An Interview with Farmer Lee Jones of Chef’s Garden

Farmer Lee Jones
The Chef's Garden

As a leader of a family farm that grows, packages, and ships the highest-quality, safest, and most flavorful specialty vegetables and herbs directly to the best chefs in the world, Farmer Lee Jones is by nature a keen observer of changes in the environment – that relate directly to changes in business.

As you look back at 2011, what are your insights for changing an environment?

Farmer Lee Jones:
In many cases, we’re focused on looking forward – like all businesses – but it pays to look back too. Many of the beliefs and practices from 100 years ago were extremely effective and remain valuable today. In my field, that was pre-chemical, pre-synthetic, pre-genetically modified organisms. Farmers employed true crop rotations with cover crops to reinvigorate the soil rather than applying chemical fertilizers to supplement soil devoid of nutrients because it never had a chance to rest.

A huge dichotomy has arisen in agriculture over the past century. Most farmers are sustained by producing cheap crops. Now, these farmers aren’t bad people – they’re just fulfilling the current demand, and they do it very well. As it relates to our income, we produce food cheaper than any other country.

Food is not measured by brix (sugar content), nutritive value, or other qualitative measures as much as quantitative measures like yield and tons per acre.  Billions of dollars have been invested in marketing the cheapest product, leading many consumers today to make decisions based on price, so re-education is the key.

The reality is you can pay now or later for fueling your engine with inferior quality foods. Doctors’ offices are packed, and pharmaceutical companies are making billions as a result of the way we currently eat. Yet the majority of consumers still don’t recognize the difference between buying cheap food and quality food. It’s a hard sell to increase a family’s food budget in a tough economy with high employment rates, yet we’ll pay more for entertainment than food and then wonder why diabetes is rising at such a staggering rate.

Luckily, the news isn’t all bad. We see farmers’ markets also on the rise. Families are beginning to view trips to these markets more like social outings than grocery shopping. They’re cooking with their kids to cultivate their interest, and teaching them to make fresher and healthier choices. Kids are more likely to eat something if they helped pick the ingredients at the market or helped select the crops to grow in the home garden. Getting them involved reinforces the value of the food we eat and gives them a sense of ownership over their decisions that will carry into adulthood.

How can businesses change to be more sustainable in 2012? And what are the benefits of moving to a sustainable environment?

Farmer Lee Jones:
Any sustainable business must be environmentally friendly and socially responsible. But there’s a third part that is harder for people to wrap their heads around – it has to be economically viable. Our businesses can’t sustain if we can’t pay our team members a fair wage. It’s extremely important to keep quality employees. Yet it’s also difficult when we’re competing with companies in third-world countries where the average wage for farm workers is $1.55 per day.

FarmAs in other businesses, we have to compete based on things that will differentiate us – like our sustainable growing methods, diversity of products, food safety, and use of technology. One of the most exciting adventures we embarked on this past year was to find a way to generate energy through a renewable source. We’ve installed a boiler that burns corncobs to generate heat for our greenhouses. The cobs are a waste product from one of our neighbors, and it provides a cheap and renewable alternative to fossil fuels. However, wars in the future will not be fought over fossil fuels; they will be fought over water, so companies should be looking toward water conservation methods, which is another area of focus for us.

How can you create hope professionally and personally?

Farmer Lee Jones:
How do you eat an ear of corn? One bite at a time. Over the years, I’ve seen that we can make a difference, but it doesn’t happen overnight. In lieu of a perfect plan, the combined mass of small bites can and will make a difference.

I am extremely hopeful for the future of agriculture. I recently read that more seeds were sold in the U.S. in 2011 than at any time in our history. There are more gardens today than during the Victory Garden days of World War II. That’s exciting to me, but even more exciting is that people are realizing that gardening can be an educational tool as well as entertainment, and on top of that it will produce healthy foods for their household or community.

Farmer Lee Jones and the farm have been featured in Bon Appetit, Cooking Light, Gourmet, Food & Wine, Newsweek, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Inc. Magazine, The Washington Post, and Food Arts. See www.chefs-garden.com.