Farmer Lee Jones, The Chef's Garden, Huron, Ohio, USA. Image by Diana DeLucia.
This is an interview from the Fall 2017 launch issue of Golf Kitchen Magazine.
A FARMER WITH A HEART FOR HUMANITY
Farmer Lee Jones always wears his trademark overalls and red bowtie as a symbol of his commitment to sustainable agricultural practices.
Ever since the early days of The Chef’s Garden’s creation over thirty years ago, he has remained tirelessly committed to not only ensuring that the family’s 300 acre farm remains one of the most innovative and pioneering in the world, but to fostering a nuanced conversation with the chefs in our industry who look to the farm to grow fresh vegetables that are as aesthetically pleasing on the plate as they are flavorful to the palate. ~ Diana DeLucia
GK: Your family suffered a lot of hardship in your younger years. What were some of the challenges?
In the 1930’s, there were approximately 340 vegetable growers in Huron, Ohio, located in Erie County. Earl Lauer Butz, who was the Secretary of Agriculture in the USA in the 1970’s sent a message to all farmers, to “either get big or get out.” At that time in America, most of the universities were financially strapped, so the chemical and pharmaceutical companies began to offer grants to the universities if they researched to help the farmers. This research, not surprisingly, needed to encompass the use of their chemicals.
My parents were encouraged to use chemicals on their farm and were taught how to use them in a time when farming was especially challenging. Bank loans reached rates of 21% interest, making it very difficult to make ends meet. On top of this, my parent’s farm suffered a devastating hail storm, and it completely wiped out all the crops. At 19 years old, I stood shoulder to shoulder with my parents, my brother and sister, and all of our neighbors, along with our competitors and all of those who wanted to see our farm fail. Everything my family owned was auctioned off right down to my mother’s car; we literally crawled away.
GK: How did you rebuild? How did you work with chefs to create a unified vision?
We had to start all over again. At that time, American agriculture was exploding. Mass production using chemicals had become the norm.
We met a European-influenced chef, Iris Bailin, who worked for a large brokerage firm and who eventually became the food editor for the Cleveland Plain Dealer newspaper. Iris was always looking for produce grown for flavor and quality without the use of chemicals.
We were desperate to survive in farming, so, when Iris said to us "just maybe there could be a demand for the small family farmer in America," we latched on to her idea, and we would not let Iris go. When she found out that we were willing to grow for flavor and not yield, and grow the products chefs were looking for without chemicals, she introduced us to other chefs who were looking for the same thing.
She hooked us up with some amazing chefs from The Ritz-Carlton, who were heavily influenced by European chefs. The local country clubs began to order from us, and Jean Louis Palladin, who came from France to the Watergate Hotel in DC, took us under his wing. Jean Louis then introduced us to his friends, which included Michel Richard, Daniel Boulud, Alain Ducasse, Jean-Georges Vongerichten and others. They all helped spread the word for us.
We had the support of so many incredible chefs that we knew we needed to keep up the integrity of our products. We began to work harmoniously with nature rather than try to outsmart it. We began by building healthy soil. Our saying here is "healthy soil equals healthy plants, equals healthy people."
GK: Tell us about the Culinary Vegetable Institute (CVI)
In the beginning, all we wanted was to get chefs to come here. We put them in hotels and bed and breakfasts, and did anything we could to get them here. We wanted them to go into the fields, too, because we wanted to listen to what they were looking for.
Sixteen years ago, we had the idea to build the CVI. We wanted to build a place right here on the farm so that chefs could harvest products, bring them back to the kitchen and play, experiment and figure out ways to use the products.
The project was too big to do on our own, so I approached my mentors: Thomas Keller, Charlie Trotter, Daniel Boulud, Alain Ducasse, Jean-Georges Vongerichten and Ed Brown. My wife Mary and I flew to New York with the blueprints to present our vision. They were all so excited. I said, "I need you to lend your names to this to help us pull it off." They were very eager to help; they went to kitchen companies on our behalf, they got them to donate equipment, china, silverware, chairs, tables and stoves.
We now have agreements with a lot of these companies that, when they have a new piece of equipment with new technology, they can take the old one out and install the new one. It makes sense to them as we have over 500 chefs visiting a year. We might get a Ritz-Carlton chef here, and he comes and plays with the newest Rational and finds out how sexy it is, then he goes back and orders three of them. The CVI has now evolved into the learning center for chefs. Chefs are under so much pressure; they have to do the hiring and marketing, entertain the clients and train staff. The more successful they become, the less they get to do what brought them to the business in the first place. Here, they are reminded of why they came to this craft, the love of cooking.
GK: How else are you inspiring future culinarians and food enthusiasts?
We are teaching the value of seasonality; it's amazing how many people, even chefs, don't fully understand what products are available during what season. It's hard to explain to people that, when asparagus is in season, we should eat it three times a day and, when it's out of season, we should lust for it for ten more months.
We are trying to reconnect people to local farmers markets and it is working. I believe that there are more farmers markets today than at any other time in the history of America, and there were more vegetable seeds sold in 2016 than any time in the history of America.
GK: In your opinion, when did this disconnect with our food begin?
World War II changed everything. You couldn't buy shoes, as there was no rubber, it was being used to build equipment to fight the war. You couldn't buy a new car, as metal was in short supply. Food was rationed. Women were tasked to leave the home and work in factories to help build machine guns and army tanks.
They were in survival mode but, as that happened, something else changed: the urgency and the priorities changed, and it became about the convenience of food rather than the integrity of the food itself.
When the war was over, and society had moved forward, women realized they could earn their own money out of the home, and that is when the frozen TV dinners came about, and convenience foods cooked in a microwave became mainstream. The pendulum had swung too far, with the problem now two generations deep.
GK: How do you explain Genetic Modification? The good and the bad?
I think that genetic modification, when used ethically could and does have its place, but there are a lot of unknowns and we don’t believe in using this process. It is being used all around us, and by good farmers who are supplying the demand that exists. That demand, unfortunately, is for cheap food.
America produces food more cheaply than any other country in the world as it relates to our incomes, but here is the conundrum. We also have the highest healthcare costs in the world.
Every farmer around us is farming with genetically modified products. They don’t have any ability to control the price that they get for their produce, so the only thing they can try to do is to control the cost of their input. It’s all about cost reduction for them. It’s a commodity market, all about when to sell and when to hold. To take this further, the chemical companies tell them they can help by giving them a genetically modified seed. The seeds are genetically modified to withstand the chemicals, yet it’s the chemicals that have killed the soil.
So here at The Chef’s Garden, we don’t and won’t use these techniques. Instead, we have found that allowing fields to sit fallow and going back to the use of cover crops to rebuild the soil works better for us.
GK: What is the genetic selection?
Genetic selection has been around for hundreds of years. You take the good characteristics of one plant and cross them with another. It’s just hybridization; you are crossing two plants. It’s an entirely smart way to do things. There are no health issues; it's a normal way to grow and develop better products. For example, if you like the firmness of one tomato and the flavor of another and its disease resistance, you cross them. It's just genetic selection.
~ by Diana DeLucia
For more information about Farmer Lee Jones, The Culinary Vegetable Institute and The Chef’s Garden please visit their website: www.chefs-garden.com