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Farmer Lee Jones To Keynote
IDEATION FRESH Foodservice Forum
At The New York Produce Show And Conference 

We just recently received a little note regarding our coverage  of the Cantaloupe Crisis:

I think you have done a great job at examining the Cantaloupe Crisis – thumbs up.

—Karl Kolb Ph.D.
Chief, Science Officer
The High Sierra Group
Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin

It was a little “blast from the past” for us, as we haven’t heard from Karl since June of 2008. He usually weighs in on food safety issues, though, and we’ve been pleased to share his insight with the industry in pieces such as these:

Pundit’s Mailbag — Marketing Agreement Limitations

Pundit’s Mailbag — Farmers Are Not The Cause Of Food Safety Problems

Pundit’s Mailbag — Assume Product Delivered ‘Dirty’???

Well playing “produce geography” is fun and it turns out that among the various roles Karl plays is food safety consultant to a small, but certainly not obscure, farm in Ohio that is known as The Chef’s Garden.

The public face of this operation is Farmer Lee Jones, who speaks widely and frequently on topics related to farming, sustainability, chefs and similar topics.

His operation, which sells to chefs and direct to consumers, often via overnight delivery services, is a far cry from the massive farms that make up today’s mainstream produce industry.

To some, that would be a good reason to exclude him from any role in The New York Produce Show and Conference or the IDEATION FRESH Foodservice Forum, but to us the exact opposite is true.

One of the great difficulties in any industry is breaking out of the rut of everyone going to the same events, hearing the same people and reinforcing the same beliefs and prejudices.

It is a fine line though — step too far afield and it can be hard to see the relevance. Besides, not many busy executives have time to run off to events outside the industry.

So we think one of the ways we can provide a service is to identify people similar enough to the mainstream industry to be highly relevant but different enough to provide new perspectives and novel ideas.

We have already defined the nature of the new IDEATION FRESH Foodservice Forum, with this piece, and we explained how Amy Myrdal Miller of the Culinary Institute of America will lead us in an ideation exercise to help move produce consumption to half the plate in a piece you can find here.

Now we are thrilled to announce that Farmer Lee Jones has agreed to keynote the IDEATION FRESH Foodservice Forum. We asked Pundit Investigator and Special Projects Editor Mira Slott to meet with Farmer Jones while he was lecturing to students at New York’s Institute of Culinary Education, and he agreed to take time out of his schedule to sit down with her:

Farmer Lee Jones
The Chef’s Garden
Huron, Ohio

Q: From your humble family’s farming roots in Huron, Ohio, you’ve become somewhat of a celebrity in your iconic overalls and red bow tie — this year becoming the first farmer to receive the James Beard Foundation’s “Who’s Who” award for significant and lasting achievements and contributions to your profession. Did you ever imagine you’d be a judge on the Food Network program Iron Chef America? What inspired you to become a pioneer in the sustainable agricultural movement with an innovative artisanal farm and learning center that draws a global following of renowned chefs?

A: I don’t really consider myself a celebrity. My father always said you can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. On his best day, he wouldn’t put on a $100 suit. We’re proud of being farmers and not boastful. Produce is a tough business. As a young boy, I would go with my Dad to deliver produce to the wholesale market; he worked so hard I would be pounding on his shoulder to wake him up.

People have lost an understanding of the source of where their food is coming from. It used to be people got produce from the farmer’s market. In this area, historically the population is rich in ethnic diversity. Each culture had its own grocery store — Ukrainian, Russian, Italian, Jewish, Hungarian. Grocery store buyers had relationships with the farmers, partnering on how they wanted product grown and harvested at certain stages for flavor, not in tons per acre.

Women shoppers came from Europe and told the grocery buyer they wanted Kohlrabi; an emblematic example of a larger, widespread phenomenon. Eventually small stores and small farmers were pushed out. We lost the connection between the buyers and the farmers as the chain stores came into play. We’re starting to see signs of a reconnection. Still, the Census report came out, and family farms are no long represented; they’re in the “other” category at less than one percent. I’ve been relegated to “other”.

