Farm living is the life for this city family
In “Green Acres,” the half-hour comedy show that aired back in the late 1960s, Oliver Wendell Douglas (played by Eddie Albert) lured his big-city wife, Lisa (played by Eva Gabor), from her Manhattan penthouse to a ramshackle farm in the country. When I first heard the story of Ben and Ashley Neal, and how they started Sage Farms, I couldn’t help but visualize Oliver and Lisa.
The Neals were both global professionals: Ben worked over a dozen years in the manufacturing industry and Ashley worked in Spain for both Elle and Business Week magazines before heading back to Oklahoma to serve as the international sales manager for a locally based software company. They both changed their careers to become full-time farmers.
When I visited Sage Farms earlier this year, however, all comparisons to Oliver and Lisa were dispelled—aside from the fact that this former big-city professional couple now worked mostly on a five-acre farm south of Tulsa—for this was far from a ramshackle operation. Sage Farms is one of the most modern farming operations around.
While Ben was working full-time, he spent his weekends farming on the Neals’ 160 acres near Eufala. He grew corn, squash, lettuce and beans. “I’ve always loved growing stuff,” he says, proud of the fact that he grew okra as a young boy. He wanted to make a bigger impact with what he grew, however, so when he left his job he decided to take on farming full-time.
He bought some land closer to Tulsa and laid the groundwork for Sage Farms in the summer of 2015. But while you might picture a traditional farm, with rich dirt fields planted row after row with crops, Sage Farms uses the latest in aeroponic technology. Aeroponics—derived from the Greek meanings of aero (air) and ponos (labor)—is soil-less growing utilizing air, water-soluble nutrients and light to grow vegetables, herbs and a variety of fruits. Water flows through the system and directly nourishes the roots.
Because the plants are aligned vertically in a column, the farm is able to maximize every square inch of its greenhouse, yielding up to 60 plants per two square feet. Additionally, Sage Farms can grow yearround. And these acres truly are green: Growing produce vertically in an aeroponic system uses 10% or less of the water and space required by traditionally grown produce. Ben’s manufacturing experience came in handy when it came time to develop the vertical growing stands the farm now uses, which he designed and built specifically for their needs.
Before launching Sage Farms full-scale, Ben and Ashley started with a small Amish growing system that they set up in their home bathtub. As the produce grew—or rather, flourished—the Neals continued to tweak the system and started an honor-system produce stand on their front porch that was run by their 7-year-old daughter, Taylor. She worked closely with her dad, harvesting and lugging home produce from the farm, bagging it up (with the help of her younger brother, Max) and stocking the refrigerator on a regular basis. 100% of the proceeds from Taylor Neal Produce went to the Child Abuse Network.
The farm has already expanded 125% since starting in 2015, and Ben and Ashley have big plans for the future thanks to a grant from Greener Fields Together, a sustainability program that helps farmers and other food service operators work towards safer practices. GFT gave away $60,000 to local farmers from across the U.S., to enable them to better their operations and focus on sustainability and food safety; $5,000 of that went to Sage Farms to help them grow the facility.
Earlier this year the Neals started Local Farm OK, a weekly or biweekly subscription service that delivers fresh-picked produce, meat, cheese and many other products directly to consumers. The staff harvests the produce in the morning and delivers it to stores, restaurants and customers the same day. Subscribers are also privy to Ashley’s weekly recipe collection, showcasing delicious ways to utilize every delivery. Currently, Local Farm OK has more than 300 customers, enjoying the fruits and vegetables of the Neals’ labor.
Local Farm OK recently got involved with Blue Apron, a nationwide meal-kit delivery service, providing lettuce to their distribution service in Texas. That got Ashley thinking, and now Local Farms OK is delivering their own kits to their Tulsa-area subscribers. The first two meals, which debuted in early November, offer portioned ingredients needed to prepare dinner for four. Chicken Chili Meal Kit ($40) and Shakshuka Meal Kit ($30) are just the beginning. Over the next few months, different meal kits will be rolled out to subscribers, and the website ordering system will always feature four selections designed around eggs, chicken, pork and beef.
According to the New York Times, “As much as 31 percent of America’s post-harvest food supply is thrown away, according to an estimate by the Department of Agriculture. Meal kits eliminate that waste, helping people who don’t take pleasure in managing a kitchen operate more efficiently and saving gas for those who would have to drive long distances to get the ingredients for a recipe.” The fact that Local Farm OK’s meal kits support our local businesses and generate less food waste make them a win win. That they are enabling people to create flavorful, healthy and local meals is an added bonus.
“With over 300 subscribers now it is hard to please everyone, but we are hoping to find a happy medium,” Ashley says. She heads up the PR and marketing portion of the company, offering flash sales to remind customers to add on to their weekly or biweekly orders from the dozens of other available products, including organic grass-fed beef, honey, dried pasta and even dog treats. “We have several ideas up our sleeves, including a lettuce-only box and a box containing non-local items,” she says. “We just received some delicious cheeses from Lovera’s in Krebs that will soon be up for grabs on the site.”
In addition to serving their local delivery customer base, which will soon include the Oklahoma City area, Sage Farms has also created a consignment program for local restaurants interested in purchasing produce directly from the farm: Ben drops produce off to the restaurant and picks up any unused product at the beginning of the following week. So the restaurants are only responsible for paying for what they actually use. R-Bar was the first local restaurant to jump on board of the truly farm-to-table program. Ben is confident more will follow.
As I sat down at my computer to finish this story on a recent Wednesday morning my doorbell rang. I opened the door to find my produce bag waiting: the gorgeous greens, sweet potatoes, peppers and farm eggs are begging to become dinner. A dinner I can feel good about serving to my family.
As Oliver and Lisa Douglas would say, “Goodbye, city life. Green Acres, we are there!”
Sage Farms is growing:
Butterhead / Bibb
Other local companies whose products are available from Local Farm OK:
Della Terra pasta
Wagon Creek Creamery
Topeca Coffee Roasters
Great Harvest Bread Co.
Garnish Artisan Finishing Salts
Cattle Tracks Beef
Thunderbird Berry Farm
Three Springs Farm
Prime Plus Cattle Company
Mecca Coffee Company
Pearl Snap Canning Company