My apologies for the lengthy delay in the second half of the q&a with farmer Lee Jones. Just like he did in the first half of the interview, Lee truly shares a lot of insight with us, including the story behind his trademarked outfit (did you know he never weans anything else – ever, regardless if it’s a wedding, lounging around, or out to dinner?), challenges in farming today, relationships with chefs and some very sound advice for all you gardeners out there.
1. How many bow ties do you own and what’s the story behind it? I got the privilege of meeting Freddy Girardet, one of Charlie Trotter’s mentors, a living legend from Switzerland. He is in his 70s now; many people say he closed his restaurant too early and I’ve actually met people who have been tearful that his restaurant is no longer there. But I had the privilege of speaking with him one night and he said to me, “Back when I was your age, the farmer and chef got very little respect for what they did. It is so ironic to see that we have gained respect for what we do now.”
I think regardless of what occupation we have, we can take pride in it. There used to be a saying, “If you can’t make it in the real world you can always go back and work on the farm.” It wasn’t a career that was looked upon highly. So one of the things behind the bow ties is, I am a farmer and I am not afraid or ashamed to be who I am.
My dad has a saying, “You can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear, so you might as well go as what you are.” On my best day you couldn’t place a $500 suit on me. I am what I am and I am not ashamed of that. I don’t like to be boastful or proud, but I take pride in what we do and the way we do it. We do it to the best of our ability.
One of the few books I read in high school, and they also have a movie, was “The Grapes of Wrath” by John Steinbeck. Every once in a while I watch it when it’s on television, and every single time I watch it, I cry. It’s about growers during the Great Depression that were displaced out West and in Oklahoma; farmers were pushed off their land and lost their farms and were looking for a way to survive. Through it all, there was a scene where they were so destitute, they lost all their money and they had very little hope. Yet, on a Saturday night, they cleaned up and had a square dance.
The overalls they wore were torn and tattered but they were clean. The farmers put on their bowties. Even as down trodden as they were and with as little respect as they had, they held their dignity and they were proud of who they were. I think really that is what the crux of it is.
We have a registered trademark on the overalls and red bowtie; it is part of our brand and I try to represent all the family farms out there in America, to show that we can be proud of what we do and that there is a place for us here. It has been so rewarding in so many ways to see society coming around to the fact that we do have a worthy place in society and value what we do. It’s fun and it’s exciting to see the renewed interest and resurgence of farmer’s markets and other farms doing well. It is just a very rewarding thing, taking pride in what we do.
But, to answer your question, I have about 24 bowties.
2. What is your advice for home gardeners? Several things come to mind when you ask advice for home gardeners. My first advice would be to keep gardening! My second advice would be to continue to make mistakes. Document, document, document your work: document your mistakes; document what worked; document what didn’t. From planting to planting and from year to year, it all runs together, so I think good records are imperative.
Another suggestion would be not to farm all of your land or all of your plot at once. Continue to rebuild nutrients and find ways to do that naturally with rye or vetch clover; rye in particular is a cheap seed. Take a third of your land and plant rye, or if you can, plant your whole garden to rye in the fall at least the first year.
It is our belief that God designed a system far superior to anything we can fake out. If you can visualize a plant as an antenna, it will accept natural energy from the sun and emit it out through the roots to the next set of crops. So, in the spring, leave one-third in rye and allow it to continue to collect energy. Plant your spring crop in the second third and then as you get to a frost-free date, plant the third section with tomatoes and eggplant and squash and other things that are frost sensitive.
In that first section that you leave fallow, you can start the rye as early as March or April in our region. Then plant the things that like the cool temperatures. Radishes, spinach, lettuces, and greens will all tolerate a freeze. Plant peas or potatoes here too. Then, as your radishes and lettuces start finishing up, go ahead and begin to till in the rye in the first planting. Go ahead and do your second planting of radishes and lettuces in mid summer in the section you had the rye in. Just continue to rotate and allow the land periods of rest.
