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The Chef’s Garden: Sustainable Agriculture in Practice

“Farmer’’ Lee Jones is an iconic presence in the culinary world. He has become one of America’s best known farmers, largely on the strength of his relationships with chefs across the nation, his appearances on such television shows as “Iron Chef America’’ and interviews he’s given with reporters from publications ranging from the Wall Street Journal to Bon Appétit.
In a recent appearance before students and industry professionals at Cincinnati State’s Midwest Culinary Institute, Farmer Jones offered some insight into his family’s unusual story. He also used the opportunity to encourage his audience to embrace sustainable agriculture – a concept that in Jones’ view has not only an ecological meaning, but a common sense financial one as well.

The Jones’ family farm in northern Ohio, by the Lake Erie shore about six miles from the famous Cedar Point amusement park, nearly became a statistic some three decades ago. Between double-digit interest rates and a hailstorm that had wiped out most of the crops, the family’s agricultural operation ran in deep trouble; Lee, his brother Bobby and his father Bob Sr. were thinking seriously about giving up farming.

But then something unusual happened. Lee Jones got a request from a chef for squash blossoms to use in her restaurant. That led to a conversation, and that led to an idea. And that idea led to an agricultural enterprise that is nothing short of remarkable.
The Jones family decided to focus on the needs of chefs, specifically by growing heirloom vegetables, micro greens and herbs for them. The finest tasting, best quality lettuces, potatoes, carrots, peas, beans, squashes, tomatoes, beets, and even edible flowers – whatever variety or flavor a chef might want, the Jones family would try to figure out a way to grow it, and usually come up with a few others on their own. Eventually their family farm became The Chef’s Garden, which now grows over 600 varieties of plants used by the best chefs and restaurants in the world. And by using greenhouses and cold frames, they grow products year round such as “ice spinach” in the winter.

They did all this by harkening old farming methods – “…growing slowly and gently, in full accord with nature…” as Farmer Jones often says. They believe in chemical free farming, backed by high-tech food safety testing (tracking from seed to shipping), soil analysis and seed preservation techniques. They also believe in the strength of the team – in that success is achieved through the greatness of the whole farm.

Lee’s father, Bob Jones Sr., who studied at Bowling Green and Ohio State, provided much of the intellectual push behind the transformation. Lee emerged as the public face of the organization, adopting a trademark look – bib overalls, a white shirt and red bow tie– in homage to one of his favorite stories, “The Grapes of Wrath” which depicts 19th Century British farmers wearing bow ties to symbolize the dignity of agricultural life. Lee Jones is, in fact, an articulate, passionate spokesman, not just for The Chef’s Garden, but for sustainability in farming and the cherished American notion of the family farm.

Over time the Joneses have expanded their reach. In addition to chefs, they now have an online/mail order retail operation that will deliver veggies fresh to your home through www.farmerjonesfarm.com. They also have developed a highly praised educational outreach program aimed at elementary students, called Veggie U, to teach the importance of good eating habits along with sustainable agriculture. The Jones family also operates an affiliate business called The Culinary Vegetable Institute, just miles up the road from the farm where chefs converge for team building, R&D, and much needed R&R. The facility is also home to monthly Earth to Table Dinners hosted by world-class chefs. www.culinaryvegetableinstitute.com

The Chef’s Garden farm itself is something of an anomaly. It is just 300 acres, surrounded by 5,000 acre farms that are essentially commercial operations. The fact that it exists at all is unusual, Farmer Jones notes – so many family farms have been lost over the last half-century that family farming isn’t even listed as a Census occupation any more.

And even though their acreage is small, The Chef’s Garden only farms 100 acres or so at a time – the rest lies fallow, planted with scientifically selected cover crops to restore the proper balance of nutrients to the soil.

Here’s the real kicker. The Chef’s Garden currently employs about 100 people, a roster that will climb to around 140 in summer. And the operation not only pays well above minimum wage, it offers full health benefits and a 401-K retirement plan. “We’re competing against $3 a day labor in other countries,’’ Lee Jones told his Cincinnati State audience. “We know that. So we have to be smarter, and more efficient. As Dad always says, we need to be willing to make mistakes at a faster rate than the competition so that we learn faster.”

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