Farmer Lee Jones has a lot to say. And I can certainly appreciate anyone who has the gift of gab. I asked him a handful of questions and I got a whole lot in return. It’s all good stuff and therefore don’t want to cut anything, so I’m going to share this latest Q&A as a three-part series. I hope you’ll take the time to read. Not only is Farmer Lee a great individual, but he (and his staff) are doing some pretty wonderful things that I am always happy to help spread the word (like Veggie U).
When did you start farming this way and why? It was about 1983 when we lost the farm to excessive interest rates and a hail storm, that we started farming sustainably, and it’s been a continuous evolution ever since. Losing the farm was very devastating. Nineteen at the time, I stood and watched 25 years of my parents work sold at a sheriff’s auction.
They had 100 percent commitment and complete devotion to farming for 25 years. They even had some successful years, but they got wrapped up in 21 percent interest rates and a hail storm, and ultimately they could not compete with the massive 5, 10, 20-thousand-acre commercial operations with cheaper labor on the West Coast or in Mexico. So ultimately, it broke their back. It also allowed us to re-evaluate what we were doing and where we were going.
Before 1983 we were farming commercially, about 1,200 acres, and we were doing it chemically the way the universities taught. They gave you a book that showed pictures of let’s say, for example, a healthy cabbage and a diseased cabbage. If it had this disease, here is the chemical to use to get rid of it.
It is much like our Western culture of medicine today. When you have a strep throat, you go to the doctor to get your penicillin or amoxicillin; we’re constantly treating the symptom. In the Eastern culture of medicine, the methodology behind it is to get your body in a perfect balance, so you can defend against strep throat or another disease. That’s really similar to how we try to farm today.
In commercial farming, the emphasis was on the cost of the product rather than the quality of the product. It became about those growers that could produce food cheaply rather than the best flavor or the integrity of the product. So, one by one, individually owned grocery stores and small family farms were pushed out of business.
At one point we had over 330, small family vegetable operations in Erie County alone, and all the way up through Avon and Avon Lake was peppered with small growers. In fact you can still see some of the skeletons of old greenhouses. Family grocery stores and family farms were pushed out of business because the economy of scale kicked in and large mass farms and mega grocery stores became the standard. It all became about convenience rather than the quality.
Our area has a micro climate because of Lake Erie. Lake Erie is the shallowest of all the Great Lakes and consequently the warmest. European settlers recognized this area as a tremendous growing region. We had the first winery in the United States was right here in our county, so there used to be a ton of family owned grocery stores and small individual, I don’t know if they would have called themselves artisanal farms, but small family farms, and there was a connection between the user and the producer. As roads and refrigeration got better in the 1950s, chain grocery stores came into play and they put the pressure on small individually owned grocery stores. It all became about how they could produce food the cheapest, and those were the growers that survived.
So we lost the farm and the farmer’s markets were a place for us to start over because it was instant cash. There wasn’t even the luxury at first to sell to restaurants because they would all want credit, so selling at farmer’s markets were really one of the few choices we had. But farmer’s markets in the early ‘80s were really at an all time low.
Our grandparents (or maybe in your case, Michelle, great-grandparents) spent a very huge percentage of their time in the kitchen preparing food. My mother’s generation said, look we are not going to spend all this time in the kitchen, and it became about convenience with the advent of instant mixes and TV dinners and microwaves. Now we have the history in place to see 50 years later that cheap food is not the answer.
Really it’s about balancing the soil, selecting the right seeds and properly caring for a plant that supports it against diseases and insects rather than trying to treat them after the fact, and I think this is really critical to sustainability and the future. We believe there is a direct correlation between the health of our nation, or the lack thereof, with commercial farming practices over the past 50, the way we eat, what we eat and the way what we eat is grown.
It is really wonderful to see your generation reconnect, reclaim control and demand to know where product comes from. It’s just really great to see the producers being embraced and supported.
Who was the first chef you worked with? The very first chef we worked with was Iris Bailin, but I don’t think she is still in the industry. She was an executive chef for a brokerage firm back in the 80s and she was one of my first customers at the Coit Road Market off of E. 152nd on the east side of Cleveland. Drove that route many, many mornings.
I’d leave the farm at 2:30 in the morning to be there by 4:00, if we didn’t have a truck break down. My dad was at the West Side Market, my brother was at Orange and Woodland, my mother was at Jamie’s Flea Market in Amherst, and my grandmother and aunt were selling out of the back of a Ford Fairmont at the Sandusky Farmer’s Market.
