February 4, 2011 | 10:35am
South Florida is lucky to finally enjoy access to several CSAs, or Community Supported Agriculture, projects. CSAs have been likened to "subscription farming" -- you pay a farmer up front for a "share" in his or her output, and for the rest of the growing season, you get a weekly (usually) share of the bounty.
For a while, locally the Redlands Organics CSA
was the lone soldier, providing lucky buyers with a bounty from November through April. Lately, a few new players have entered the scene: Teena's Pride CSA
offers a bounty of vegetables from Homestead, and for the fans of the hyperlocal, the Little River Market Garden CSA
provides flowers and vegetables from inner-city Miami.
As delicious as the output is, and as virtuous as it is to support local farms, a CSA doesn't always work out for everybody interested in organic produce. The Redlands version, for instance, sells out seemingly immediately every year. And all three of the aforementioned require payment up-front, offer only half- or full shares, and can't be suspended from week to week if you travel a lot.
So what is a cash-poor, single, or frequently traveling organics lover -- or even an especially hungry family -- to do? A private organics buying club is one option. No, all the produce won't be from within 50 miles -- but unlike a CSA tied to one specific farm, a buying club can source items from multiple suppliers, which means greater variety. (There's only so much one can do with a Florida winter's crop of callaloo.)
The most extensive club operating in South Florida (and the rest of the state) right now is Annie's Buying Club
, currently operating out of Florida's west coast but started in the Keys two years ago. Much as in a CSA, every week, members get a half-share or full-size share of seasonal organic produce. Unlike a CSA, though, whose output may vary with a farm's growing luck, each box is always overflowing -- and you don't have to pay up front for it all.
Besides the chance for weekly discovery of less common fruits and vegetables (kiwi berries, sunchokes), Annie's allows you to pay from week to week, or even every other week, and suspend shares temporarily with only a week's notice. The club also offers highly customizable sizing -- you can do a half-share or full-share, or add on juicing ingredients, or extra fruit, or eggs, or milk, and so on. You can also buy weekly, or just biweekly, and the club has grown so much that there is a local pick-up coordinator in most neighborhoods in Miami-Dade.
Finally, because it's not tied to any specific growing season, you can join Annie's at any time -- sign up today, for instance, and you could be getting your own box of produce by Valentine's Day. What says love more than juicy, organic strawberries?
Still have questions? We caught up with Annie's Buying Club founder, Annie Malka, for the full scoop on how it started and how it all works. Here's what she had to say. Visit anniesbuyingclub.com
afterwards to get started.
Short Order: How long have you been running the club? What is your background in the food industry before you started? What gave you the idea?
Annie Malka: ABC has been delivering to groups for about 2 years now, it's amazing how quickly we have grown and I'm very thankful to those members who have been with us and seen us grow and change. By pooling the monies we collect, we have the best buying power we've ever had as evidenced by our great shares of fresh produce.
I think have about 10 years' experience in the organic produce industry. It started more as a informational thing, as I was having children and learning about pesticides and the impact on our health and our environment.
We had a gourmet organic delivery business which sadly ceased all operations about three years ago due to the economy. It was very difficult on us, we had mortgages out and took out against savings; when we lost it, we lost everything. We actually had to roll coins to pay rent many months, it was overwhelming.
We were living in the Keys at the time and we just could not even find any organic food let alone afford what we did find. ABC was started so our family could eat and that resonated with others in the Keys that wanted healthful fresh organic foods too. We grew from there and now have over 100 groups from Key West to Tallahassee.
Kiwi berries from Annie's Buying Club
The selection in the shares changes every week. What's a brief explanation of how things work behind the scenes? How exactly do you decide what's going to go in the boxes from week to week?
Boxes are always seasonal then we see what goes together, for example, when you get tomatoes and avocados and cilantro, you may also receive garlic, onions and cilantro, that way the meals plan themselves from the box without having to go to the store to try to figure out what to do. We always include recipes that are easy to do and allow us to try new things, even get the kids to test them out!
Since I have a history in organic produce, I know what's coming out when and I ask for it, many times only our group is getting the full harvest from a farm and you'd be hard pressed to find those things (like kiwi berries) any place else. We don't look to what's cheapest or heaviest, instead we look to selection, quality, variety, value, what's in season especially if it's a short season, and something new to try.
Related to the last question, what are some of your favorite, relatively unusual items that have been in recent shares?
Personal favorites of mine, things I look forward to each year when in season, include golden kiwi, persimmons, Honeycrisp apples, black sapote, lychees, orange cauliflower, blood oranges, escarole, broccoli raab, Beech mushrooms, English peas, sugar snap peas, red bell peppers -- gosh I could go on and on, but that's just off the top of my head.
Where does the produce come from? When you include local Florida items, what and where are some of the farms they come from?
We always shop locally first but our members demand variety. Local farms may be harvesting eggplant, cabbage, zucchini, yellow squash, and they will harvest the same things most of the season. We do include those in the boxes and sometimes will plan a box around our local suppliers, but most of us don't want those same things each week so we do work with organic farms outside of FL to source a varied selection each week that is never boring.
Most produce in the U.S., conventional and organic, comes from California so once we look to our local farms, we do go outside as well. Even the farms out in California know our buying club so we get good quotes from them too.
Why would your buying club be a good choice over a typical CSA? And what are the benefits to the home coordinators who sort everyone's shares for pick-up?
Supporting local, especially organic, is critically important. CSAs are great because they support the local farmer directly. They are seasonal; the commercial growing season here in Florida is only from November to March.
I think we complement one another. Many of our members are in a CSA and then get a different kind of share from us (like a fruit-only share) during CSA season. The nice thing about ABC is you can choose the kind of box you want, the frequency, and customize it if you have allergies, and you can get it all year long.
You offer a few non-produce add-ons like yogurt, eggs, and milk. You've also offered a cow-share in the past. Any plans to do that again, or to add more non-produce organic items?
Yes we'll be expanding our non produce options this year including the local grassfed cow-pooling we did last year. We will be offering more of those things since we do have the refrigerated trucks and can do that.