Chef’s Garden

April 17, 2011 § Leave a comment

Even though this isn’t exactly what the Symposium is covering, we’re all about innovation and best practices. Check out Chef’s Garden, who has a great story (as told by Toledo City Paper.)

Ohio farm rises from nothing to the culinary cutting edge | by Matt Desmond

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 eighteen-year-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 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.


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