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The Squash Blossom Solution

At the high, high end of the market, the Jones family of Huron, Ohio, outruns the economics of modern farming.
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On a blustery day last March, Ferran Adrià, who is often acclaimed as the most influential chef in the world, toured a vegetable farm in Ohio. In the warm months, Adrià can be found north of Barcelona on the Costa Brava, where his restaurant, El Bulli, is a culinary mecca for those seeking celery juice with the texture of bubble bath, rose petals fried tempura-style or freeze-dried and powdered foie gras. El Bulli is closed in the winter, and Adrià uses the time to travel and research new ideas. He was visiting the Midwest at the invitation of another renowned chef, Charlie Trotter of Chicago, who had hired a small plane to fly Adrià and his wife, Isabel, along with a few food fanatics, to this small agricultural operation in Huron, near the southwestern shore of Lake Erie. Trotter thought Adrià would be amazed by what he found there.

As its name implies, the Chef's Garden supplies vegetables and fruits directly to restaurants. "Every great chef says if he could, he would have a garden outside his door and cut what he needs when he needs it," says Bob Jones, 65, who runs the farm with his sons, Lee, 45, and Bob Jr., 41. If that fantasy planting included 80 varieties of heirloom tomatoes, salad greens available at eight different stages of maturity, and such oddities as garlic roots and popcorn shoots, it might resemble the Chef's Garden.

The private plane from Chicago was delayed by gusty winds, requiring the Joneses to accelerate the tour to accommodate the compressed schedule. Since winter still lingered over the Midwest, most of the crops were to be found in heated greenhouses or under cold frames. Adrià looked a little tired, but his face lit up as he walked down the rows of salad greens, tearing off small leaves and tossing them into his mouth. Although his English is limited, he made his views known.

"Fantastic," he said, as he bit into a green-and-white tendril that terminated in a couple of tiny leaves.

"These are popcorn shoots," Lee Jones said. Normally cultivated to provide popcorn kernels, the plant was being harvested shortly after its seed germinated. The Chef's Garden grows 75 varieties of microgreens, as they're called. It also offers 50 types of herbs that are plucked in a similar neonatal state.

"Chef Trotter's team was here on research," Lee continued, his words translated into Spanish by a member of Trotter's staff. "We grew them at only one length, and he said, 'What if they are smaller?' It's a little bitter, but also very sweet. You'll notice a very high sugar level in the aftertaste."

The Chef's Garden prides itself on its ability to satisfy a chef's wish list, no matter how outlandish a request might seem. "Early on, we crated and sent live turkeys to a chef," Bob Jones says. "We went out to the marshes and caught turtles and shipped them to a Columbus restaurant. We've dug cattail roots. Just last Monday, we sent someone out in the woods to find acorns. We'd do whatever we can to fulfill a chef's needs." But merely waiting for the chefs to suggest unusual products isn't enough to keep the business growing. The Joneses are always developing new or forgotten plant varieties that they will send out unsolicited in hope of capturing a chef's fancy. Garlic roots were introduced that way. "We were growing garlic shoots and we noticed we were throwing these roots away, and they were so beautiful and white," Bob recalls. "We tasted them and it was pure flavor. Lee would call the chefs and say, 'We got this item, you should give it a try."

Adrià tasted the garlic roots. He also sampled baby ruby amaranth, golden pea shoots, micro lemongrass, and black cumin shoots. Lee Jones handed him some leaves of ice lettuce, which is the name the Joneses give to lettuces grown in cold frames and repeatedly exposed to freezing temperatures. The cold weather concentrates the sugar content and amplifies the juiciness and thickness of the leaves. Ice lettuce was invented at the Chef's Garden.

"Muy bien," Adrià proclaimed.

The tour proceeded rapidly through a research facility, where a small staff under the direction of Bob Jr. studies ways to enrich the soil as a means of enhancing the flavor of the vegetables grown in it. In the packing room, crates were being filled for air freight delivery to restaurants across the country and as far away as Tokyo. Through a formula that takes into account the temperature at the Ohio farm, the destination city, and the transportation hub in between, the crew decides how much ice to include in the package.

Lee Jones, who was leading the tour, repeatedly apologized for the rushed pace. But lunch was waiting: A team of cooks under Trotter had assembled a 12-course meal, and there was no thought of abbreviating it. Each course featured a product of the farm, usually in combination with an organ meat: grilled turnips in a red wine reduction with rabbit kidneys, for example, and steamed garlic, garlic shoots, and bitter chocolate with duck liver. Research made way for repast. It was a reminder that, as Bob Jones repeatedly says, "we're absolutely nothing without the chefs."

Toward the end of the lunch, the guest of honor rose to express his appreciation and deliver a prophecy.

