By Brianna Gwirtz, OCJ field reporter
The story of The Chefs Garden is one of resiliency. Bob Jones Sr. operated his farm with sons, Lee and Bob Jr. until the farm crisis of the 80s reared its ugly head. In 1983, as interest rates soared to 21%, a hail storm hit the Huron farm and devastated the crop. It was the tipping point that led to the fall of the farm.
“At 19 years old, I stood shoulder to shoulder with my family and watched 25 years of really hard work and blood and sweat be auctioned off,” Farmer Lee Jones said. “All of our neighbors and competitors were there and all of those that came to relish in our failure were there.”
While they didn’t know it yet, that awful day set the tone and trajectory for the future of the Jones family. Returning to agriculture 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 leased ground near the original home farm. One day Farmer Lee met a chef at a local farmers market who was looking for very particular vegetables that were grown with flavor in mind and without using chemicals. This conversation sparked an interest in Bob Sr. and the family discovered their niche — high-quality vegetables.
Today, The Chef’s Garden grows 300 acres of fresh vegetables year-round. The Chef’s Garden carries over 7,000 types of vegetables, edible flowers, herbs and more. Farmer Lee Jones and his brother Bob Jones Jr., along with their families and 167 employees keep the business running at full speed.
“We focus on regenerative agriculture. We focus on the soil. We believe that healthy soil leads to healthy vegetables, which in turn leads to healthy people,” Lee Jones said. “About 50% of our acreage at any given time is committed to cover crops in order to increase the soil health. We also are increasing our biodiversity. We plant companion crops. For example, we will plant clover in between Brussels sprouts or tomatoes, since clover fixes nitrogen in the soil and those vegetables need a lot of nitrogen.”
The cover crop rotation includes a variety of crops, such as clover, alfalfa, buckwheat and Sudangrass.
“The cover crops also tremendously help us to reduce runoff. We see a better absorption rate of water. We utilize less irrigation because those cover crops help to hold the moisture in the soil for us,” Jones said.
Nearly 11,000 years ago, the ground The Chef’s Garden currently sits on was once lake bottom, leaving a rich, sandy loam perfect for growing vegetables. The area also has a microclimate that makes it suitable for farming.
“There used to be over 300 vegetable growers in this area at one point. In the 40s though, refrigeration came about and a lot of the vegetable production went west to warmer states because they can grow higher volumes for longer periods of time,” Jones said. “However, we can still grow some very high-quality vegetables all year. The cold does limit the volume to an 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. The Chef’s Garden uses clear, movable plastic greenhouses called cold frames to trap the sun’s heat. On a good sunny day in the winter, the cold frames can be 55 degrees inside.
Additionally, they grow some vegetables in traditional greenhouses during the winter. A neighboring popcorn farmer sells The Chef’s Garden his spent corn cobs. The cobs are burnt and used to run boilers that heat water running in the flooring of the greenhouses.
“We are just wanting to be sustainable and to revert back to a lot of the production practices that people were using over 100 years ago,” Jones said.
While their practices may reflect times of the past, the business has seen a lot of change and growth in the last 40 years.
The Chef’s Garden opened The Culinary Vegetable Institute in 2003, a place for visiting chefs to come and ideate new menu items, learn about the growing process and taste vegetables they never had before. In addition to hosting chefs, The Chef’s Garden also has three chefs on staff.
The Chef’s Garden also hired Amy Sapola, a doctor of pharmacy with a B.S. in nutrition. Sapola leads an initiative called “Farmacy at The Chef’s Garden,” where she teaches customers about the benefits of incorporating vegetables in the diet. Her Farmacy boxes feature fresh produce that can benefit certain health conditions.
When asked about a period of time that posed the biggest challenges and the most change, Jones easily answered with the year 2020. Faced with a global pandemic and restaurant shutdowns, The Chef’s Garden had to find new sources of revenue. Jones made it his personal mission to keep all staff employed during that difficult time.
“For the last 35 years our customer base has always been chefs. When the pandemic hit in 2020, we were forced to either reinvent ourselves or get left behind. We have now started a home delivery service. During the pandemic, people were afraid to go to the grocery or the grocery stores were empty so we thought we could get products to individuals without them having to leave home,” Jones said. “We’ve had some good organic growth through that. People are interested in where their food comes from.”
The pandemic also sparked the re-opening of the farmer’s market. The original market was open-air 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 hosting chefs from all around the world, the CVI is now also a great spot for visitors looking to get away for a few days. The property is listed on Airbnb. Guests arrive to a farmhouse vegetable breakfast basket.
Farmer Lee Jones has represented The Chef’s Garden well. The company sells produce internationally to renowned chefs and Farmer Lee has been featured in many agricultural and culinary news sources, magazines and TV shows.
“I think the key to success is to always identify the needs of your customers. Supply and demand for us dictates everything,” Jones said. “We try to identify what is important before others even understand. Having the chefs on staff is imperative because we get a better grasp of 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 plantings of kohlrabi because it’s something I love. But you need to make sure you have the customer base for it, because it won’t matter if you have a consistent supply if you can’t sell it. So that’s a great example of evaluating the stock keeping units for that product.”
At the heart of it all, Jones’ strong sense of family keeps him motivated daily.
“We’ve strived to make a family environment here at The Chef’s Garden. I get to 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 dad were truly invaluable. There’s a huge hole now that he is gone.”
I worked 8 years for Chef’s garden and am very proud to done so. Great people.😃
I had the opportunity to work for them in college, one of the greatest work experiences I have ever had. The family commitment to agriculture shows. The statement on the family values is true as well.