Retailers have done a good job of marketing a nice picture of Joe Smith Farmer holding his hand out with vegetables, alongside his family and dog. Retailers might carry those out to the consumers but the other 4,000 items are coming from Mexico or third-world countries. The demand is to decrease the price of food. We got off of that bandwagon. We were forced into that.

Q: Forced in what way?

A: We faced a tragedy. We were farming commercially and a hail storm wiped out all our farms. I was 19-years-old, and I watched 25 years of my family’s work being destroyed in one day. At 19, it was hard to understand how this could have happened. My parents were non-smokers, non-drinkers, went to church on Sundays and worked hard.

Farmer Lee Jones with his father Bob, Sr., and Bob, Jr.

When we lost our farm, we had to start our family business all over again. Farmers save everything. I remember that one of our trucks at the Sherriff’s sale didn’t get a bid. One person drove and the other in the passenger seat used duct tape to hold the ceiling up! There was no money; those were tough days. It was a turning point in how we would approach doing business.

Q: So you looked to reinvent yourselves?

A: In Western culture, we are constantly treating the symptoms. Eastern culture starts with farming the soil. We made the decision to abandon the traditional farming principles. For years and years, the primary goal has been to increase yields and shelf-life. We chose to focus on flavor and innovation in a sustainable agricultural environment.

We believe there is a direct correlation between the way we farm and the health of our nation. And we need to work with producers on changing the ways product is grown. The fact is that we have the highest healthcare costs, childhood obesity, diseases, sicknesses and allergies and these are not sustainable.

We’re continually looking at ways to become more sustainable, new technologies with old-world techniques. Geographically, we’re 2.9 miles inland from Lake Erie, which creates a microclimate. Water temperatures can be 75 degrees. During the winter, it keeps us from having the killing frost, facilitating ideal growing conditions.

Q:  How have you capitalized on this within your sustainability umbrella?

A: One third of our fields are planted in cover crops, specific compost crops that rebuild nutrients naturally, not chemically or synthetically. It’s a misnomer to put garbage in compost and get something miraculous coming out. That is an effort in futility. We use green manure. We don’t believe it is safe to use animal manures to rebuild nutrients. We work on the qualitative values and life of that soil so that it becomes healthier over the years. We believe that as soil is healthier, quality is better, which increases shelf life and retains a higher amount of antioxidants. That’s what sustainability is about.

We harvest solar energy, and look for other methods to reduce fossil fuels and ways to alleviate water usage. We use drip irrigation under the plastic right where we need it. We have a water crisis in this country.

Sustainability also involves ways to make labor easier. Weeds compete for available energy and nutrients. We’d rather get rid of them mechanically than chemically. Yet hoeing is one of the hardest jobs on the farm. We created a machine for people to eliminate weeds by lying down while picking them, which is more ergonomically comfortable and efficient. We have a labor-intensive business. It’s competitive. We have to keep innovating or we lose good people.

Environmentally friendly is a socially fuzzy expression. But economics is not a dirty word. You can’t be sustainable if you’re out of business.

Q: What are your thoughts about local?

A: The reality is farms are in local areas. Local doesn’t define quality. I know I create shock and awe when I say that. I’m not a great fan of local. That said, if you can get it from your backyard and it’s food-safe, that’s great. Food safety must be a top priority. We have to do everything we can to provide the safest food. Our technology includes handheld scanners for total traceability and just-in-time inventory management so that we are growing right before delivery.

I never hear anyone talk about the economic part of sustainability. Ninety percent of food consumed in the U.S. is produced in third-world countries with labor at prices like $1.35 a day.

Let’s not get wrapped up with definitions. Whether it’s within a 10-mile, 50-mile or 500-mile radius is less important. Local for me means farmers of like mind and philosophies.