"The future of cuisine is vegetables," Adrià said. "They will be as expensive as caviar and foie gras. With fish and meat, we are already there. But there are 1,000 ideas in vegetables."

It was not only a culinary manifesto, it was an endorsement of the Joneses' business strategy--a plan that created the country's leading grower of specialty vegetables from the ashes of a bankrupt purveyor of commodity produce.

In 1983, the Joneses stood by helplessly as their farm and equipment were auctioned at a sheriff's sale. A combination of bad luck and business inexperience had brought them to what appeared to be the end of their agricultural career.

Bob Jones started farming in 1971. He and his wife, Barbara, eventually owned 75 acres of land and leased another 1,100, in addition to marketing crops for other growers in northern Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Michigan. In his second year, one of his truck drivers was held responsible for a fatal crash. Jones was sued. That was the bad luck. The case went to trial in 1981, and he was ordered to pay damages that exceeded his inadequate insurance coverage. That was inexperience. When all was said and done, the farm was heavily mortgaged and the family had no cash, at a time when interest rates were hovering at about 22 percent.

To grow a supersweet melon that a chef had seen in Japan, the farmers had to remove all but one blossom on each plant, so that all the nutrients went into one fruit. The Chef's Garden charged $65 a melon.

In line with the traditional allocations for his region, Jones divided his crop in thirds among cabbage, sweet corn, and a combination of peppers, pumpkins, and squash. In the summer of 1982, he recalls, cabbage was selling for $2.52 a crate--and it cost him $3.58 a crate to grow it and bring it to market. "We happened to have a hailstorm that year, too," he says. "We opened up the door one morning to a field of cabbage ready for harvest that just looked like coleslaw." It was the final blow. When the bank foreclosed on his property, Jones lost his land, his house, and his machinery. All that remained was a decrepit farmhouse on seven acres that he had bought for Lee a few years earlier at the foreclosure sale of another unfortunate farmer. Lee was operating a roadside farm stand there. Now all the members of the family moved into the house. "At that point, Barbara and I were ready to leave," Bob says. "Unless you've been through it, you can't understand the pressure of the bill collectors, knowing that your house is going to be sold and not being able to do anything about it. I said to Lee, 'I'll help you, but we'll have no more than five employees." In his previous business, Bob had retained a staff of 15 year-round and 150 seasonal workers.

"We had three trucks that didn't get a bid at the sheriff's sale," Lee says. "We had a truck we called the two-person truck. One person would hold on to the roof. You had to wear a raincoat inside the truck if it was raining outside." The Joneses farmed their own seven acres plus another rented hundred. Three or four times a week, the family members would leave at 2:30 in the morning to drive to the Cleveland farmers markets about an hour away to sell their crop.

At one of the markets, a persistent customer made an unusual request. Iris Bailin, the corporate chef for a Cleveland brokerage house, wanted to buy zucchini flowers, or squash blossoms. At first, Lee rebuffed her. "We knew everything about zucchini," he says. "My dad had grown it for 30 years. We thought she was crazy. Finally, I brought 'em to her. I wanted to get her off to the side so none of the other farmers would see."

That winter, Bailin and two other local chefs visited the Joneses with a list of 12 vegetables. "None of them I'd ever heard of," Bob says. "Radicchio, arugula. Here in the Midwest we didn't know about these things back then. We were conservative folks and had been through tough times and we didn't want to be sold a bill of goods. I finally said, 'Just how many farmers have you been to and asked to do this?' They said, 'Fifteen.' I said, 'We'll do it.' If everybody else is walking, we'd better run. It was partly desperation and partly looking to find our niche. We knew that conventional agriculture was never going to keep us in business." The prices helped. "French beans were $15 a pound," he says. "That kind of influenced us too."

Some of the vegetables proved difficult to grow. "There was no information, there was nobody to ask," Bob says. "I spent the winter trying to learn how to grow them, what they were supposed to look like when they were harvested." The next year, the Joneses visited the chefs of the better restaurants in Cleveland to attract new orders. "The chefs were just like us, they saw a chance to move ahead," he says. About three years after the initial approach by Bailin, Bob traveled for three weeks to northern California, where he met Alice Waters, of the restaurant Chez Panisse, and other proponents of old-fashioned varietals, the kind of vegetables that had been forgotten by large-scale growers. "This trip was part of our decision-making process," he says. "We didn't know anything about the market. Our thinking had been, 'How many trailerloads of this can I produce?' It was a commodity business."

