Farmer Lee Jones, once dubbed “the Willy Wonka of chlorophyll” by chef José Andres, is keeping alive the endangered tradition of small-scale specialty produce farming in America, with a generation-spanning family farm and an encyclopedic knowledge of vegetables. With his new book co-written with Kristen Donnelly, “The Chef’s Garden: A Modern Guide to Common and Unusual Vegetables,” Jones unites the worlds of growers and cuisine, tracing a vegetable’s journey from farm to chef’s kitchen. He joined “City Lights” host Lois Reitzes to share stories from his book and a life in cultivation.
The idyllic and elusive family farm, and its history of struggle:
“Our farm is actually located right on Lake Erie, in Huron, Ohio, and it’s in an amazing microclimate. And if you go back, before roads and refrigeration, [the area] had really developed to the point where there was a lot of outside competition. I’m talking, like in the 30s,” said Jones. “Large metropolitan areas with big volumes of people, and then this amazing microclimate. Lake Erie is the shallowest of all the Great Lakes, and consequently it’s the warmest. And the soil that we’re on is some of the richest sandy loam in the world.”
“Everything was about getting bigger [in the 1970s]… ‘Get big, or get out,’” said Jones. “The small family farms were, one by one by one, pushed out… Ultimately, interest rates hit 22% – they’re 3.5% today… we had a devastating hailstorm, and it wiped out all the crops, and the banks were closed.” He continued, “I stood shoulder to shoulder with my mom and dad, my brother and sister, all our neighbors, all of our competitors, everybody who was there to celebrate our failure. And they auctioned off every single tractor, and every piece of equipment off, right down to my mother’s car and our home.”
“Farmers are the most optimistic people in the world, and every year we get a chance at a rebirth, of a renewal, of a start-over.”
On collaborations with renowned chefs:
“[Chef Iris Bailin] was looking originally for the squash blossom. That’s how it all started for us here on the farm, when we started over. My father had grown traditional size zucchini… and he sold thousands of cartons of them. And here was this lady in a chef’s jacket, and she wanted the zucchini the size of your pinky, with a blossom attached still on it, and we just couldn’t comprehend it at first,” recalled Jones.
“If a chef equals one, and a farmer equals one, you put those two together, and it’s a combined effort of times ten. And that, of course, brought us to, twenty-some years later, building a facility called the Culinary Vegetable Institute,” said Jones. “We’ve learned from chefs that at every single stage of a plant’s life, it offers something unique to the plate.”
Keeping specialty produce alive and in demand:
“We have a saying – ‘healthy soil, healthy vegetables, healthy people, healthy environment.’ We think that all of those things should be considered when making our purchases,” said Jones. “If you can take the time to get a connection with the producers of the food, and have an understanding of the way they’re growing it, I think that you can support the things that are important to you. You want us here, or do you not?”