We’re a little family farm, but that shouldn’t limit us to just selling to our neighbors. The local argument is not well thought out.

Q: Could you elaborate?

A: I have a chef I’ve been selling to in upstate New York for years. One day his general manager said to him, “We only want you to buy from local purveyors.” The chef apologized to me and felt badly. It turns out that the new local supplier that replaced us expanded his sourcing and was bringing product in from Ecuador, South Africa and Chile.

Ironically, the shortest, more local route turned out to be direct from the Chef’s Garden. By using this local supplier buying from all over the world, he actually increased the carbon footprint, fossil fuels to refrigerate during the transportation leg, etc. We need to take an open look at product lifecycles.

Q: How do your local views translate to the organic versus conventional options? Chef’s Garden describes its goals of producing in an “organic fashion.” What does this mean?

A: We don’t consider ourselves organic. Organic is an overused, bastardized word. Organic regulations have been a game-changer. The government took over the laws of what is defined as organic. We try to take a broader view.

Q: With family farms disappearing, what strategies have you taken to stay competitive?

A: We believe in family farms. But we consider ourselves an international farm. We developed the World Exchange Program to facilitate the global exchange of ideas and knowledge. At Chef’s Garden, we tend to be on the front end of curves. We have an ear with the best chefs in the world, garnering and sharing knowledge on what’s available from different countries.

We can’t compete in the commodity items. We have to look at ways to be different.

We have about 700 items; bok choy at 4 different stages of growth, petite asparagus in four different colors, one-inch cucumbers with the blossom still attached… how sexy is that? Can you imagine a sorbet finished off with that? Our goal is to help chefs stand out.

We have a trademark on iced spinach and iced vegetables as well. There is a tap root going into the soil and when it freezes, it allows it to rehydrate with the water going back in. We have a process of freezing and thawing and freezing and thawing that moves the sugar levels up. It can be thawed and frozen 69 times, each time enhancing the brix and flavor.

We can’t compete in garlic as a commodity or we’d get the crap beat out of us. The root of the garlic grows in lush soil and it’s tender and succulent.

We use molecular mixology techniques to produce little rhubarb stirrers, and horseradish shoot grown in the dark to put in Bloody Mary drinks.

Q: Is there a significant premium on such unique items?

A: Too many times the chef says your product is too expensive. But the challenge is providing value to the customer. People are ready for innovation and looking for the value, but we have to communicate why they are paying more.

Chefs are feeling growing pressure with health concerns to reduce the meat portion and increase the vegetables count. We are trying to develop new and exciting, sexy things chefs can do with vegetables to move them from the side of the plate to the center and increase demand. We’re encouraging chefs’ boldness in preparation of enticing new vegetables to put on the plate.

That movement is felt at universities. Students are interested in issues related to nutrition and health, not only in the curriculum, but are proactively seeking healthy, flavorful menus. University of Michigan invested $5 million in a culinary center, not that I’m promoting University of Michigan, I’m a Buckeye fan!

Q: College loyalties aside, how do you take that enthusiasm to a wider audience?

A: We started the Culinary Vegetable Institute in Milan, Ohio, three miles from the Chef’s Garden. It is a collaboration between the farmer and chef. The most innovative and skilled chefs come for R&D. They experiment in the CVI Kitchen Garden to develop progressive techniques for growing and preparing flavorful varieties and to trade produce knowledge. It has become a vibrant learning center that also serves to facilitate numerous events. It’s an opportunity to work with the best chefs in the U.S. and abroad as well as the people from their innovation teams. We’re hearing from the top trendsetters. We want to provide a service to the industry, even if we may not sell to all of them.

We form symbiotic relationships and we learn from each other. Our visitors become like family members.

I’m not a cook. I’m a farmer, but I have been learning enough to cook some dishes. Wolgang Puck has been a huge ambassador visiting us several times. Charlie Trotter actually broke ground on the Culinary Vegetable Institute. 

