To find a local farm in your area, try Local Harvest.
“It was the lowest moment of my life,” says Lee Jones. He is standing in front of the modest farmstead on his family’s sprawling farm, and his usually ebullient face suddenly darkens. “Standing right here, I watched everything we had ever owned get auctioned off – down to the old car my mother was driving. All gone, in one afternoon; it takes the heart right out of you.”
His pain is so palpable that the chefs standing before him in the relentless Ohio heat look uneasily at one another as Lee remembers what it was like for American farmers back in the ‘80s, especially one rotten year, when a devastating hailstorm destroyed the crops in this small lakeside town and credit rates soared to 23 percent. For many farmers it was over. “All around here kids decided that they didn’t want to be farmers anymore,” says Lee, pointing down the road.
But the Joneses had farming in their blood, and they were determined to start over. They fought their way back with the one thing they had left—six acres that Lee had purchased as a teenager— and a totally new plan.
A roadside stand wasn’t going to buy back the farm. Neither was a booth at the farmers’ market. But when a European-trained chef named Iris Bailin asked if they would please grow some organic squash blossoms for her, the Joneses decided to try something radical: forging a unique partnership with chefs, growing ingredients to order. Charlie Trotter was an early fan, and before long the Joneses were growing specialty vegetables for chefs all over the country. Today their reach is international; even Ferran Adria has come flying in for a visit. Other farmers are now climbing onto the bandwagon, but chances are that if you ate microgreens or edible flowers in a fancy restaurant in the ‘90s, it was grown by the Joneses.
They also grew them organically and sustainably. “My father always says that all we’re trying to do is get as good as farmers were a hundred years ago,” says Lee. The Jones clan affects a folksy style (Lee is never seen in anything but overalls and red bowtie), but the past looked nothing like what they have conjured up at The Chef’s Garden. There’s a reason that food people show up in droves to tour the farm. It stands at a crossroad: For every old-time, hundred-year-old method that the Joneses employ, there is a corresponding technology of the future.
In mid-summer the farm hums with activity, the fields dotted with workers who are cultivating each of the 600 varieties of vegetables and herbs entirely by hand. I’m riding slowly through the farm with a group of visiting chefs; it smells wonderful out here in these fields, where no manmade chemicals or pesticides are used, and over the thrum of the tractor you can hear the humming of bees and the chirping of birds. We pass vast tracts of land lying fallow, regaining their strength. But just as I’m thinking how pleasantly old-fashioned it all is, the tractor chugs to a halt at one of the greenhouses and we jump off. Inside it is cool and very quiet, and we watch in silent awe as computer-controlled panels slide open and closed according to the direction of the wind and the angle of the sun.
“It’s all about conserving energy, reducing our carbon footprint,” Lee’s brother Bobby explains, casually mentioning that they’re using a neighbor’s corn cobs for fuel, and have plans to build a giant windmill to provide even more energy.
Back on the tractor, we head toward a group of marooned trucks that are hoisted up on bricks like so many sad abandoned vehicles baking in the sun. “Semis,” says Lee as we walk inside, “make really good cheap buildings. We buy them for a few hundred dollars.”
It’s air-conditioned cool inside the semis, and we wander through a state of the art lab where every seed, plant, and drop of water is analyzed. “We’re buying seeds from all over the world,” explains one of the scientists, “we need to make sure that they’re safe.”
“Doesn’t this seem excessive?” whispers one chef. I’m thinking about that e-coli outbreak in Germany, caused by Egyptian seeds used to grow sprouts, and thinking that, well, no, it’s not. A hundred years ago you didn’t need to do this; times have changed.
Now we’re shivering into the arctic winter of the packing room, a cool thirty-something degrees, where the same combination of old-fashioned wisdom and modern technology is on display. The vegetables are all picked at different times of day, on a kind of Farmer’s Almanac schedule of received wisdom that knows when each plant is at its peak; squash blossoms are best picked very early in the morning while tomatoes can wait until afternoon. Then each container is marked with an absolutely modern bar code system that traces everything back to the seed that was sown, the field where it was grown, even the person who picked it and the temperature in the room where it was packed. Nothing here is left to chance.
The Joneses have good reasons for their dedication to sustainability, but in the end it all comes down to flavor. Their vegetables are intense. “Ice spinach,” which is left in the ground to winter over, becomes almost magically sweet—the process of freezing causes the root to keep sending sugar up into the leaves. “Taste this,” says Lee, handing out some tiny yellow tomatoes. I pop one into my mouth; it has an almost unearthly flavor. It is impossible not to eat another, and then another. Then Lee hands around some tiny leaves and watches our faces. “Know what that is?”
“It’s, it’s….” we all stumble, wondering what this unknown flavor now rushing through our mouths could possibly be. It’s not like anything I’ve ever tasted, a leek, garlic, onion combination that is almost eerily powerful given the size of the leaf. It is Chinese Toon, one of the dozens of strange herbs the Joneses grow for their far-flung clientele. Next we taste the pure citrus cleanness of lemongrass sprouts, and then emerald crystal lettuce that pops juicily against our tongues. Oyster plant, a plain green leaf, tastes so much like an oyster that it is almost impossible to believe that it was not fished from the sea.
The Joneses will grow anything a chef can think of. “See these?” Lee holds up a few minuscule green beans, each one hardly larger than a thread. “These are Carmellini Beans. Picking them is so time-consuming that we didn’t think anyone would want to pay for them. But Andrew Carmellini did, so we grow them for him. And then it turned out that lots of other chefs wanted them too.”
The tour is over; the chefs have work to do. Most have come to cook for the Jones’ annual fundraiser for Veggie U, the non-profit they established to take their farm into the classroom and teach sustainability to school children.
It’s hard to leave these bucolic fields, and we all jump reluctantly off of the tractor. “You know,” says one young chef, looking back at the fields, “I’ve visited a lot of farms, but this one is different. It’s not one of those fancy showplaces started by a gentlemen farmer who made his fortune on Wall Street or Silicon Valley. This place has heart.”
And then he stopped himself, remembering what Lee had said at the start of the tour. “Yeah,” he repeated, “it’s got heart.”
To find a local farm in your area, try Local Harvest.