Gordon Sacks sits on a wooden chair, facing the sun, as a flock of geese make their way to warmer skies overhead. The familiar V-shape of their formation is a sign, an indicator that the dog days of summer are ending and soon the air will turn cold, much colder than it is on this crisp September morning. It’s not officially fall yet, but here in upstate New York, the start of the season isn’t just a calendar date.
“We came within five degrees last night,” he says, of the recent frost warnings that could affect farms like his, 9 Miles East (9mileseast.com), in Schuylerville. He offers a piece of turnip, freshly picked, and sliced with his pocket knife. The ivory flesh is firm and surprisingly sweet. He honors the quality of this vegetable, as he chews another thin piece.
“You don’t have to do as much to them,” he says. “You don’t have to cover them with salt and fat.” He’s talking cooking—he’s had a passion for food his whole life. After various jobs that usually included food, he bought this 11-acre farm with his wife, Mary, in 2004.
“It had been farmed to death,” he says. “My neighbor asked me, ‘You’re buying that sour patch of clay?’” It took years before the Sacks were able to grow good crops.
“We take the long view,” he explains. “I’m not in a rush, I want to do things right. We take care of soil, and the soil will take care of us.”
In the building next to where Sacks sits, there’s construction going on. Every so often the screech of a power saw cuts through the quiet of the farm. He’s excited about this expansion, which will be an on-site commercial kitchen for the farm. They currently rent kitchen space in Saratoga. This will be the heart of the enterprise, even more so than the fertile fields. This isn’t the typical farm model, but to understand what 9 Miles East is all about, you’ve got to think a little differently.
Most farms sell their crops directly—be it a farm stand, a farmers market, through a community farm share, or to a food distributor. The core of the business model at 9 Miles East is their prepared-meal delivery service. They refer to themselves as service providers; it’s not about producing a commodity. Their tagline is: “Local food for busy people.”
Sacks explains the concept: “We basically started the service that we wished someone would provide for us: Grow great vegetables, harvest them right before cooking, and create simple, full-flavored meals in which very high-quality local ingredients can speak for themselves. It’s vertical integration: We grow it, harvest, cook very fresh vegetables within 24 hours of harvest, then deliver meals to customers.”
It’s a subscription thing: Customers sign up for a season to get one meal each week that includes an entree and a side dish for four people. It started five years ago, when the farm delivered meals to five families for five weeks. The next year they did 10 families for 10 weeks, and the next was 20 families for 20 weeks. Now they have 32 families who get ready-to-heat meals made with farm-fresh ingredients for 21 weeks. The meals are delivered to customers’ homes or offices, and the service area quickly grew from the Saratoga Springs area to stretch from Glens Falls to Rensselaer.
This is a business that serves people with real lives. You might relate: work, kids, a million activities and not a lot of free time. People with real lives eat a lot of convenience food, even if they know there are healthier, tastier options out there. Sacks doesn’t see it getting any easier.
“We want to help people get through what modern life is like,” he says. “People are busy, and it’s not going to change, just get worse. We’re here to make it easy for people to enjoy local food, so they can take a half hour or an hour every week, just to sit down and have a nice dinner with their family.”
Jillian Naveh beat out 74 other applicants to get the job of cooking for 9 Miles East. She’s a food purist too, and working on the production side of the farm has deepened her respect for fresh, high quality produce. “I feel like I’m a better cook and humanitarian now,” she says. “I like rustic, really good quality cooking that speaks for itself.”
As she continues to describe what she does, she uses words like “integrity,” “connection,” and “accessible.” The meals are reasonably priced at $30 (they feed four people), and entrees range from eggplant parmigiana to stir fry. Both Sacks and Naveh think of the operation as a restaurant but without all of the pretense, ego, and limitations. They try to accommodate various diets and food restrictions, be it those with celiac disease, vegetarians, or people interested in a Paleo-type diet.
“I don’t know of any other [restaurant] that would be open to that,” Naveh says. “Most places are boxing in people in a certain type of food.”
Two years ago, the farm realized there were other customers that were missing out on fresh food. These were the people that maybe didn’t have the time to get to the farmers market, but still wanted fresh produce. So Sacks launched GO Bags, a large sack of fresh vegetables and herbs for $10—also delivered. Every season, the meal subscription service has sold out, and it’s not uncommon for the GO Bag deliveries to get booked as well.
So, Sacks is adding another service that he calls the GO Box. “It’s a smaller single-serving meal, that we’re looking at pricing at $8.50,” he says. These deliveries would be scheduled for around lunch time, but customers could purchase more than one to bring home for dinner if they wanted to. The farm would do this year-round, and Sacks says that customers wouldn’t have to commit to a whole season like the meal subscription service.
“We want to make it easy for people to include local food in their regular daily and weekly routines. That’s the frontier for local food in our opinion, both from a convenience and a cost standpoint,” he says. “This alternative is just as convenient as fast food but dramatically healthier.”