Rotation in commercial farming means something totally different because they plant all three thirds of the land all the time. They rotate the crops between the fields, but never give it a rest. Can you imagine your body if you never took a vacation or a rest or allow it to rejuvenate?
Without writing a book on gardening, that’s some sound advice I recommend. Essentially you are trying to work in harmony with nature and not outsmart it.
3. Explain how the vegetables from your garden differ from those at the grocery store? Wow, we can fill a whole page with this. We have a saying that we farm the soil rather than the crop, again, working in harmony with the soil and trying to get the biology right. We do lab analysis on soil and based on the deficiencies plant different types of cover crops that will accept different types of energy from the sun.
Then it comes down to seed selection. The varieties we select are grown for flavor rather than yield. The Seed Savers Exchange is something any one of your readers can become a member of. It’s a group of us that thinks maintaining old heirloom varieties is important and if you have a variety you can share it with other folks. I would recommend anyone that is interested to become a member.
Beyond the seed and the soil, only a third of our land is in production. We have about 100 acres in production, 100 sitting fallow and another 100 growing very specific ingredients for compost. We harvest those, fold them into the compost and put those composts back into the soil. The result is unbelievable that you can see with working in harmony with nature and not trying to out smart it.
The final difference is the way the product is handled. We don’t believe the product should be harvested and wait to be sold. Product remains in our “growing” inventory until the chef’s order them, and for the first time home users can purchase online.
4. If you weren’t a farmer, what would you be doing? Well, I would be very, very disappointed. I can’t imagine, absolutely cannot imagine, what I would be doing. From five years on, I was helping in the field up until we lost the farm. It was never a question if whether we were going to farm, just how we were going to do it.
5. What’s the best plate you’ve ever had and who was the chef behind it? Oh golly! As you can tell by the size of my belly, I love food and it would be really hard to hone in on a best dish, but I can identify one of the most special occasions, food related. My folks, my dad especially, felt he had failed the family when we lost the farm. He was devastated; they crawled away with nothing. For 10 years we worked without a check, yet there were so many rewards that came along other than monetary ones, for example, to be able to work together as a family. It’s the only reason we survived.
It’s hard to really point out specific chefs because there have been so many that have helped. But Charlie Trotter has been a huge mentor and guide for us. Many of you know Ferran Adrià; he is the fella who invented the foams. He is from Madrid, near Barcelona, and is considered by some to be the greatest chef in the world. I don’t know how you judge that, but I have heard it said many times. Charlie Trotter flew out here with his team and brought Ferran Adrià and his wife. About 16 local chefs were invited to help, and they prepared a 12-course lunch one day for my parents, my wife and me, Ferran Adrià and his wife, Charlie Trotter, Ray Harris, a fella from Inc. Magazine and a few others.
We got to sit down and break bread together for a lunch with that group of people and as long as I still have a memory that will be one of the most special days – for my parents to be able to sit down with someone who people think is the best chef in the world and to have him tour what we are doing. It is truly, truly, truly one of the most special days in my life. So I guess that would be the best plate of food I have ever had and the chef behind it.
6. What is the biggest challenge that faces the farming industry? It is very difficult for a farm to remain a farm. There are so many challenges. We have to compete for the best farm ground with other industries and real estate, so that is certainly a challenge. Producing food cheap continues to be what’s important in industrial food production. About 5 percent of the farms produce about 80 percent of the volume. They have a lot of power and they are changing laws to benefit themselves rather than the small farm. I think we got real issues facing us there. We could go on and on about that subject.
For that reason, I think it is important for users to continue placing an emphasis on knowing where their product is from, although I don’t get wrapped up in local. I think if we make the emphasis on the distance a product travels from where it is grown rather than how the product is grown, we could lose sight of what got this movement started. It is important for us to have that connection, or re-connection, with users and producers who share like-minded philosophies
7. Most unusual item a chef has requested you grow? That is a tough question. Different chefs recognize needs for different things. You know, about twenty five years ago we started researching radicchio. It was unknown in the United States and several folks said it actually couldn’t be grown here, so early on that was one of the most unusual. It took us a while to get used to things like purple Brussels sprouts.
