want to create or join a CSA. “The key thing is to start small and keep it simple. Just go ahead – gather a group of interested people and begin making contacts.”
The Farm Gateway website, coordinated by Michelle Yang, is a great place to start. You can use the site to find active groups around the city or register your interest.
“The term ‘community-supported agriculture’ came out of America in the eighties,” Ms Yang says. There, it refers to groups that pay their farmer upfront for a season’s produce, rather than buying week-to-week. “It’s about supporting the farmer financially when they need it most.”
That kind of structure is less common in Australia, but can be invaluable for growers starting a scheme from scratch. However, vegie box groups such as the Damper Creek Co-op also give farmers a guaranteed market and close contact with their customers.
Ms Yang argues that CSAs bring householders benefits in spades: cheap, fresh, healthy food, with proof of its provenance, plus friendlier neighbourhoods and less transport, waste and packaging. “It re-establishes that sense of community around food, which we’ve lost in our society,” she says.
If a co-op isn’t for you, CERES Food Connect will soon offer a similar distribution scheme. They’ll buy and sort local, organic produce, then deliver boxes to a designated ‘city cousin’. Neighbours will pick up their produce from that house.