A snapshot captures Farmer Lee Jones riding on a tractor with his parents in the first week of his life, and he's been farming ever since. Today Jones, in his signature red bow tie and overalls, leads a team of 133 employees at The Chef's Garden to supply the country's best restaurants with high-quality, beautiful vegetables.
The Chef's Garden -- in Huron, Ohio, a few miles from Lake Eerie's shore -- grows more than 600 varieties of vegetables, greens, and herbs, including 87 kinds of heirloom tomatoes and 300 types of microgreens. Out of the soil rise dragon's tongue beans, emerald crystal lettuce blooms, scallopini squashes and easter egg radishes. The farm sells eggplants of all colors of the rainbow, flowering cucumbers half the size of a pinky finger, and bright-yellow popcorn shoots.
Farmer Lee, as he calls himself, has just returned from the Bocuse d'Or, the Olympics of the culinary world. In New York, Jones hobnobbed with the country's best chefs -- Alain Ducasse, Thomas Keller, Daniel Boulud, Charlie Trotter and Daniel Humm. Jones watched happily as the teams turned his red curry squashes, dragon carrots, and baby bok choy into culinary masterpieces. "My adrenaline was just going, to see our products on the other end, to see such craftsmanship and talent."
Jones couldn't foresee his bounding success at the age of 19, when he watched everything his family owned get auctioned off at a sheriff's sale. His family had worked incredibly hard for the entirety of his life, and yet his mother's car, their acres of well-toiled land, and their cozy family home were gone in a day.
"My parents were nondrinkers, nonsmokers, and didn't miss a day of church in 25 years," Jones says. "When they made money, they reinvested back in the farm." When interest rates hit 23 percent and a hail storm devastated their crops, they started over from almost nothing: The six acres Jones had invested in as a teenager.
"I saw my dad very broken spirited," Jones says. He left college, worked 10 years with no paycheck, and helped put his brother and sister through college. "I can't imagine doing anything else. Working with my dad is amazing. We feel so grateful that the chefs allow us an existence in agriculture."
The Jones family brought its small harvest to farmers' markets, where they could make some fast cash. There they met a chef who had trained in Europe and was cooking for a brokerage firm in Cleveland. She asked for something that no one had asked them for -- heirloom varieties from plants grown without chemicals.
What she wanted existed in this country, Jones says, but she was "40 years too late." In Jones's Ohio county, which had once boasted 330 vegetable farmers, there are now 12. Farmers were under immense pressure, Jones says, "to get big or get out. But this chef didn't care about which crop yielded the most tons per acre. She just wanted the most delicious, juicy, flavorful tomato."
Her words resonated with Bob Jones Sr., and it launched a new and revelatory vision at the Jones family farm: to grow the best produce possible. Or, as Farmer Lee Jones puts it, "To get as good as farmers were 100 years ago."
Like Western medicine, the problem with Western farming, Jones says, is that there is always a chemical to combat a problem. Instead, he tries to grow healthy plants by using the absolute best-quality soil possible. The focus is on prevention rather than the cure.
"God designed a system far better than anything we can think of chemically or synthetically," he says, "We're working with nature rather than against it." Good soil starts with good compost. Every year, Chef's Garden harvests only one-third of the land, the rest lays fallow. And, Jones says, the farm lies in "an unbelievable microclimate," which is hospitable to many plants.
At the same time, Jones believes in technology. Chef's Garden employs two scientists, who have seen that heavier seeds produce healthier vegetables and that high-quality soil can boost antioxidant and nutrient levels.
The Chef's Garden grows and innovates as a partnership between chefs and farmers. They grow what chefs want, often what is otherwise impossible to find. And they host hundreds of chefs at their farm each year, where those chefs‚ "can do R&D or get R&R," Jones says, at the Culinary Vegetable Institute, a retreat with culinary library, private kitchen, and Jacuzzi.
The Chef's Garden family is also proud of Veggie U, their not-for-profit organization that helps equips classrooms with a produce-centric curriculum. The program teaches kids about healthy eating and living, sustainability, and even sets them up with their own garden.
"People focus on the warm and fuzzy parts," Jones says. But while ecological responsibility is at the forefront of the Chef's Garden mission, Jones reminds farmers that they won't stick around if they are not economically viable. "Profit is not a dirty word. It's not a crime to make money."