With his signature look of overalls, white shirt and red bow tie, you'll always recognize Erie County, Ohio's farmer Lee Jones of The Chef's Garden. He is committed to ensuring that his family's 300-acre farm remains one of the most innovating and pioneering in the world. Like the saying goes, No Farms = No Food.
Farmer Jones is committed to sustainable preservation of the highest quality heirloom varieties. He's presented his story at such prestigious foodie gatherings as The Culinary Institute of America, the Women Chefs & Restaurateurs National Conference and Chef Raymond Blanc's American Food Revolution in Oxfordshire, England. He's also won a coveted James Beard Award.
One bright spot of the pandemic: Now you can get the bounty of his harvests delivered right to your home HERE.
We interviewed farmer Lee Jones by email.
How many generations in your family have been farming?
The family has been involved in agriculture for six generations, focusing on vegetable production for over 40 years.
How and when did you get started growing specialty produce for gourmet restaurants?
A severe hailstorm in the 1980s severely damaged our crops, threatening our livelihoods and the survival of the farm. It was during this time that I had a serendipitous encounter with a chef who asked if our farm would be able to grow squash blossoms for her restaurant.
This request planted a seed that germinated in our family's conversation as we endeavored to rebuild the farm. We decided that we were going to take the farm in a new direction by focusing on the needs and desires of chefs.
So, with six acres and a vision we started over. Chef Iris Balin introduced us to a chef and then another; early on we were introduced to Jean-Louis Palladin who introduced us to French chefs Daniel Boulud, Alain Ducasse, Jean-Georges Vongerichten and so many more.
What restaurants have ordered from you?
We have been honored to work with so many great chefs and restaurants over the years. But to name just a few: Per Se, Ever, Eleven Madison Park, Alinea, Mini Bar by José Andrés, Cosmo, Del Posto and Disney restaurants.
How and how quickly did your business change due to the pandemic?
Within 24 hours, we switched our business from chefs to home cooks offering produce boxes online that ship directly from the farm to private homes. We thought it would be a natural way to keep our team going, to have a place for the product to go and to provide for families out there that are looking for something healthy and fresh.
What difficulties have you encountered?
We started from at zero. This business model was all new to us with many learning curves and lots of mistakes. My dad had a saying, ''Make mistakes faster than our competition'' and it holds true to this business model, too! It has been a tough year for all of us and our team. Our team has stuck together and we have fought like hell to keep things going to provide heathy options for individuals.
Tell me about the research lab for your farm.
(It's) our biggest project to date. We are testing for nutrient density and the health of what we are growing. We are seeing results in some cases 300% to 600% higher than USDA averages. Unfortunately, the USDA averages have gone down by 50% in the past 50 years. We must turn this around. Our society's survival depends on it. We have a tagline here on the farm: healthy soil = healthy plants = healthy people.
How do you pick what varieties to grow? Are there any varieties that were almost extinct or forgotten?
We try out the latest seeds from plant breeders and comb through dusty agricultural books. We didn't discover any of these — we're uncovering, rediscovering, reintroducing.
As restaurants reopen, will you still be able to run the mail-order venture?
The pandemic has changed our business for good. This has forever created a fork in the road, and we will have two lanes: one for people at home direct from the farm and one for chefs. This has always been about producing something that people appreciate and people need. I could not dream of walking away.
The free time and vacation time of a farmer is very limited. What do you like to do in your off hours and are you ever able to travel?
I love spending time with my wife, Mary, walking in the woods with our Golden Retrievers, fishing in Lake Erie and caring for our Belgian horses.
Tamar Alexia Fleishman was the youngest girl violinist to solo with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Having traveled the world, Tamar shares flavors, history, arts and insightful interviews with fascinating folks from all walks of life. She's held her own on TV with celebrities like Bill Maher, Greta Van Susteren, Dr. Phil and Peter Frampton. Tamar has a B.A. in Political Science from Goucher College and a J.D. from the University of Baltimore. She is a practicing member of the Maryland Bar and a Kentucky Colonel. Read Tamar Alexia Fleishman's Reports — More Here.
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