Micro Greens were pretty uncommon once too. We were instrumental in developing those 20 years ago, and they are a mainstay today. White Asparagus is something that was unheard of in this country and we developed a way of growing it so it doesn’t have to be peeled.
One of the most difficult ones, up to this point, has been crosnes. It’s a starch, tuber type plant that is grown in Crosnes, France. With a similar flavor and texture to nuts, it’s a great substitute when nut allergies are an issue.
8. What TV show do you never miss? Well, gee, it is hard to miss the Food Network. It is so amazing to sit and watch television and see so many of the folks we work with, chefs who are committed to what we do and have this nationwide platform to tell others about it.
“Iron Chef” is obviously one that is close to the heart since I have gotten to judge that a couple of times. “Chopped” is another we like to watch, and my good friend Kenny Gilbert is doing great on “Top Chef” this season.
9. How many chefs have stayed at CVI? What is their overall involvement? I’m not sure of the total, but there have been many hundreds of chefs that have stayed at the Culinary Vegetable Institute. There have been even more than that who have been instrumental in supporting the project and helping us build it. To help connect us to people who had kitchen equipment and china and things like that.
I am speechless at the enormous help and support. The culinary industry is one of the most giving groups of people and we are eternally grateful for our relationship with all the chefs. It is so hard to pinpoint any one particular chef because there have been so many that have helped in so many different ways. We just would not be here without them.
10. The Food & Wine event is the biggest event for you each year. Tell us a little about it and why it’s a must-attend for readers? The Food and Wine Celebration is one of those things that’s almost mind boggling for me. There are folks who work with us all year who come and help us put on this event on behalf of our Veggie U program – a program that empowers children and lets them know they have a choice in food while weaving in the math and science end to help prepare them for their proficiency tests. As important, we believe, as empowering children and letting them know they have choices in food, they get seeds, soil, compost, a worm farm and a grow light. It is a hands-on program. The Food and Wine Celebration is to generate awareness and revenue for Veggie U.
There are so many synergies that happen. Chefs come in, literally, from all over the country. There are high school and college culinary students and instructors who come to work under the tutelage of the visiting chefs. Because we do so many different Earth to Table events at the CVI, in addition to the Food & Wine, students get to come build relationships with chefs, and then you move on with those networking connections. I know Russell Ashton from Lorain JVS under Tim Mitsich volunteered much of his time here when he was a high school student and graduated from the Culinary Institute of America and went on to do a stage at Stein Ericksen. Chef Zane Holmequist out there let him come out and spend three months, and he met him here at the Food & Wine event.
For food enthusiasts, it is one of those opportunities to really explore the entire United States and sometimes out of the United States. There is no place else in the United States on the third Saturday in July that has more talent under one roof. There are huge tents with tasting stations where chefs are preparing their dishes, obviously with products in season and proteins, and you can taste as much as you want. It is not a vegetarian event, but certainly the proteins ties in with the veggies. There are some great wine producers and vintners pouring their specialties and an auction that goes to support Veggie U.
It’s just a really a great atmosphere with a tremendous collection of some of the top talent in the world for a great cause. It is the culinary event of the year in Northern Ohio.
11. Did you eat your veggies as a kid? What’s your favorite now and how do you prepare it? I did. As you can see, I love to eat. I love vegetables but unfortunately, I love it all. It’s been one of those things that has been tough for me to control, because every chef wants to share what they’re excited about and I love to eat. It’s one of those things I do struggle.
When somebody asks me what my favorite veggie is, I always say, what season is it? My point is I want to eat asparagus three times a day when it’s in season and then I will lust for it for 10 months. I don’t want to see asparagus on a menu in November or December. There is a cyclical rhythm to things that is natural. I think our bodies look for and need and demand different types of nutrients that only vegetables offer. I truly believe if we listen to our bodies and eat seasonally, that we’ll be a healthier society.