Iris Bailin had trained in Europe and she came back home looking for the quality of ingredients that she had seen there but couldn’t find them. At that time, nearly all of the family farms had been pushed out of business. What she was looking for really didn’t exist here. We were flat broke and desperate for a way to survive in agriculture. The only trucks we had were trucks that didn’t get a bid when I stood and watched every single thing my folks owned sold at a sheriff’s sale. These trucks were in rough shape; a lot of them had over a million miles on them before we started using them for farmer’s markets.
Iris Bailin was very persistent in looking for any farmer who would listen to her, because she was looking for specific varieties harvested at particular sizes and grown without chemicals. She was looking for products grown in a healthy way rather than a commercial way.
We were used to the philosophy of Earl Butts, the secretary of agriculture who said rip out every hedge row – get big or get out. Then here was this lady from France looking for zucchini blossoms and lettuces that were three inches tall. It was a hard concept for us to grasp when we were used to selling by the palette.
However, what she was looking for really resonated with my dad because it had existed here at one time: quality ingredients grown for the varietal selections in a healthy way where the crops and land were rotated and nutrients were rebuilt naturally rather than chemically. It really has only been the last 50, 60 years that we decided we could replace a natural input with chemical or synthetic one. It faked the plants out, but with health care costs continuing to increase at an alarming rate, we now see it didn’t fake our bodies out.
My dad asked how many growers Iris had asked to grow in the way she was recommending, and about 15 to 20 growers had refused. That was really the clincher for my dad. That none of the others were willing to do it was the signal that we needed to go that direction.
Iris went on to be the food editor at the Cleveland Plain Dealer. She introduced us to Parker Bosley, and Denise and Bill Fugo at Sammy’s in the Flats, chefs who were ahead of their time in Cleveland and I think had European influences as well. Parker Bosley was one of the first chefs on the farm and early on we met Ken Eddy who was at the French Connection at the time. Paul Minnillo and his brother at the Baricelli Inn were again ahead of their time and sought out quality ingredients. Mark and Julie Sherry had started Players in Cleveland which was a really hot place. Of course, Gary Lucarelli runs it now I believe. Places like Raintree by Fritz Campbell on the East Side; Bob Buehner at, gosh, I can’t remember the name of the place he was at. Then there’s John D’Amico and Matt Mars at Chez Francois, which is right in our backyard.
They were a part of that early group; but ultimately the Cleveland chefs at the time were not fully prepared to embrace what we were doing, and we could not survive on what we could generate from the Cleveland chefs at that time. We sought out like-minded chefs all over the country. It is satisfying now to see that it is fully embraced in Cleveland and chefs here do fully support a return to pre-commercial agricultural philosophies. When we opened the Culinary Vegetable Institute we flew Iris Bailin in and recognized her for her contributions to our direction and success.
How did the CVI come to be and what is its mission? The Culinary Vegetable Institute (CVI) was my dad’s vision. For years we had had chefs come in from around the country: Jean-Luis Palladin from the Watergate Hotel was one of the first French chefs to come into the United States and he, like Iris, was looking for quality, custom ingredients that they had become accustomed to in France but couldn’t find here. Basically his message to growers was the food was shit and if we wanted to grow for him we had to get it figured out.
He was very instrumental, much like Iris, in guiding the vision. And once he figured out we were willing to pay attention and do it the right way, he got on the phone and called other chefs and said, “There is a farmer who is willing to listen.” He introduced us to Daniel Boulud, Alain Ducasse, Thomas Keller, Charlie Trotter, Jean-Georges Vongerichten, Norman VanAken, Ritz Carlton chefs. They were also instrumental in developing the CVI.
The Culinary Vegetable Institute was conceived as a place for the most forward thinking chefs in the world to be able to come and do R&D and R&R, to be able to work with vegetables they hadn’t been able to work with before. We have anywhere from 250 to 300 types of vegetables that we found or a chef has found in their home country or in Europe and brought over. We will experiment with it and chefs can take it into the test kitchen and play with it to decide if it is something worthy of going into full production.
Chefs drive and dictate our business. The only reason we exist is because there has been that group of chefs that supported us and allowed us to be their gardener. We really look at ourselves as vessel for their vision. They guide, direct and edict our business. We are here to take care of the chefs.
The CVI’s sole purpose, initially, was for that. We’ve expanded that into a place for large corporations to do research and development. We do pharmaceutical dinners, rehearsal dinners, wedding receptions, corporate team building. It’s a great place for a company that wants privacy to be able to do experimentation and team building, or it can be used if an individual food enthusiast wants to have a private party. We will bring in a chef to cater to their specific needs and have a party around the specific foods they like. Obviously we’re embracing Earth to Table, seasonal sensitivity and that whole concept.
To be continued…