9 Miles East
Drive nine miles east of Saratoga Springs, and the race track, upscale boutiques and specialty coffee shops slowly give way to funky antique stores filled to the rafters with dusty treasures, cheerful delis with chili dog specials, small-scale dairy and hay farms. Soon, you’ll be bumping along a semi-paved road to a 29-acre swath of clay-loam soil, much of which is blanketed in clover, buck- wheat and rye cover crops.
Vans with the motto “Local Food for Busy People” pull in and out. Hoop houses crouch on the land like mother hens over their eggs, protecting their mysterious projects within. A sharp-angled, proud-looking red barn seems to smile over all.
The people at 9 Miles East are bringing the farm to the people in a way that seems downright revolutionary, à la farmers’ markets circa 1978.
These days, there’s a certain cachet to hitting the farmers’ market. Everyone brings their reusable bags, their most earnest expressions and big plans for those lamb chops, heirloom potatoes, bushels of rosemary, handmade chocolate bonbons and bottles of local pinot noir they’re scouting out. And clearly, cash and time to spare.
And thank goodness for that! Due in part to celebrity support from the likes of Gwyneth Paltrow, local farmers are, in Mario Batali’s words, the “rock stars” of the culinary world, and eating organic kale is, like, totally the thing to do. In 2012, farming brought in more than $5.4 billion in agricultural commodity sales in New York, an increase of more than 22% from 2007. (Those are the most recent figures available). We rank third in national sales of milk and lead the nation in yogurt, cottage cheese and sour cream production. We’re in the top 10 for apples, grapes, onions, sweet corn, tomatoes, maple syrup and a wide variety of other fruits and vegetables.
But, what about the folks who want to eat local, organic food but don’t have the time, interest or expertise to turn their easy, inexpen- sive, drive-through lifestyle into a Goop-approved snapshot worthy of Instagram upload? And what about the folks who still can’t bring themselves to partake in the kale Kool-Aid (don’t even talk to them about quinoa) and want a slightly healthier version of America’s favorite fast food? 9 Miles East has their back.
“The midweek family dinner is broken,” Gordon Sacks, founder and owner of 9 Miles East, says. “So many people are too busy to cook, never mind shop, for healthy, local ingredients. We try to make good food convenient and accessible to everyone. I don’t think anyone wants to live in a two-tiered system where only people with money and time to spare can eat well, but in too many cases, that’s what’s happening.”
Gordon and his wife, Mary, who now focuses primarily on her teaching career, founded the farm, initially with just 11 and a half acres, in 2003 with a simple mission: Get healthy food to local, busy people. Gordon has an open, inquisitive, outgoing energy and seems to focus his entire being on accomplishing that goal and continuing to grow his programs and farm, which now employs 23 people and is set to hire more.
“We made a lot of mistakes in the beginning,” he admits, without a trace of regret. “Mary and I had a big garden, but it’s quite a jump to farm. Our initial service was a CSA [community-supported agri- culture] subscription model, but instead of a bag of produce, they got a prepared dinner, like lasagna or curry made with vegetables grown on the farm.”
The other ingredients were as local as possible, without being ridiculous (“We’re not going to mine our own salt,” Gordon notes drily), and 9 Miles East quickly established relationships with other local farmers who might have barrels of perfectly delicious and fresh produce that simply wouldn’t sell at the farmers’ market because, well, “it’s ugly.” In the U.S., organic waste is the second-highest component of landfills, and an estimated 30% to 40% of our food is wasted, according to the United Nations Environment Programme. Too often, food gets chucked because it has a harmless blemish or weird shape that means it won’t get snapped up at the market. From the get-go, 9 Miles East put the beauty school dropouts to work, to delicious effect, in sauces, soups and by chopping them into grain salads.
That first year, Gordon says they served five families for five weeks.
Word spread. Quickly. The business expanded into a complex river system with a dense network of tributaries and distributaries, all of which are connected and interdependent. There are a handful of core businesses central to their mission. See “What’s on the Menu” below for more information on those.
“We are at the top of the local food funnel for people whose needs are not being met,” Gordon says. “We saw a real need. So many farms and restaurants that also value local, seasonal food are down at the tip of the funnel with specialty, expensive versions of what we have. Our GO Bags, boxes and menus don’t have watermelon radishes, they have cucum- bers, carrots, lettuce and tomatoes. Vegetables everyone recognizes and uses.”
Gordon and his team have managed what (so far) no one else has even ventured to pull off: local, affordable, farm fare for busy working families and young singles in a variety of for- mats: pizza, healthy pre-made meals, basic ingredients. 9 Miles East has the mentality of Blue Apron and, yes, even Pizza Hut, with the heart and soul of Slow Food and farmers’ markets.
The proof is in the pizza. And the sight of your busy family on a Wednesday night, all eating together, at the same time, at the same table, smiles of appreciation all around.
I’m up for seconds. You?
WHAT’S ON THE MENU AT 9 MILES EAST
Workplace Wellness: The farm delivers healthy meals to more than 120 companies and public entities in upstate New York and a dozen or so in the metropolitan Boston area. The program offers year-round delivery of healthy meals made with whole grains, fresh farm vegetables and farm-made dressings. Boxes start at about $8.41. No pre-order or subscription required. GO Bags of seasonal, local vegetables harvested and delivered within 24 hours are also available roughly 26 weeks of the year.
Pizza Delivery: The ultimate convenience food, with a farm-fresh makeover. A $20 pizza made from New York State flour, cheese and farm-fresh tomato sauce. Serving Saratoga Springs, Wilton, Gansevoort, Greenfield and the Village of Greenwich, plus Common Roots Brewery in South Glens Falls on Wednesdays and Brix Wine and Liquor in Malta on Tuesdays.
Home Meal Delivery: A cooler delivered once per week with five healthy meals made from local ingredients, starting at $50 per week. This is a local, high-quality alternative to meal kit companies like Blue Apron, providing ready-to-eat meals in a variety of formats. Gordon also set up a subscription model for people with specific ailments or dietary concerns who need meals brought to their homes. He says the response to the program has, happily, been even more enthusiastic than he anticipated.
Sports Nutrition: Display coolers with healthy GO Boxes of healthy meals available at local gyms and clubs, including the YMCA.
On the GO: Display coolers with GO Boxes of healthy meals available at the Marriott Residence Inn for hungry travelers who want takeout convenience and farm-fresh flavor. 9 Miles East is already in discussions with another hotel in the region to discuss expanding the service, Gordon says.