A Conversation With Lee Jones, Farmer at The Chef's Garden

LeeJones-Post.jpgWhen he's not busy speaking on sustainable agriculture and its influence at culinary events, being interviewed for a new profile (he's been featured in the New York Times, Food & Wine, The Washington Post, and dozens of other publications), or judging a Food Network program, farmer Lee Jones can be found out in the fields clad in his trademark overalls and red bowtie. Jones is one member of The Chef's Garden, a family farm started by Bob Jones that has been focused on supplying restaurants around the country with the finest ingredients for decades.

Here, Jones discusses how his family farm, The Chef's Garden, uses PCR technology to test for food pathogens; why, in an increasingly competitive world, 90 percent of the produce being consumed right here in the United States comes from a third-world country; and how he likes to say that he farms soil -- not vegetables -- because that's where it really all starts for the best flavor and texture.

What do you say when people ask you, "What do you do?"

I am a farmer. I am part of our family farm, The Chef's Garden. I am a sustainable grower of specialty vegetables, herbs, microgreens, and edible flowers for chefs and restaurants all over the world. I am honored to oblige the tenets of the land and work to leave it in better condition for future generations.

What new idea or innovation is having the most significant impact on the sustainability world?

We feel the impact of technology and how it is continually changing life on the farm. We use new-world technology and fuse it into our old-world practices. In many ways we are trying to get as good as grandfathers were hundreds of years ago. But with technology we have the opportunity to retain those common-sense practices and enhance them with efficiency, productivity, and food safety systems. For example, we use a sophisticated bar coding system that tracks a seed all the way to the plate. It's fast, efficient, and allows our customers to feel safe about using our products.

The Chef's Garden employs PCR (Polymerase Chain Reaction) technology, which uses a DNA amplification process to test for food pathogens.

We also use media technology to promote our products to customers and educate them about how we are different from other growers. We recently held a live-streaming tour of our farm for a chain of high-end resorts. We also had the first ever live broadcast direct from our farm to our nearby Culinary Vegetable Institute, where we were hosting an earth-to-table dinner. As guests dined on 5-star cuisine they got to see me in the field talking about how that very food was grown and harvested just hours before.

What's something that most people just don't understand about your area of expertise?

The commitment and how complex it is. Sustainable agriculture is a blend of science, intuition, research, perseverance, and a constant stream of making mistakes at a faster rate than the competition so that we learn from them.

What's an emerging trend that you think will shake up the sustainability world?

Boy, that's hard to answer. Living and farming sustainably is a way of life for us, not a new trend. However, what I'm seeing now is that our regular way of life is the trend. Younger generations are embracing ideas, like water conservation for example, that can make a huge impact for the sustainability of our planet. Conservation is something being taught in primary school. The wars of the future will not be waged over oil (we'll have figured out alternatives for this energy source by then) but over natural resources for sustainability of our future generations. As a society, we must all play a part in conservation. We're excited to see that.

What's a sustainability trend that you wish would go away?

Presented by

Nicholas Jackson is a former associate editor at The Atlantic.

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