Fresh to your doorstep from Veggies of Vero
Rebecca Hornbuckle forgives her customers for getting emotional about their vegetables, picked that morning and dropped as if by magic at their doorstep, like brand-spanking new babies. Call it the stork effect. She knows, as she packs up the weekly bounty from her family farm to deliver to the homes of subscribers, expectations will be as pitched as proud parents.
Indeed, there is much more than just cabbages at this patch, though they do gleam here like a baby’s bald head emerging from a ruff of jade leaves. With 75 customers on board, and room for 75 more, beachside deliveries are rising, she says. Customers, including avid fans in Windsor and John’s Island, are delivered small or large boxes, at $20 and $30 respectively, filled with 6 to 10 or 8 to 12 fruits and vegetables each week. With luck, there is also a homegrown bouquet of flowers.
This week at the farm, there were lush bibb lettuces, Swiss chard, spinach, fresh herbs, tiny yellow beets, carrots, an incredibly sweet variety of cauliflower called “cheddar” for its color, and for the first time, thin-skinned purple peppers, cracker-crisp yet tender. Each retains an essence, impossible not to notice, that would dissipate with the passage of time. But time isn’t allowed to pass. The produce is delivered the same day it is picked.
Beginning last month, Veggies of Vero, the area’s first subscription CSA farm (CSA stands for community supported agriculture), started harvesting vegetables for a 20-week season. Next year they are shooting for 32 weeks.
The rich muck soil here long ago grew citrus trees, the first love of Mark Hornbuckle, Rebecca’s husband, who for a time sold grove properties with French and Co., and heads up, with his wife, a grove management company. Hornbuckle originally held the listing for the property, and bought it when speculation on real estate west of town was at its peak. The tract, just west of 58th Avenue on Fifth Street SW, was among hundreds of acres in the area being cleared for five-acre estates.
Rather than sit out the market, the Hornbuckles, along with Rebecca’s brother, Nat Rew, decided to start farming. They modeled their 15 acres after a CSA in Palm Beach County that currently serves 300 families -- with a waiting list. Rew, a recording industry executive who still telecommutes for Sony after a day at the farm, moved up from Miami to a house in Central Beach. As the Hornbuckles took final stock of the various successes of their experimental garden at home a mile away, they literally dug in.
With two full-time workers, the muck was tilled, beds were formed, irrigation lines were laid, and plastic sheeting was stretched over the rows to use the sun’s heat to kill off weeds and pests around the crops.
Meanwhile, Rebecca Hornbuckle, an FSU English major who was briefly managing editor of Vero Beach Magazine, began marketing the concept to the community.
Sadly, many of those efforts lost momentum with December’s brutal freezes that destroyed the farm’s first two plantings. Meanwhile, Mark Hornbuckle was laid up with a staph infection following knee surgery, and for two months hobbled around the farm on crutches.
Finally, with a crop ready to pick, and Mark donning overalls for effect, they headed for the beachside farmer’s markets in Central Beach and Windsor, setting up a table with their produce piled into baskets on vintage tablecloths. They sold out within two hours, signing up enthusiastic subscribers at the same time.
Notices to the families of Maitland Farm Preschool, down the dirt road from the farm, resulted in more members. “I think we’ll eventually convert the whole school,” she says. Those families pick up their produce as they pick up their children – and save the $6 delivery charge.
Rebecca, an accomplished cook, began combing through recipes to tuck into boxes, to help newly converted locavores adjust to feeding their families. With seasonal produce, unlike grocery shopping, some redundancy is inevitable.
“We’re developing a few slogans,” says Rebecca with a laugh. “One is ‘Everything tastes better on a bed of Swiss chard.’ ”
Indeed, creative cooking is a by-product of subscribing to the farm. Once a customer signs on at VeggiesofVero.com, and a box is delivered, its contents can provide a rush of inspiration, or be completely flummoxing.
“It’s a leap of faith,” says Rebecca Hornbuckle. “It’s buying vegetables and preparing them on a very personal level. People who are doing this are basically saying, ‘This is what I have in my box. This is what our family is going to eat this week.’ I like that mindset. It’s up to me to figure out what to do with whatever’s fresh that week.”
Part of Rebecca’s role is preaching vegetable inclusiveness -- bracing consumers for the variations that come with growing things on a small scale, and letting them fully ripen in the elements as opposed to harvesting immature produce, which ships better, and gassing to change the color. The plethora of flawless, immaculate, plastic-wrapped produce at the grocery store is turned on its head here: Vero’s veggies, like beloved children, can have their idiosyncrasies.
One in particular is becoming a trademark of the farm: “crazy” carrots that owing to the dense soil, grew in weird formations that look like dancing orange ladies with lots of legs. They are delicious.
“It’s embracing the imperfection in farming,” says Rebecca Hornbuckle. “It’s part of its charm. But you have to let go of preconceived ideas of what produce looks like. It doesn’t come washed and waxed in its container.”
The bigger roadblock, she says, is that subscribers are given what’s harvested that week, not necessarily their choice. On a recent tour of the farm, one visitor referred to the rows as “aisles.” And while the choice is exciting – tomatoes, corn, cucumbers, melons and snow peas are all growing and slated for harvest in the next month or two, it is nothing like the selection at Publix, or even the produce stand, which typically include imported produce too.
“Our stuff goes out that day,” says Mark Hornbuckle. “What you get in the grocery store may have been picked weeks before. There’s no comparison in the taste when something’s that fresh, not to mention how much fuel it saves going to market.”
“You give up some of your choices in exchange for that freshness,” says Rebecca. “But people love getting the boxes and saying, OK, I don’t cook fennel, but I’m going to learn how to cook fennel and become a fennel lover in the process.”