I should also mention Jean-Georges Vongerichten and Alain Ducasse. Thomas Keller has not made it to our farm yet, but we work with him.  Daniel Boulud has sent his chefs to visit, and we work with chefs at the Ritz Carlton, Four Seasons and Mandarin Oriental hotels around the world. 

Q: How did you get on Food Network’s Iron Chef?

A: I have no qualifications to be on Iron Chef except I like to eat. I went on thinking it was no big deal. As they would go down the line and ask each judge to give their opinion on the dishes, it came to me and I would freeze up. So at one point they said, Farmer Jones, you haven’t said anything. We’ll have you wrap up and give a full summary at the end. Thank God for editing! The show is broadcast to nine million people. They said we know you’re not a chef but we think it is important to hear a farmer’s perspective. I guess I did OK because they invited me back three more times.

Q: Is there any person that you still dream of meeting or working with?

A: Well, I want to meet Bruce Springsteen, so I hope he eats his produce. To answer you seriously, I didn’t get to meet Robert Mondavi. He reinvented the wine category. Riunite by the half gallon jug at the Ramada Inn was a big fancy day out to eat with our family. He changed the jug perception, learned from European influence and elevated wine to compete on a world class level, reaching varietal heights and producing the highest quality wines. We’ve looked to do the same thing in vegetables.

Chef Grant Achatz, on the list of the 100 most influential people, has been an inspiration to us in his pursuit of excellence and survival. He got tongue cancer and doctors recommended he remove his tongue, a devastating irony for a chef. We try to emulate his culture and philosophy.

One time I got a call from Julia Child. She said she was in a bind. She was in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and needed heirloom tomatoes right away for her dinner party. I thought it was a crank call and was quite impressed by the authenticity in the voice of the imposter. Well, it turned out to really be her, and I still get shivers up and down my spine when thinking about that moment. She was a class act, rest her soul.

Q: As we conclude this interview, what brought you to the Institute of Culinary Education (ICE) in New York City to speak with students and at other culinary schools around the country?

[Editor’s note: Rick Smilow, CEO and President of Institute of Culinary Education, dropped by to share a few words about his admiration for Farmer Jones: “I’ve known Lee for about a decade and actually visited his farm in Ohio. He’s an American agricultural and culinary innovator of notable proportion. I keep being amazed. As a business manager and entrepreneur, I respect him. Family farms have become a dying breed and Chef’s Garden found a way to innovate and stay viable. When I visited, I was struck by the range of international perspectives to learn about modern techniques and cutting edge technology.”]

A: The Institute of Culinary Education has built an impressive reputation. All the instructors I’ve met are passionate and convey the highest culinary skills. They stay on their game. We do an event the third weekend in July, where they compete with the top chefs in the country, and they certainly hold their own.

I want to teach culinary students to expand their horizons about vegetables and production and see what’s possible and sustainable.

Right before coming here to lecture, I was in Harlem giving a presentation to an inquisitive group of 3rd and 4th graders. I couldn’t believe a third-grader asked if I rotated my crops. The curiosity about fresh fruits and vegetables was palpable. 

We believe reaching children is so important in increasing produce consumption. We developed Veggie U with a curriculum tailored around fighting childhood obesity and empowering elementary children. Veggie U is now in some 2,000 schools. It costs about $450 to put a program in a classroom. One chef had a great idea at his restaurant. At the end of the meal, when the check arrives, it includes a description of Veggie U and there’s a place on the check to donate to Veggie U. It’s just one chef’s idea of ways to inspire people, one bite at a time.

Q: In November, you will have the chance to provide insight at The New York Produce Show and Conference. There will be produce suppliers, distributors, retailers, foodservice executives, chefs and culinary students coming to talk about buying and selling produce. What are some of the key issues you think the industry as a whole should be talking about at a gathering of thousands of people all focused on improving the industry?

