Farmer Lee Jones and his father Bob, a farmer and self-trained engineer who has come up with many clever inventions for the farm.
A Family Farm — Reinvented Thirty years ago, The Chef's Garden would have raised no eyebrows. Farmer Bob Jones and his sons Bobby and Lee grew soybeans and corn, just like their neighbors in Huron, Ohio, a small town west of Cleveland and two miles from Lake Erie. But in 1983 a crop failure forced them into bankruptcy and beyond. They lost the farm and had to sell everything, down to the family car. But at a moment when other farmers would have given up and moved to the city, the Jones family made a new start with land they managed to lease (it's across the road from their old land). They decided to give up on conventional farming and explore new ways of making farming work for them. Huron has lake bottom land and a mild, unexpectedly good microclimate for farming; in fact, the very first winery in the United States was established in Huron. (We forget, now that so much of this country's agriculture has moved to California, but the Great Lakes and the Midwest are still agricultural powerhouses.) The Jones family did not want to give up their connection to this place.
A worker harvesting microgreens in one of the greenhouses.
Their efforts took a sharp turn early on when a local chef asked them for squash blossoms. These were virtually unknown in the commercial market at the time, and the Jones family discovered that they weren't the only interesting exotic crop to interest chefs. They decided to listen to chefs and hear what they wanted. This led the family to tiny microgreens, infant versions of herbs and lettuces, intense in flavor and with beautifully dramatic colors and shapes. Chefs went wild over these, which clinched it for the Jones. They gave up conventional agriculture altogether in order to become a resource for chefs and to cater exclusively to their needs. In the process, they completely reinvented their family farm.
Exotic, shockingly beautiful.
All Natural, Totally Novel I visited The Chef's Garden a month ago, and over coffee and bagels, Farmer Lee Jones, Bob's son and the bow-tie-sporting company spokesman, explained their business and their perspective. "We can't compete on the commodity market," he said. "But we offer eight stages of bok choy, from micro-greens to flowers to petite and baby varieties. Every stage of a plant's life offers something unique to the plate." At any given time they are growing hundreds of varieties of crops, offering 185 kinds of herbs and over 200 sorts of microgreens year-round. The global roster of chefs who value these novelties now numbers over 450, and they are located all over the world. Chef Charlie Trotter was an early fan and promoter of the Jones' work, and today their office hallway is lined with photos of the farmers with chefs like Julia Child, Thomas Keller, and Grant Achatz. The Chef's Garden has perhaps the most unique lineup of product offerings from any farm in the world, and they are constantly developing new ways of looking at familiar vegetables, creating fresh, exotic novelties grown from otherwise mundane crops like corn, basil, and cucumbers. During my tour I crunched into a tiny cucumelon that looked like a gnocchi-sized watermelon, but was filled with crispy cucumber flesh and gel. I saw hot pink and maroon tails of baby amaranth and tasted garlic sprouts that looked like bean threads. Every single one of these things exploded in the mouth, creating new possibilities — I wanted to experiment! You can see why chefs love the place.
Healthy Soil, Healthy Crops, Healthy People The truly interesting thing about The Chef's Garden, especially for the home cook, is the way that this commercial farm approaches agriculture. It is one thing for a small truck farm to go organic and to value sustainable principles, but it is even more encouraging to see a farm of this modest yet commercial size do a radically different kind of farming. "We are trying to recapture the pre-chemical farm," says Farmer Lee Jones. "We are trying to work in harmony with nature." He and his father have strong feelings about the way that the soil has been treated for the last 50 years of American agriculture. "There's not enough nutrition in the soil," says Jones. "Healthy soil means healthy crops and healthy people. We have 300 acres and only farm 100 at a time." The rest of the time, these acres rest and rebuild themselves under cover crops and green manure created from the farm's waste. No animal manure is used at all on their fields. "You can see dramatically how healthy soil affects things like shelf life and antioxidant levels in plants," says Jones, as he describes the lab analysis they do on their crops. "It's unbelievable." They even strip the chlorine out of their water before spraying it on the fields, since they believe that it kills beneficial organisms as well as good ones.
The big, beautiful kitchen in the facility where chefs come to experiment and work with products from The Chef's Garden.
Working Smarter Along with these environmental values also comes a commitment to a different kind of workforce. The Jones have a relationship with a group of workers in Mexico, and they fly them up for several peak months, paying good wages and health insurance. They have student exchange programs, where interns can learn how they farm. These high principles are supported, in part, by Farmer Bob's self-trained engineering skills. Forgoing chemicals on a farm is a very labor-intensive proposition. They decided to put time and effort into working smarter, not just working harder. So the farm is full of clever experiments, like an old combine modified so that half a dozen workers can lie on their stomachs and be slowly towed through a field, pulling weeds. There's a boombox on the combine too, naturally. Other innovations have gone towards making the farm more energy-efficient. One example: They recapture the heat from their generator and use it to heat water underneath the greenhouses. Everywhere you turn on this farm, you see evidence of people thinking, working hard with limited resources, being creative. "We've made plenty of mistakes," says Jones. "So many mistakes!" But they have learned how to identify what works, and how to delicately balance their principles with the labor of making a living as a family farm in the 21st centry.
This field of flowers is outside the entrance to the Culinary Vegetable Institute, where we had lunch. This was an idea from Farmer Lee Jones' mother. She suggested a simple plot of cutting flowers for their neighbors. People can stop by and pick up a bouquet any time they want. It's another good example of the farm's values of hospitality, beauty — and good public relations!
I could go on for a long time about all the other things The Chef's Garden is doing: Their educational nonprofit that puts gardening curriculum in schools, or the way they reach out to chefs. They have an entire center on the farm devoted to research and development; over 500 chefs a year come through to learn and explore. The day I was there I went through this tour with several chefs from the MGM in Las Vegas, and it was fascinating to hear their perspective as they saw where their food came from. But I will leave you with this, for now: While there is no perfect farming system out there, and while The Chef's Garden is doing something very different from your average family farm, it lit me up to the possibilities of agriculture. It offers the excitement of creative thinking, simple yet smart solutions and ideas put into practice by real people who live not too far away. I'll be watching what the The Chef's Garden does, and closely. No matter what, it promises to be interesting. More About The Chef's Garden • Visit The Chef's Garden: The Chef's Garden • Visit The Chef's Garden for VeggieU: VeggieU is their annual fundraiser for a gardening curriculum they create and place into the hands of school teachers. The fundraiser is an amazing festival of food, with meals and demonstrations by some of the best-known chefs from around the country and the world. It's held outdoor on the farm every summer. • More on our visit from my friend Bethia: The Chef's Garden at Columbus Food Adventures I'm not done telling you about The Chef's Garden, however! While the farm does primarily cater to chefs, not home cooks, they do have one amazing product for home cooks. Watch for a separate post on that later this week. Related: Expert Interview & Tour: Bob's Red Mill (Images: Faith Durand)