Aug 11, 2021 • 15M

Meet the Farmer With a Focus on Flavor

It's about the soil

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Photos: Michelle Demuth-Bibb

We’ve got Farmer Lee Jones of The Chef’s Garden in Huron, Ohio, here with us today, who, pre-pandemic, had been growing ingredients for chefs like Thomas Keller, Charlie Trotter, and Daniel Boulud. Like many food suppliers, he also pivoted during the pandemic to offer vegetables for home delivery.

Fast forward a year, and Chef’s Garden is selling vegetables to both restaurants and home cooks. It’s a boon for everyone, since, in addition to tasting the wares when we dine out, we can sample vegetables from the farm — where the soil is as healthy as it gets, it’s less than the price of a fancy dinner out, and the produce lasts longer.

For more about why chefs have been buying vegetables from this Ohio farm, Jones explains that and more in his new book — The Chef's Garden: A Modern Guide to Common and Unusual Vegetables — with Recipes  — an exploration of the farm and those vegetables, with recipes from on-site chef, Jamie Simpson. Read on and listen in on what makes vegetables taste good and better for us.

How Chef’s Garden began:

“We’re in a microclimate that keeps us from getting extremely cold in the spring and… provides extended warmth in the fall,” he says. “At one point, there were  over 330 vegetable growers in the region, the largest concentration of vegetable growers in the world.” 

In the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, then-Secretary of Agriculture, Earl Butz conveyed the message to farmers, “Get big or get out.” So, Jones says, “Of course we were trying to get big, but ultimately, with 22 percent interest rates at the time…. and a devastating hailstorm, we ended up losing the farm.” 

They started over, eventually meeting Cleveland chef Iris Balin at the farmers market, who kept encouraging Jones and his father to “consider growing for flavor, growing without chemicals, growing for the integrity of the product,” he says. 

As a European-trained chef, “She really believed there would be enough chefs in the country to support us,” he says. Of all things, she wanted squash blossoms…. “We really couldn’t comprehend it. But we brought them in and she went crazy for it.” 

From the day of the squash blossom,  she introduced Jones to chefs like Jean-Louis Paladin, who introduced him to Daniel Boulud, Alain Ducasse, Jean-Georges Vongerichten, Charlie Trotter, and Thomas Keller. "For the last 37 years,” he says, “we had been focused on growing for chefs.”

Then Covid hit: 

… “My dad had really been pushing nutrient/nutrient density because we had a suspicion that as we were focused on improving the balance in soil — which we think is fundamentally the answer to everything in agriculture — he felt that as we were working on flavor, the nutrient/nutrient density was coming along with that,” he says.

With the pandemic, like many wholesale businesses catering to restaurants, “we pivoted.. overnight to do nationwide home delivery.” The farm found that with people not wanting to go to grocery stores, retail sales picked up — “and a lot were buying multiple boxes and shipping to those in need of a box,” he says. 

On the size and philosophy behind the farm: 

“We’re 350 acres and we’re surrounded by farms that are 3000, 5000 acres. There’s one near us that’s 7500 acres and they’re even bigger the further west you go,” says Jones.

“If you were to look at a graph of the nutritional levels in food from 1930 to 2021, they have gone down and continue to go down at an increasing rate… There’s a direct correlation with the way we’re farming, chemically and synthetically, with genetic modification… It’s kind of like drinking heavy doses of cappuccino to try to keep going. Eventually, you crash.” He also cites the massive uptick of diseases, obesity, and more in the past several decades. “So you’ve got nutritional levels tanking and health issues skyrocketing. It’s not sustainable,” he says.

“So what we’re doing on 350 acres is getting a par on the soil — the lab helps us test what the deficiencies are. Then based on that, we can plant crops specific to what the soil needs. Different types of plants will harvest different types of energy from the sun: clover, alfalfa, buckwheat, rye…” He says two-thirds of 350 acres is in rotation with cover crops as opposed to it being used for planting vegetables to sell.

“What we’re seeing,” he says, “is nutrient and nutrient/density levels testing 300 to 500 percent above USDA averages,” he says. [The farm also has a third-party auditor to verify results.] “It really works: It’s about working in harmony with nature rather than trying to outsmart it.” 

On why consumers should care about soil: 

“We’ve had a lab of sorts for about 15 years, but three years ago, we made a commitment to put a full-fledged laboratory right in the middle of the farm. We have three scientists on staff testing the soil, testing the nutritional levels of the vegetables, testing the nutritional levels of vegetables in grocery stores. And what we’re finding is the larger the product is, the lower the nutrient levels,” he says….“Look. We don’t have this whole thing figured out, but we know we’re on the right track.” 

On his new book, The Chef's Garden: A Modern Guide to Common and Unusual Vegetables — with Recipes, and advice he has for people who plant their own gardens:

During the pandemic, “we have started a whole new generation of gardeners,” he says. And as far as how to approach gardening, he says to, “recognize you’re going to make some mistakes and that’s part of the fun of it.”

Gardening, he says, “is like a relationship — if it’s all take-take-take, you can imagine where that relationship goes.” Plant a third of a garden with crops like rye, to replenish the soil, he says. And always rotate your plantings.

Learn More About Chef’s Garden Vegetables

Photo: Yossy Arefi

The folks at Chef’s Garden have an array of home delivery options, including Best of the Season, High Nitrate Fresh Greens, Gourmet Vegetables, Powerhouse Vegetables, and others. Check them out here.