A: Losing our farm is always a reminder not to take our eye off the ball. Complacency is the beginning of the end. It is important to focus on quality, flavors, unique textures, and sexy product to help chefs differentiate the plate.

You can use the best ingredients in the world but if you can’t communicate to guests, you’ve missed part of the value. Retail is often by the purse; it’s like a pair of shoes you wear over and over, which can be different than a restaurant. Consumers are savvy and more aware of where produce is coming from, and if you can relay the back-story, you will add value to the experience.

I tell the staff of restaurants how important it is to know where product is coming from, and about the producer so they can share that with their customers.

I like to tell our story of a farmer nearby. I always had great respect for Mr. Frye’s rhubarb. He grew it better than ours. Farmers like to check what other farmers do. When he got too old to harvest, we harvested his rhubarb for him. When he passed away, he willed his rhubarb root to us. We kept his legacy alive and preserved his heirloom variety. We always sell it as Mr. Frye’s rhubarb and market the product with his name. The story is carried on and adds value to the customer experience.

At Chef’s Garden, we try to capture something special about each chef who visits our farm that we can share with others. And chefs put information about us on their menus. We like to build our brand where it adds value.

Q: Your trademark overalls and red bow tie certainly provide an unmistakable identity. If you don’t mind me asking, what does your closet look like?

A: In my closet I have 18 pairs of overalls, and they’re all the same color. It’s pretty easy getting ready in the morning. No need for distractions from my mission.

The story is amazing and, without a doubt, inspirational. We can’t wait to hear him in New York.

Some of the work that Farmer Lee Jones is doing — as with Veggie U, a non-profit organization dedicated to helping children develop better eating habits via school programs — is right in sync with produce industry priorities and with the goal of helping children both learn to eat in a healthy manner and appreciate food and where it comes from. We find the whole project so inspiring that we just donated $2,500 to the project and became a 16 Carrot Gold Sponsor. You may want to consider making a corporate or personal donation to support the effort here.

He has titled his talk in New York, Farming for Flavor and Sustainability, and the broader question for us is what ideas and lessons we can draw from what Farmer Lee Jones believes, and how can we apply them in the mainstream industry.

We find his interview gives lots of points of entry. He is not dismissive, at all, on subjects such as food safety; not willing to endorse being a “locavore,” and not thinking that organic is an answer to all problems.

There are many points of engagement with his way of thinking and the broader produce trade.

Yet, we confess that his core story, of how commodity farming failed for his family and how they had to recreate the business with a focus on flavor, innovation and sustainability, reminds us more than a bit of what retailers have gone through as Wal-Mart has rolled out supercenters across America.

Unable to compete with Wal-Mart, retailers have focused on being everything Wal-Mart is not — high service, high perishables, high organic, etc. In many cases, these strategies have been highly successful for individual retailers.

Looked at from an industry perspective, though, these efforts have not so much provided a mechanism to compete with Wal-Mart, but, rather, have served as a mechanism to get out of the way of Wal-Mart.

So the question becomes: Is farming of the sort Farmer Lee Jones speaks of — with a third of the acreage in cover crops, destined to be plowed under to enrich the soil — a strategy to serve white table cloth chefs and individuals, either wealthy or deeply committed, or is there a broader possibility to help feed the world?

Farmer Lee Jones makes the case that different farming methods can actually improve public health, and this, in abstract, may be true. On the macro level though, as countries become richer and, yes, farming more industrial, life expectancies generally rise.

There are a lot of people out there who want to tell farmers how to grow things that have never raised so much as a radish. This talk will be different because it comes from someone who has actually walked the walk. He respects old ways but is more than open to new technology.

We think he will remind us all of the importance of our work in fresh produce and point the way to making that work even more meaningful.

We look forward to welcoming him to New York.

If you would like to register for the IDEATION FRESH Foodservice Forum or any other facet of the New York Produce Show and Conference, you can do so here.

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Travel discounts are available here.

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