The specialty crops on Lee Jones’ 350-acre farm are myriad: beets, peppers, tomatoes, carrots, tomatillos, honey, potatoes, corn, beans, squash, edible flower blossoms — the list numbers into the hundreds.
All are grown sustainably and organically and up until the pandemic, were available only to professional chefs — in fact, that’s how Jones (known professionally as “Farmer Lee” or “Farmer Jones”) came up with the name for The Chef’s Garden (TCG).
The pandemic, however, completely changed his business model. “We made a lot of lemonade last year trying to swing for base hits,” Jones says. “We had to, because we were desperate to keep the farm going and, most importantly, keep our team safe, fed, and employed.”
Jones says he’s proud to have kept 136 families gainfully employed through the pandemic. His family already lost one farm in the 1980s after a devastating hailstorm finished off what the 1980s American farm crisis had already begun, and so he was determined to make it work.
He did it in ingenious fashion.
Chefs in 50 states and more than a dozen other countries have been familiar with his tiny edible flowers, microgreens, and uniquely colored and patterned heirloom vegetables for decades — and it was those culinary friends who helped save the farm.
“We shipped about 300 boxes out to chefs we work with who were at home with their families — and not cooking in restaurants — because everything was closed,” Jones says. “We mentioned we were starting home delivery and would love for them to share what they do with our vegetables on the internet. That helped us survive.”
Social media sharing by longtime chef customers sent waves of new virtual customers Jones’ way. Mara Ghafari is one of those new customers, sort of. The Detroit-area resident drove 120 miles to visit the farm stand recently, though she says she was already familiar with TCG through restaurateur friends.
“I was excited driving all the way down,” she says. “And I was really happy to meet Farmer Lee.”
After perusing and sampling items cut by Jones’ ever-handy pocketknife — cantaloupe, watermelon, potatoes, tomatoes — Ghafari left with a basketful of super-fresh produce and a two-hour drive to think about what to do for dinner.
“I generally cook dishes dependent on what I find, whatever’s good — and I buy what the butcher or the gardener or the fish guy tells me,” she says, emphasizing that she tends to steer clear of the big chain grocery stores.
At a recent farm stand event, Jones signed copies of his new 640-page book, The Chef’s Garden: A Modern Guide to Common and Unusual Vegetables — With Recipes, all the while tossing out his signature corny veggie jokes. A half-dozen times in an hour, customers bagging fresh-picked corn freeze and stare as Jones bellows, “Be careful what you say around that corn!” They relax, guffawing, when he informs them, of course, that the corn has ears.
Speaking of Jones’ signature, his seven-day-a-week uniform consists of denim bib overalls, a crisp white shirt, and a red bow tie. In his closet: 18 of each. He wears the uniform everywhere — including to funerals, black tie events, church, business meetings, and in the presence of the likes of Martha Stewart and Julia Child, among others.
“It certainly makes it easy to know what I’m wearing in the morning,” he laughs.