The Chef’s Garden is making a name for itself in the culinary world – Ohio Ag Net
By Brianna Gwirtz, OCJ field reporter
The story of The Chefs Garden is one of resilience. Bob Jones Sr. operated his farm with his sons, Lee and Bob Jr. until the farm crisis of the 1980s hit. In 1983, as interest rates rose to 21%, a hailstorm hit the Huron farm and devastated the crop. This was the tipping point that led to the downfall of the farm.
“At 19, I stood with my family and saw 25 years of hard work and blood and sweat being auctioned off,” said farmer Lee Jones. “All of our neighbors and competitors were there and everyone who appreciated our failure was there.”
Although they didn’t know it yet, that terrible day set the tone and trajectory for the future of the Jones family. Returning to farming was a no-brainer for the late Bob Sr. and his sons – it was in their blood.
The family opened a farmer’s market and began selling fresh produce they grew on rented land near the original farmhouse. One day, Farmer Lee met a chef at a local farmers market who was looking for some very special vegetables grown with flavor and without using chemicals. This conversation sparked an interest in Bob Sr. and the family discovered his niche: high-quality vegetables.
Today, The Chef’s Garden grows 300 acres of fresh vegetables year-round. The Chef’s Garden features over 7,000 types of vegetables, edible flowers, herbs and more. Farmer Lee Jones and his brother Bob Jones Jr., their families and 167 employees keep the business running at full speed.
“We focus on regenerative agriculture. We focus on the floor. We believe that healthy soil leads to healthy vegetables, which in turn leads to healthy people,” said Lee Jones. “About 50% of our acreage at any given time is under cover crops to improve soil health. We are also increasing our biodiversity. We plant companion crops. For example, we will plant clover between Brussels sprouts or tomatoes, because clover fixes nitrogen in the soil and these vegetables need a lot of nitrogen.
The cover crop rotation includes a variety of crops, such as clover, alfalfa, buckwheat, and sudan grass.
“Cover crops also help us enormously in reducing runoff. There is a better water absorption rate. We use less irrigation because these cover crops help hold moisture in the soil for us,” Jones said.
Nearly 11,000 years ago, the ground on which the Chief’s Garden now sits was once the bottom of a lake, leaving rich, sandy loam perfect for growing vegetables. The region also benefits from a microclimate which makes it suitable for agriculture.
“There were over 300 vegetable growers in this area at one time. However, in the 1940s refrigeration came along and much of the vegetable production went west to warmer states because they can produce higher volumes for longer periods of time,” Jones said. . “However, we can still grow very high quality vegetables all year round. The cold limits the volume to some extent, but we also don’t have to worry about insect pressure when it’s colder.
Jones said his team uses technology that complements nature. Chef’s Garden uses transparent, moveable plastic greenhouses called cold frames to trap heat from the sun. On a good sunny day in winter, the cold frames can reach 55 degrees inside.
In addition, they grow vegetables in traditional greenhouses during the winter. A nearby popcorn producer sells his spent corn on the cob to Le Jardin du Chef. The cobs are burned and used to run boilers that heat the water circulating in the greenhouse floors.
“We just want to be sustainable and go back to a lot of the production practices that people used over 100 years ago,” Jones said.
Although their practices may reflect times past, the company has seen much change and growth over the past 40 years.
The Chef’s Garden opened The Culinary Vegetable Institute in 2003, a place where guest chefs come to dream up new menu items, learn about the growing process, and taste vegetables they’ve never had before. In addition to hosting chefs, The Chef’s Garden also has three chefs on staff.
The Chef’s Garden has also hired Amy Sapola, Doctor of Pharmacy with a BS in Nutrition. Sapola runs an initiative called “Farmacy at The Chef’s Garden,” where she teaches customers the benefits of incorporating vegetables into the diet. Its Farmacy boxes contain fresh produce that may benefit certain health conditions.
Asked about a time that brought the greatest challenges and change, Jones easily answered with the year 2020. Faced with a global pandemic and restaurant closures, The Chef’s Garden had to find new sources of income . Jones has made it a personal mission to keep all staff employed during this difficult time.
“For 35 years, our clientele has always been chefs. When the pandemic hit in 2020, we were forced to reinvent ourselves or be left behind. We have now launched a home delivery service. During the pandemic, people were afraid to go to the grocery store or the grocery stores were empty, so we thought we could provide products to individuals without them having to leave the house,” Jones said. “We had good organic growth thanks to that. People want to know where their food comes from.
The pandemic also triggered the reopening of the Farmer’s Market. The original market was outdoors during the pandemic, but is now housed indoors. It is open most weekends, year-round.
The Culinary Vegetable Institute has also pivoted a bit. In addition to welcoming chefs from all over the world, the CVI is now also an ideal place for visitors who wish to escape for a few days. The property is listed on Airbnb. Customers arrive at a breakfast basket of farm vegetables.
Farmer Lee Jones represented The Chef’s Garden well. The company sells products internationally to renowned chefs and Farmer Lee has been featured in numerous agricultural and culinary news sources, magazines and TV shows.
“I think the key to success is to always identify your customers’ needs. Supply and demand for us dictate everything,” Jones said. “We try to identify what is important even before others understand. It is imperative to have leaders on staff as we better understand where the world is moving. When you have thousands of products, it’s healthy to challenge your inventory. For example, I love kohlrabi. I planted 37 kohlrabi plantations because it’s something I love. But you have to make sure you have the necessary clientele because it doesn’t matter if you have a constant supply if you can’t sell it. So this is a great example of SKU valuation for this product. »
At the heart of it all, Jones’ strong sense of family keeps him motivated on a daily basis.
“We have strived to create a family environment here at Chef’s Garden. I work alongside my brother and several other family members every day,” he said. “But I also recognize that the 40 years I spent working with my father have been truly invaluable. There’s a huge hole now that he’s gone.