Ever thought of paying for your vegetables, meat and bread upfront at the start of the season? This may seem like a counter-intuitive way to buy groceries, but shopping in this way is beneficial for farmers, consumers and ultimately, the entire food system.
Far from being a utopian fantasy, a small band of producers in one pocket of Victoria have turned the farming business model on its head to find greater financial security and enhanced community engagement.
A movement started in Japan in the 1970s, Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) emerged in response to a globalised food system that has created widespread disconnection between consumers and food producers, and caused environmental degradation and financial ruin for many farmers.
Aiming to strengthen food security, reduce food miles and improve the sustainability of small-scale farms, the CSA movement is relatively new in Australia yet several producers in the Daylesford area have adopted the model with success.
Located in the hamlet of Glenlyon, Angelica Organic Farm owners Deri-Anne and Tim Wyatt were drawn to CSA for a variety of reasons. With a background working in restaurants, the couple's interest in food sovereignty and regenerative farming practices led them to change the way they operate their certified organic farm.
After selling produce at markets for 12 years, the couple implemented the CSA model in 2017. Recruiting shareholders from their existing customer base as well as reaching new customers via social media, Angelica Organic Farm sold 20 shares (or subscriptions) in its first year. In 2018, the number increased to 60.
Paying for their vegetables at the start of the season, members receive a box of fresh produce every week of the season. The contents vary each week depending on availability, with heirloom carrots, potatoes, tomatoes, leeks and celery featuring in the mix.
Cultivating a diversity of crops enables the farm to provide members with a variety of fresh herbs and vegetables each week while mitigating risk. If one crop underperforms, another crop typically provides a bigger yield.
With the financial affairs of farms being notoriously precarious, the CSA model reduces financial risk. Representing a mutually beneficial relationship between food producers and consumers, CSA injects cash flow into the business at the start of the season to cover operating costs such as staff wages, seedlings and farming equipment.
"Our staff have always been paid fair wages, often above award rates. We hire local people in mostly permanent positions, with the intent of providing meaningful, rewarding employment and contributing to our local economy," Deri-Anne says.
With more than 80 per cent of Angelica Organic Farm subscribers based in Melbourne, city dwellers are driving demand. This large urban customer base can partly be attributed to Melbourne's higher population representing a larger pool of consumers, but it also reflects the interest many Melburnians have in supporting Victorian growers and knowing the provenance of what's on their plate.
Nearby in Eganstown, Jonai Farms has experienced great success since following the CSA path. Raising pastured, rare-breed black pigs and cattle, the farm sells meat at the gate and via CSA membership. According to the owners, the farm's "no growth" model and low attrition rate means the waiting list for shares is now decades long.
Despite strong interest in CSA, Deri-Anne says many Australians don't understand the difference between the CSA model and purchasing vegetables from farm gates or markets. Some consumers dislike not being able to choose the type of produce they receive and others don't have the funds to pay for their vegetables in advance.
Deri-Anne says the CSA model isn't just a commercial transaction between supplier and consumer, but an ongoing relationship. By emailing customers on a weekly basis and hosting farm visits, strong connections have flourished between the farm and its customers.
"We are constantly uplifted by the positive feedback and appreciation we receive from our members. We regularly check in with everyone but we also receive emails, texts and social media comments about how much they love the produce," Deri-Anne says. "Some say Friday has become their favourite day as they look forward to collecting and unpacking their vegies."
This model can also be applied to other food enterprises. Many bakeries struggle to remain profitable due to prohibitive operating costs and the inability to compete with cheap, mass-produced, supermarket bread.
Fuelled by a desire to create wood-fired sourdough bread made with premium, local ingredients, Katy Bauer and Alison Wilken created Two Fold Bakehouse, a "micro, backyard bakery" in Daylesford. When the bakery's subscription model launches, it will become the first Community Supported Bakery (CSB) in Australia.
A stall at the Daylesford Sunday Market gives Alison and Katy the opportunity to spread the word about their bakery while selling sourdough loaves, pretzels and buns. Aiming to bake once a week for local subscribers who have signed up for a term, the duo have received a warm response.
"The community are itching for it. Every week people ask about when the CSB will be up and running," Katy says. Although a shift in mindset is required for some people to get their head around paying for more than a month's worth of bread in advance. "Because we're moving away from the supermarket model, some people are suspicious. They think they're going to be ripped off," Alison says.
Katy and Alison enjoy the relationships they are developing while establishing their bakery, citing that knowing the people that grow and mill the grain brings them joy. Taking pride in knowing where their flour comes from and who their bread is going to, there are no ambitious growth plans for the bakery. The duo are determined to keep Two Fold Bakehouse "small, enjoyable and sustainable".