Ohio farm plants and plucks the best for star chefs

Aozotorp at aol.com Aozotorp at aol.com
Wed Aug 30 20:43:44 EDT 2000


Ohio farm plants and plucks the best for star chefs 
By Jane Snow 
Knight Ridder Newspapers

The top chefs in the country beat a path to Lee Jones' battered old door. 

The Erie County, Ohio, farmer ushers the highfalutin fellows along a rutted 
gravel driveway and around back, where rows of greenhouses and a few acres of 
fields hold the jewels that will show up on the nation's most precious 

For about 12 years, Jones has produced teensy lettuces, heirloom tomatoes, 
unusual pinkie-size potatoes and a host of other gourmet fruits and 
vegetables for a veritable who's who of the food world. 

Julia Child calls and places orders. Alain Ducasse, the French three-star 
chef who just opened Manhattan's most buzzed-about restaurant, visits and 
tramps through the fields. So do chefs from Charlie Trotter's in Chicago, the 
Greenbrier in White Sulphur Springs, W.Va., Cafe Boulud in Manhattan and 
Norman's in Coral Gables, Fla. 

While chefs in Boulder and other cities buy gourmet produce from local 
farmers, Farmer Jones Farm near Sandusky, Ohio, is almost unique in the food 
world. Most gourmet farmers concentrate on a relatively small number of 
produce varieties or herbs. Some artisanal cheeses such as Haystack Mountain 
Goat Dairy in Niwot develop clients outside their immediate regions. 

But Jones is a veritable supermarket of high-end produce with 600 items, and 
everything is cutting-edge. 

Have you ever heard of herbal mesclun mixes? Filament-like ginger roots? You 
soon will, thanks to Jones. 

"We'd like to say we saw this coming," Jones says. "We were just in the right 
place at the right time, and we're extremely blessed." 

Tragedy got the Jones family into the gourmet produce business. In 1980, 
Jones' parents lost the family farm to a hailstorm. The crops were ruined, 
bank loans were called in and the land and equipment were sold at auction. 

Jones was 20 at the time. His brother, Bob, was 16. The boys pitched in to 
help their parents start over with leased fields. They planted a truck garden 
and sold their produce at farmers' markets, including West Side Market in 

At the market, the family met Cleveland chefs who were interested in fancier 
stuff than field tomatoes and eggplants. Jones began growing some items for 
Sammy's restaurant in Cleveland. Then Players restaurant began ordering 
produce, and other restaurants followed. 

"We had a family vote . . . and decided we were going to go strictly with the 
restaurant business," Jones recalls. 

The restaurants initially were all in Ohio, but now most are elsewhere. Jones 
says few area restaurateurs want and are willing to pay for the top-quality 
items he grows. The produce is shipped overnight with ice packs to keep it 

"Our goal is to have the product on the plate in 18 hours from harvest," 
Jones says. 

This commitment to quality is why chefs such as Thomas Keller of the French 
Laundry in Napa Valley, Calif., buy from Jones rather than farmers nearby. 

Lettuces and herbs are harvested by hand with scissors. Produce is picked 
only after an order is placed, and it is picked to the specifications of the 
chef. On one day last week, three workers walked through a field of bright 
yellow Swiss chard, stooping here and there to pick a single leaf by hand. 

"We'll go out with a ruler or a tape measure and if they want them 3 inches, 
that's what we'll pick," Jones says. 

The produce is washed by hand, too, and packed in containers that prevent it 
from being crushed. One or two orders are opened at the end of each day to 
double-check for quality and content. 

Employees receive bonuses for getting it right. Last year, 39 percent of the 
farm's profits were returned to employees as bonuses. 

"We're really shooting for perfection," Jones says. 

Jones won't divulge what his fruits and vegetables cost. He doesn't even tell 
the chefs initially. They get a weekly newsletter without prices. 

In the shipping shed, he holds up a small package of threadlike garlic roots. 
The 2-ounce package sells for $20. 

"We target chefs who understand the level of quality we're trying to do and 
who are able to market that," Jones says. 

The chefs are drawn to Jones by the double whammy of flavor and whimsy. 

The whimsy is found in unusual products, such as cucumber blossoms; the 
garlic roots, which are fried and sprinkled over entrees; and the hops 
threads, popcorn shoots and ginger shoots he is experimenting with now. 

Jones doesn't grow mesclun lettuce mixes anymore — the baby lettuces served 
as salad in many fancy restaurants — because they're passe, he says. He now 
grows the even tinier micro-greens, which he helped pioneer with chef 

Jones was invited to dine last year at the trendy Tru's restaurant in 
Chicago, which also is a customer. His wife, Mary, ordered soup. It came in a 
bowl placed inside a larger bowl in which a live tiger shark was swimming. 
The little fish circled around and around his wife's soup. Jones says his 
unusual products are intended to have a similar impact. 

"Everyone wants to taste something new and more exciting," Jones says. 

At the restaurants Jones caters to, they also want to taste something very 
good. So Jones grows vegetables and fruits for flavor, not for how easily 
they can be shipped. 

Each winter, Jones' wife and brother comb the Internet for heirloom seeds. 
They grow 56 varieties of peppers, including Jingle Bells — bell peppers the 
size of golf balls in rainbow hues. Eggplants come in 16 varieties, from 
2-inch-long lavender globes to pure white Thai. 

Jones' father, also Bob, flew to Iowa one summer to taste 100 kinds of 
heirloom tomatoes at an old-fashioned farm. He winnowed the choices to the 65 
kinds of tomatoes they grow now. 

Everything is picked young, at the peak of flavor. 

"Once (produce) reaches full maturity, the flavor changes. And it's all about 
flavor," Jones says. 

Growing such flavorful produce is not easy. Jones has 70 acres and 65 
full-time employees, compared with a nearby farm of 3,500 acres that employs 
just two. 

The antique varieties of vegetables that Jones grows bruise easily, so they 
cannot be cultivated with high-tech machines. Also, Jones uses no pesticides. 

Workers cultivate the land with 50-year-old equipment, including a rusty John 
Deere tractor and a two-pronged cultivator that travels at walking speed up 
and down the rows. 

Tiny, tender potatoes are dug with a 100-year-old potato digger that gently 
lifts the potatoes to the top of the soil. A museum curator once saw the 
potato digger in the field, knocked on the door and asked to buy it for the 
museum's agricultural collection. 

"I told her, 'Ma'am, we're still using that,'" Jones says, laughing. 

The result, though, is potatoes that burst with flavor, and tomatoes that 
taste like concentrated sunshine. 

Jones is proud of what he does, and says he wouldn't go back to growing 
truck-garden produce for a bundle of money — which he could use, judging from 
the condition of his sagging, ramshackle farmhouse. 

No, despite what Jones charges for the produce, he isn't getting rich. 

"Have you ever run into a farmer yet who's making money?" Jones asks. "I'd 
hate to be the first farmer to break that trend. 

"But it's rewarding in different ways. It's not all for the money."

August 30, 2000 

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