Farmer Lee Jones a legend with chefs
With his trademark white shirt, red bow tie, blue jean overalls and baseball cap, Farmer Lee Jones would be hard to miss in a crowd, even if he weren’t such a big man. Conversely, his diminutive, sustainably grown micro greens and vegetables are equally hard to miss in a crowded produce market because of their superior quality.
The affable Farmer Lee visited the Cayman Islands for the first time in February on the invitation of the Brasserie, where he served as guest speaker at the restaurant’s February Harvest Dinner on Thursday, 10 February. Two days later, Jones, along with Brasserie consultant chef Dean Max, served as the special guests at the Slow Food group’s event at Joel Walton’s Plantation House Eco Site and Gardens.
A real passion
Although circumstances pushed Lee and his family into sustainable farming, there is no questioning his passion for it now.
“Sustainability isn’t just a buzz word,” he said. “It’s a way of life.”
But it wasn’t always that way. Back in the early 1980s, when interest rates topped 20 per cent and a hailstorm caused severe damage to his farm’s crops, the Jones family lost its 1,200-acre farm in Huron, Ohio to foreclosure. Afterward, the Joneses tried to eke out a living on a much smaller farm.
At the time, the farm was run like most farms, using chemical pesticides and synthetic fertilizers in effort to maximize production.
“We did what the universities said we should do,” he said.
Jones said the change to sustainable farming started when his family was approached at a farmers market in Cleveland, Ohio, and asked by a chef to grow a speciality item – squash blossoms. After doing this for a while, the chef asked for more speciality items, and then other chefs asked as well.
‘Get to work’
The following winter, the family sat down to determine the direction they would take with their crops the following year. Bob Jones Sr., the patriarch of the family, said they had to choose between producing for the farmers market or producing for the chefs. One by one, the Lees all said they should continue producing for the farmers market because that made up the bulk of their business. When it came time for the senior Jones to talk, Farmer Lee says he slammed his fist on the table and declared, “The chefs are the way to go, my vote counts for five, now get to work!”
Through its operation called The Chef’s Garden, the family now produces high-quality micro greens and other produce grown for the particular tastes and textures preferred by chefs. Instead of maximising output per acre, The Chef’s Garden strives to maximize flavour and nutrients in the food it grows. It also strives to do it sustainably, which is sometimes called beyond organic because it entails much more than not using chemicals and synthetic fertilizers.
“We’re trying to work in harmony with nature rather than trying to outsmart it,” Jones said. “We’re trying to get as good as the farmers were 100 years ago.”
Jones talked about the large increase in various human diseases in the United States and other countries that rely on modern farming techniques.
Farming and the health of the world
“It is our belief that there’s a direct correlation with the way we’re farming and the health of the world,” he said, adding that farmers are rewarded for how cheaply they produce food, rather than the nutritional value and safety of the food. “We’re rewarding the wrong things.”
At the Harvest Dinner, Farmer Lee – who was here with his wife Mary – was able to taste the fresh produce grown in the Brasserie’s gardens and in other farms on the Island. Dishes included chilled garden cucumber soup, local tomato salad, garden eggplant flat bread, roasted garden beets and other local vegetables. Main courses included local stewed conch and local pork belly sisig topped with a local fried egg, a popular Filipino dish.
The Slow Food gathering on Saturday, 12 February, also featured food from the Brasserie, as well as food from ‘artisan’ friends of Plantation House owner Joel Walton.
Brasserie Executive Chef Brad Phillips said almost all the ingredients of the food the restaurant served that evening came from either Walton’s garden, the Brasserie garden, or from local farms. The Brasserie served dishes like soft fish tacos and fish tea made on a caboose grill, swordfish pâté and an array of fresh vegetable dishes. Mackie Powell added dishes like snapper and ‘stamp and go’ – a fried fish fritter. Farmer Lee also had a number of his micro products on display for guests to look at and taste. One of the products, garlic roots, is something he believes his farm was first to market.
Slow Food event
The Slow Food event started with Walton giving tours of his garden, which boasts about 175 different plants, about 150 of them edible. Like the Joneses, Walton said circumstances helped drive him to grow vegetables. Up until Hurricane Ivan in 2004, the property contained an orchard with about 200 fruit trees, but 40 per cent of those were lost during the storm and another 40 per cent were severely damaged. That’s when Walton decided to reorganise the property and expand the growing to herbs and vegetables.
“Hurricane Ivan made me think differently about how I wanted to plant the farm,” he said. At the Slow Food event, Farmer Lee spoke about how the advent of chain grocery stores – which achieve their efficiencies by buying in bulk – put small independent grocers out of business and changed the way farmers grew. The Chef’s Garden is trying to bypass the grocery story chain trap by dealing directly with fine-dining chefs, who need higher quality produce to make higher quality food. Even though The Chef’s Garden is now well known, the farm faces a constant threat of overpricing its products, especially since other farms in the US are now trying to do similar things. Farmer Lee realises success is far from guaranteed.
“Ask me in 30 years,” he said.