Road Foodie

Some people drive simply to arrive.

Lake-Effect Veggies

Posted By on September 21, 2009

Farmer Lee Jones, of Huron, Ohio and The World.

Farmer Lee Jones, of Huron, Ohio and The World.

Erie, PA to Toledo, OH: 218 miles Two States: Pennsylvania and Ohio

Today is a short day because I’m headed to C’s family in Toledo for the night. Stella was disgusted with the 400-mile day yesterday, so I hope to butter her up with a lackadaisical day today. And I have a surprise in store for both of us: It’s not all about the white lines on the freeway….

About an hour east of Toledo, I pull off the Ohio Turnpike and head for my scheduled rendezvous with Farmer Lee Jones, at The Chef’s Garden. The passing countryside has been stunning for several hours now—waving fields are golden and/or green, just on the verge of putting on their winter colors—and the artistically scattered barns are red, hipped, and immaculate. The sky is blue, vast, and tranquil, soothing my soul in the way I’d previously thought only a Texas sky could do. When I pull into the gravel drive of Lee’s family farm, I’m instantly rewarded with the boundless enthusiasm, infectious grin and sparkling blue eyes, and signature red bow tie of the life force known as Farmer Lee, who has become emblematic of responsible, sustainable farming—a man who, incidentally, counts some of the world’s best and most influential chefs amongst his friends and vociferous supporters.

Green and purple cabbages--no corn in sight!

Green and purple cabbages--no corn in sight!


Lee’s family has been farming this corner of Ohio, with a break here and there, for six generations. He grew up in a farmhouse right around the corner from The Chef’s Garden, where, he says, he crawled in and out of his bedroom window more than once, headed for a romantic midnight rendezvous somewhere on the Jones’ family’s 1200 acres. But in 1983, a combination of events— a precipitous drop in food prices and a catastrophic hail-storm—wiped the completely family out. Within months, they were left with no choice but to sell literally everything they owned. Lee was a teenager then, but he grew up fast. Watching your mother and proud father sell their home, and land, including the tractors you grew up riding on, will have that effect on a person.
Pretty veggies in a state-of-the-art facility designed to move 'em out in optimal condition.

Pretty veggies in a state-of-the-art facility designed to move 'em out in optimal condition.


But the young Lee had some new ideas, and his father—who felt that he’d personally failed the family—was more than willing to listen. The entire Jones family began to think outside the box, and they haven’t stopped since. Eventually, and with a great deal of hard work, setbacks, and tiny steps forward that gradually became a gallup, the whole family now cultivates literally thousands of varieties of vegetables, on 300 acres, in a way diametrically opposed to the way they used to—and ninety percent of their neighbors still do—farm. Around us, as we tour the various different non-contiguous fields that make up the current holding (which is still increasing), we are never out of sight of the vast, undulating oceans of corn and soy that represent the region’s predominant crops—not to say monoculture.

This land basks fortuitously in the benign shadow of Lake Erie, the shallowest of the Great Lakes. Most of us who watch the weather channel are familiar with the term “lake-effect snow,” but what I certainly never knew is that on the western side of Lake Erie, the lake effect creates a substantially warmer microclimate. Being shallow, the water gets warmer in the summer than in, say, Lake Michigan. And stays warmer, longer, extending the growing season far beyond the that of the surrounding farmland. In fact, Lee can cultivate certain cultivars outside all year-round—unheard-of in most of this region.

Veggie U lures in young farmers while they're still green.

Veggie U lures in young farmers while they're still green.


About five minutes after the Jones family made their non-traditional farming business successful (many of the neighbors still think they’re crazy, and none have been tempted to follow their lead), they began to “give back.” Veggie U is one of the results: middle-school classrooms around the country are supplied with soil, compost, vermiculite, vegetable seeds, a propagator and a grow-light, along with growing instructions. Pictures of ecstatic students with their small, green plants testify to the joy that results from this simple, elemental success, one with which far too may of our nation’s children are unfamiliar. The program is helping to grow the next generation of farmers while they’re still green behind the ears, and if you happen know a teacher, or have a child in or approaching middle-school, I can’t think of a finer favor than to spread the word about this program.
Farmer Lee and me.

Farmer Lee and me.


Above the chilled, immaculately clean and high-tech packaging facility which ships the lovely produce out across the country and the world, the walls of the office are lined with pictures of Farmer Lee Jones with everyone who is or was anyone in the high, heady reaches of the restaurant world: Palladin, Trotter, Bocuse, Blanc, Achatz…and the list goes on. And although there is no one around, on a Saturday, to snap our picture together, I‘m not about to let this rare photo-op slip away.

NOTE: Five Roadfoodie-reader suggestions for “The Question” have been posted over at “What’s the Question?” linked to over on your right. I’d love more. The ideas are great, but I still don’t know what it is.

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