These farms deliver

Evil Genius record store in Berhampore is an unlikely place to get a box of vegetables, but that’s where some Wellington residents go for theirs every Thursday. They’re not perusing the vinyl looking for victuals, though – they’re subscribers to Wairarapa Eco Farms’ Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) scheme. The concept is simple, but the ramifications for preserving agriculture in the Wellington region are immense, as Amanda Witherell learns.

Here’s how it works: sign up for as little as a month or as long as a year and every week you receive a bag of freshly harvested organic produce – what’s in that bag is up to the farmers, the season, and the vagaries of the harvest and the weather, but it’s guaranteed to be fresh, diverse, and local.

It’s delivered to Evil Genius, Mt Vic, and Aro Valley, from Masterton where, 16 years ago, Josje Neerincx and her partner Frank van Steensel moved from their native Netherlands to eight hectares of tired, grassed-over land. They planted groves of olive trees, cultivated organic seedlings and plants in a greenhouse, and tended a garden chocked with herbs and vegetables, while raising four children and building their straw bale solar and wind powered house. In 2009, they purchased another 12 acre abandoned commercial orchard and began the long process of bringing it back into production, without the use of chemicals. They first pursued a CSA model a few years ago, but that attempt – the first for New Zealand –failed. Now, they’re at it again and hoping to attract more food-conscious locals to their special offering.

The CSA model is new to this country, but was first proposed in 1985 by American farmer Robyn Van En, who put the concept into action on her Massachusetts farm. Wilson College’s Robyn Van En Center now lists 1,650 CSA American farms in its growing database. For many small, family farms it’s become a better business plan because it guarantees that whatever is harvested will be consumed, removing the unpredictability of selling at farmers markets and the search for wholesale distribution.

“Because New Zealand is small, the organic industry is small. If one grower decides to grow a lot of broccoli he can flood the market,” says Neerincx. “That’s why we decided to go with a CSA. There’s another organic grower in Masterton who increased his acreage growing a lot of peas and now he has to sell them on the conventional market.”

If they sell at all. In a CSA model, knowing exactly how many people they’re feeding that season means they can tailor what they till.

“We need a committed group of people who have subscriptions and buy from us on a weekly basis. We’re almost there, to the point of having enough customers,” says Neerincx, but she is surprised that Wellington residents, who espouse environmental principles, aren’t clamouring for more local, organic food. “In the last election 25 percent of Wellington voted for the Green Party. Where are they?” she asks as we sit at the picnic table on her lawn beside their straw bale home, spring sunshine beating down. Van Steensel is at the orchard, fretting over what they hope will be a bumper cherry crop – enough to cover air fares back to Holland for the first time in years.

“The cherries will make or break it,” says Neerincx, her eyes in an almost permanent squint against the sun, her fair cheeks red from long days outdoors. Nearby, chickens scratch beneath the olive trees, a cat curls asleep in the sandbox and the family dog laps from the kids’ swimming pool. The sound of bird song and the smell of fresh, verdant growth are overwhelming and a welcomed break from city life.

Farm Days, when subscribers are invited to visit with Neerincx, van Steensel, and the fields and trees that bear their food, are another aspect of CSA culture.

“It’s educating city folks like me,” says Vanessa Moon, a CSA subscriber who lives in Miramar and has been involved “boots and all” since the beginning. “I’m into it for the veges and the bigger picture stuff as well. I really passionately do believe it’s the way forward, along with urban agriculture. They’re incredibly knowledgeable people and that knowledge is being lost. We need these people who know how to actually work with nature and the soil to secure our food supply because at the moment it’s incredibly vulnerable to climate change and other things.”

And it’s disappearing. Thirty years ago most fresh food that hit Wellington’s plates was coming from within the region, but in a 2008 food security study conducted by Neerincx, van Steensel, and Laura Beck for Wellington City Council, they found that 81% of Wellington’s fresh produce now comes from outside the region (they drew the boundary at Waikanae across to Upper Hutt and down to the Cook Strait). As recently as the 1990s there were 172 farms in the region; now there are about 35 and dropping.

“They get more money subdividing and selling their land for housing instead of growing so a lot of land has been taken out of production,” says Neerincx of her Wairarapa neighbours. “Now, there’s one big grower here. The best land is being used for building houses.”

The decline in farms is paralleled by a rise in supermarkets’ control of the market and their demand for large volume suppliers. A change in regulations, which disallowed the road transport of produce farther than 50km, also affected the market, making any grower in the nation a potential source for fruits and vegetables.

“It used to be that growers were in close contact with supermarkets, but supermarkets here changed the way people in business do their purchasing,” says Neerincx, who does some direct wholesale, supplying produce to Ti Kouka Café on Willis Street and olive oil to Bongusto in Miramar.

“Most of the fresh food in Wellington is coming from quite far away. Often it travels back and forth in the country before it comes to you,” says Neerincx. That includes the weekend markets at Newtown and Harbourside, she says, which are mostly selling produce from a few large suppliers, sourced from all over the country and, sometimes, overseas. Neerincx tried selling cherries at Harbourside but has had better success at Hill Street Farmers Market, where they’ve maintained a stall since it began almost three years ago. While market sales can be unpredictable, it gives them street exposure and builds relationships.

“We can introduce people to the CSA and because we grow items they can’t find in supermarkets, like chicory, kohlrabi, and endive, we get Italians, Mexicans, and others from overseas who know we grow things from back home,” she says, adding that she gets lots of great recipes in exchange.

While city dwellers like Moon laud the benefits of having a relationship with food and the place it comes from, Neerincx says it’s reciprocal. “We really like that relationship, going to the market and getting emails from our customers. It wouldn’t be fun going to the fields all the time and just growing for wholesale,” she says. “You care about what they get in their bags.”

Moon points out that other box schemes exist in Wellington, such as Urban Harvest. However, while their website features photos of the suppliers, mostly from Hawke’s Bay south and including Wairarapa Eco Farms, it’s essentially an online grocery store without a strict adherence to principles like seasonal eating, organic production, and buying local – it’s possible to put fair trade bananas shipped through an Auckland middleman in your electronic shopping bag.

“There’s not the relationship with the farmer. You just order what you want,” says Moon, who calls herself a control freak and admits at first she had difficulties accommodating her CSA bag of veges into her preconceived ideas for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. “You learn to be creative and in reality it’s like having your own garden.”

Asked what she’d received the week we spoke she struggled to recall. “Most of it’s been eaten already!”

If the season goes well in Masterton, she’ll be munching on cherries soon.

Originally published January 9, 2012 in Capital Times. 

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