On fertile ground

. March 17, 2014.

Farmer Lee Jones remembers it
as if it were yesterday. “Remember
that first breakup you had,
when you didn’t think your heart
would ever mend? That’s how it
felt,” Jones says, remembering
the day 30 years
ago when his parents’
farm was sold off piece by
piece. High interest rates and poor
weather had doomed the small
Ohio family farm, and eighteenyear-
old Lee Jones felt that he was
losing the only life he’d ever known.
But his story, and the story
of the farming Jones family, was
just beginning.

Now Lee Jones is the public
face and enthusiastic voice of
The Chef’s Garden, a thriving
sustainable vegetable farm outside
of Huron, Ohio, midway between
Toledo and Cleveland. The Chef’s Garden
sells naturally grown fine produce
for fine restaurants and chefs around
the world. The farm is not a household
name but its reputation in the culinary
world is only growing. And The Chef’s
Garden remains a family operation
through and through.

A fluke of geography
In a way, The Chef’s Garden owes
its existence to a fluke of geography.
Lake Erie is the shallowest of the Great
Lakes, and therefore the warmest. The
breezes from the lake give that tiny strip
of northern Ohio a mild climate that
made it an important center of vegetable
farming for the past hundred years. In
the early years of the twentieth century,
small farmers could make a good living
feeding the surrounding communities.
But the world changed.

“What happened in our county is a
micro-view of what happened all over the
United States,” Jones says. Improved
roads and refrigeration made it possible
to ship food long distances, and
the relentless drive for convenience and
value made small-scale agriculture
increasingly difficult. Erie County
had over 300 family farms
in 1930, according to Jones,
but as he says “today there’s
less than a dozen, because
ultimately they couldn’t compete.” The
trends that changed the nation doomed
the first Jones farm.

Lee Jones started over, on his own.
A loan from his grandparents got him
six acres and an old farmhouse, which
he shared for ten years with his parents.
He hoped to raise vegetables the way
the family always had, and sell them in
farmers’ markets to make a higher
profit than would be possible
through traditional distribution. It was a
workable business model. But meeting a
chef from Cleveland made the Jones’ see
that there was another way.
“She was looking for quality vegetables
here, and they didn’t exist,” Jones
says. “She kept harping on us, [looking for]
heirloom varieties, grown for flavor.” They
realized there was a huge market being
underserved. It was Bob Jones, Lee’s father,
who became the visionary. “It really
resonated with my dad,” Lee says. “What
she was looking for had existed in America.
It’s just that she was about forty years
too late.”

The decision was made
In 1987, it was time to make a decision.
Continue with the local markets,
or try to cater to the culinary world? Intense
discussion culminated in a family
vote. Lee himself voted to stay with the
farmers’ markets, and so did the rest
of the family. But Bob Jones had seen
the future.

“We got to my dad, and he took a
clenched fist and slammed it down on the
table. Glasses spilled. He said ‘Absolutely
not! What [the chefs] are looking for is
the direction this country needs to go.
We’re abandoning the farmers’ markets.’
He looked at me and said ‘you’re going to
get out there and find every chef you can
and find out what they want us to grow,
and your brother and I are going to figure
out the right way to grow it. It’s the end of
the conversation! My vote counts for five!
Now you’ve got work to do, so go get after
it.’” And The Chef’s Garden was born.

Success meant discovering a whole
new method of agriculture, which in
some ways meant returning to the past.
“We’re only trying to get as good as the
growers were 100 years ago…to relearn
what they knew intuitively,” Jones says,
”though we have technology that wasn’t
available [then].” Through a mix of modern
science and old-fashioned know-how,
the Jones’ were able to hit
on a system that works.
They were guided by the
conviction that modern industrial
agriculture, with its
emphasis on high yield and
low cost, is deeply flawed.
“It wasn’t about the quality
and integrity of the product;
it was about how cheaply
we could produce the
product,” Jones says.

A whole new
culinary adventure
It also meant learning
a whole new culinary vocabulary
as The Chef’s
Garden’s farmers learned
the products that high-end chefs
wanted. They discovered an endless array
of exotic lettuces, herbs, edible flowers,
root vegetables and more. And they
grew them with practices designed to
be sustainable. Organic farming has
grown enormously in recent years, but
The Chef’s Garden goes beyond merely
avoiding chemical fertilizers. Their entire
growing process is based on mimicking
the rhythm of the natural world. “It’s not
rocket science,” Jones says. “It’s about
working in harmony with the way God
intended it.” Soil is not something to be
exploited; it’s a resource to be treasured.
“You harvest energy from the sun, send
it down into the soil and make it available
for future crops,” Jones says.
Misfortune a generation ago has led
to enormous success in the present.
Today, The Chef’s Garden ships food
every day to fine restaurants and hotels
around the world, from Disney World to
Singapore. The offices (including
the same farmhouse
that Lee Jones
lived in for twenty years)
are a pleasant hive
of activity, and the
vast greenhouses
Erie County’s Culinary Vegetable Institute is a destination
for chefs from around the world
are filled with dedicated workers and
the fresh smell of earth and green. The
Chef’s Garden also runs the Culinary
Vegetable Institute, which is both a
first-class banquet and meeting facility
and a retreat for chefs from around the
world, where they can try out their skills
with the Chef’s Garden’s produce using
its world-class kitchen. And Lee Jones
believes they can be a positive force
for change.
“There’s a direct correlation between
the way that we farm as a society and the
health of our nation or the lack thereof,”
he says. And ultimately Jones and his
family and all of their workers are doing
what they love. “We’re pretty passionate
about growing vegetables,” he says.
9009 Huron-Avery Rd., Huron. 800-
289-4644. www.chefs-garden.com to learn
more, or to place an order.