It was the success of a dish of maple-glazed kohlrabi and Japanese turnip at a potluck dinner that sold me. Not only on the idea, utility and engagement of Community Supported Agriculture (CSA), but also on the educational, creative and gustatory opportunities it brings. Let me explain.
It was just after the summer solstice when a large, blue plastic box arrived on our doorstep in Whistler. The box was no surprise, my partner having signed us up for 16 weeks of home delivery in a farm-to-table vegetable box program with Laughing Crow, a certified organic vegetable farm and bee yard in Pemberton Meadows. That was all well and good, but I had put little thought into what to expect and so, imagined cracking into a leitmotif of grocery store items familiar from the crisper of mom's fridge. I was happily wrong.
"It's still spring and there are only so many things that our climate will let happen in the first four weeks of the growing season," announced an accompanying email from Laughing Crow, now into its third year of running a CSA box program. "Seems it's always the first couple boxes where we find ourselves adding items that you might have to Google..." Kohlrabi — a hard, somewhat alien-looking root vegetable akin to something Dr. Seuss might have drawn and presenting in both purple and white varieties — was one. Japanese turnip, a beautiful, silken white bulb that proved soft and tasty enough to be eaten like an apple, was another. Unsure what to do with either, we'd put them aside for later consideration and got busy with the rest.
In addition to a wealth of welcome surprises from Laughing Crow's own gardens, boxes can also contain treats from neighbours. Because the first one arrived at the height of an early strawberry season, it included a quart sourced far up the meadows at Camel's Back Harvest, a U-pick operation run by Carrie and Remi Charon. These were some of the best strawberries I have ever tasted — small-to-medium-sized ruby nuggets literally exploding with flavour. They didn't last long.
The box also included a bunch of large green garlic scapes (the flower stalks of garlic plants), something I'd never eaten but had often seen on market tables and wondered over. Suggestions for enjoying them included sautéing in butter with a dash of soy sauce, adding to a stir fry or soup, or (insert mouth-watering response here) blending with artichoke, oil and parmesan into a potent pesto. After checking through recipes we ended up grilling them on the barbecue and dressing with olive oil and salt. Fantastic. But before we could get too smug about this simple, tasty discovery, word filtered back through Laughing Crow about the efforts of another box customer: "We received mail about one of our members making a garlic scape, kale and salmon lasagna... Amazing!"
The gauntlet was thrown down.
I thought of an email invite from friends to a Canada Day potluck feast in the city that had arrived the day before, and finished with this entreat: "extra points awarded for the inclusion of maple syrup in anything." I typed Kohlrabi, Japanese turnip and maple syrup into Google, found two separate recipes and figured out a way to combine them. Voilà. The Canada Day crowd didn't know what hit them, and the rest of our own summer became a blur of acquainting ourselves with unheralded plant matter, fascinating recipes, and great new tastes.
"Great idea," says Kerry McCann, when I dish about the Kohlrabi experiment during a visit to Laughing Crow in August. McCann, along with partner Andrew Budgell, are the hard-working pair behind the parade of weekly boxes whose surpassing variety and freshness had me interested in seeing for myself how this organic thing got done. And because their accompanying email newsletter/blog/item list/recipe suggestions always came with photos of farm work — There is an enormous learning curve to using our new machine. It will be a great tool in years to come. Here's a photo of Kerry zooming through the beets at one mph... — I also wanted to know how only two people could possibly manage dozens of crop varieties on a rotating two-acre plot in the 17-acre parcel they'd leased from local farm, Free Range Organics. Unsurprisingly, the litany they describe as we tour the various plots of their operation adds up to a ton of work, especially through May and June when all the ground needs to be prepared, all the seeds and seedlings put in and staged to rotate out at the right intervals, and anything that needs to be built for a particular crop has to be erected.
"We're starting to know exactly what needs to be done and when, but what we're learning is how much time it takes to get those things done — and what might interrupt your day," laughs Budgell, who was renting a room on the property before he began growing and selling organic vegetables on a whim and with no experience four years ago. "At times it seems that every motor wants to break or needs an oil change."
McCann, who arrived to help out the following year and wasn't quite as green (ha ha), having grown up in Ontario farm country, enjoys the singular challenges inherent in farming. Like Budgell, she also stands firmly behind the idea of Community Supported Agriculture, an ethos that seeks to create de facto mutual commitment between food producers and consumers. By pre-purchasing a share of the harvest before the growing season begins — either by signing up for box delivery or in a new system of purchasing market produce vouchers — the community shareholder provides small-hold farmers like Budgell and McCann with much needed cash at the leanest and most expensive stage of the growing season.
"In spring, all your money is flowing out, and you're chasing money until harvest time," notes Budgell. "So the idea of people buying shares through signing up a box means they're helping meliorate the financial risk of farming — so the portion of the harvest we're growing for the program is already sold —there's no labour waste and no food waste. And supporting our growing efforts at the onset of the season greatly enables us to grow and harvest more effectively during the entire season and commit to 16 weeks of food."
"As an added benefit, it's a way to connect into the local food economy," adds McCann. "Some people like going to the grocery store because it's therapeutic and relaxing, but I want people to be excited and find it fun to open their box. To be inspired by the food they're going to eat."
Next week: more deliciousness and the dirt on organic dirt.
Leslie Anthony is a Whistler-based author, editor, biologist and bon vivant who has never met a mountain he didn't like.