Huron, Ohio, is the perfect place to grow produce. Just ask Bob Jones, a sixth-generation farmer and co-owner of the nation’s leading grower of artisanal produce.
“The lake bottom soil in our area is sandy and fertile, which makes it ideal,” says Jones, co-owner of The Chef’s Garden, a 300-acre operation. “Plus, we have a longer growing season here because we’re so close to the lake, which because of its shallowness gives off heat that protects us throughout the fall. We’re actually in the same growing zone as Louisville, Ky.”
The state’s diversity in soil types, temperatures and precipitation create a robust growing environment for produce, says Michael Geary, executive director of the Ohio Produce Growers & Marketers Association.
“But it’s more than just the environmental characteristics that make Ohio a great place for growing,” he says. “We also have a supportive state government, active trade and commodity associations, respected and influential universities, and more importantly, millions of consumers who care about the farming industry and want to eat products that are grown locally.”
The soil, the climate and the commitment to sustainable growing methods provide a recipe for success – a recipe that families like the Joneses have been refining for decades.
A Family Tradition
Bob Jones’ father began a wholesale vegetable business in the 1960s. Nearly 20 years later, the Joneses were in on the beginning of the farmers market movement, harvesting and packing their produce and selling it at markets in Cleveland.
The relationships they built with customers, especially local chefs,during that time spawned a new direction for their business. Jones explains that the birth of the new business actually began with a commitment to the past.
A Growing Business
“In talking with chefs at the farmers markets, they were unhappy with the quality and flavor of the produce they were getting from wholesalers,” he says. “The chefs were looking for a source that would provide fresh, flavorful, nutritious produce using sustainable growing methods that emphasized quality over quantity.”
The Joneses listened and responded, and today The Chef’s Garden includes a successful produce operation, an on-site culinary vegetable institute and Veggie U., an initiative to educate children about where their food comes from.
They sell to chefs in all 50 states and 17 countries, growing more than 600 different items, including micro greens, micro herbs, heirloom vegetables, specialty lettuces and edible flowers blossomed on the farm. The Chef’s Garden also ships the produce to order, much of it on the same day as picked. “It’s definitely a farm-to-table effort,” Jones says.
While the business began by growing what the chefs were asking for, today it also grows the unexpected.
“We’re always searching for unusual items of the heirloom variety, where the flavor hasn’t been bred out of them in order to increase yield and consistency,” Jones says. “Our chefs have five requests: flavor, shelf life, flavor, appearance and flavor again. We focus on meeting and exceeding those expectations.”
The Chef’s Garden does just that through its on-site culinary institute. “The institute is a retreat for chefs where they come to see our operation, cook in the kitchen, and stay right here in the log cabin on the farm. They come to learn about our sustainable methods, and we learn from them, too.”
Sustainable agriculture, Jones says, is about understanding natural processes and leveraging nature rather than fighting it.
“If you have weeds, for instance, you look at whether there are imbalances in the soil and find natural ways to provide balance,” he says. “Your produce is better because of it. These methods provide healthy soil, healthy plants and healthy people.”