Finally, the moment came when, at the same kitchen table where they had met with Bailin and her fellow chefs, the Jones family convened to determine the direction of their business. The company was growing, but it was bifurcated. Most of the crop was targeted for the farmers markets. Growing specialty vegetables for high-end chefs seemed like an entirely different endeavor. For Bob Jr., who had graduated from Ohio State University with a degree in horticulture, and Lee, who had studied marketing at the same school, the correct path was clear. "My dad said, 'We're jack of all and master of none," Lee recalls. "I said, 'Chefs are 2 percent of our business and 80 percent of our aggravation.' The university teaches tons per acre. Ninety-eight percent of our business was coming from farmers markets." The conversation moved around the table and every family member expressed an opinion. It was unanimous in favor of growing for farmers markets, until the last member was polled. As Lee tells it, "My dad pounded the table and said, 'No. We're going to grow for chefs."

The rich black soil and relatively mild climate of the Lake Erie shore historically supported many family farms until giant agribusinesses with fleets of refrigerated trucks undersold them into extinction. A cabbage is a cabbage, and if that cabbage is grown so cheaply in California that it can be trucked to Cleveland and sold there for less than a farmer in Huron is asking, the Huron farmer finds himself in trouble. By offering a range of products not available elsewhere, the Joneses freed themselves from the tyranny of the commodity market. They then realized that the efficient transportation system that had threatened their old livelihood could enable their new business to take off.

One of their best customers in Cleveland was the chef at the restaurant in the Ritz-Carlton Hotel. When he moved after five years to another Ritz-Carlton, in Phoenix, the Joneses didn't expect to hear from him again. But they did. "He called and said, 'You got us spoiled--we thought we could get what we wanted because California is so nearby," Lee recounts. So the Ohio farm took an order, packed it up, and sent it to Phoenix by Greyhound bus. As Lee continues the tale, "He called and said, 'Farmer, it's dripping out the bottom. You've got to do it FedEx (NYSE:FDX), like we do with fish." The Joneses learned quickly. Today 92 percent of their business is shipped by air. Of those deliveries, 87 percent is sent by FedEx, the rest by UPS (NYSE:UPS) or DHL. "We don't want to be 100 percent dependent on anyone," Bob explains. "A few years ago UPS had a strike, and their competitors would only take 20 percent above their normal volume with any customer." The Chef's Garden ships as far away as Denmark, Singapore, Hong Kong, and Tokyo. "Chefs are so mobile," Bob says. "The chef in Hong Kong was one of our good customers in New York." While still only 8 percent of the total business, the overseas segment is growing at double the rate of the domestic. Chefs who can afford to buy the best products often find them far from home. "A lot of buzzwords in cooking are 'local' and 'seasonal,' but swordfish from New Zealand that is FedExed sometimes is fresher than what I can buy at the Fulton Street market," says New York chef Andrew Carmellini, a longtime Chef's Garden customer.

Lee believes there is long-term potential in collaborating with a big company such as Birds Eye. "I do a presentation with microbasil," he says. "It costs $140 a pound, but two or three pieces enhance the value of the product for pennies."

Since the Joneses started the Chef's Garden, the opportunities for small farmers to grow high-priced specialty vegetables have been widely recognized. ("One university person in Ohio said you could gross $250,000 an acre in pear tomatoes," Bob grumbles. "What she didn't say was that an eighth of an acre would supply the whole Midwest.") The result is that the cycle from rarity to commodity is a mere three or four years. That is how long it takes for larger farmers to procure seed and determine the most efficient growing method. "Mesclun is a perfect example," Lee says. "You can buy a good three-pound case for six bucks from Costco (NASDAQ:COST). We do a version that's $30 a pound. Or radicchio--that was $35 or $40 a case 20 years ago; now it's six bucks. We don't want to compete on that level. We have a version with little individual heads. It's about product differentiation." The Joneses believe that their quality is unmistakably superior, but to retain a marketing edge, they must also continue to offer vegetables that are not available elsewhere. Every year, the Chef's Garden cultivates about 300 new items (many of them old varieties that years ago fell out of favor), of which some 10 percent will be judged worthy to go into production. Often the trials are of vegetables suggested by chefs, either varieties they have tasted in their travels or things they have dreamed up. Cooking at Café Boulud in New York, chef Carmellini asked for a haricot vert, or French green bean, to be picked at an earlier stage than usual. "You could almost eat them raw, they're so tender," Carmellini says approvingly. They became a very popular product, which the Joneses named after the chef who inspired them. "The first time I saw a salad with 'Carmellini beans' on an Alain Ducasse menu, it was very flattering," Carmellini says. Ironically, the beans are so expensive--it takes three men an hour and a half to pick a pound, for which the Joneses charge $70--that in his highly regarded but less pricey new Manhattan restaurant, A Voce, Carmellini can't afford to offer them.

The niches can be even smaller than that. To grow a supersweet melon that a chef had seen in Japan, the farmers had to remove all but one blossom on each plant, so that all the nutrients went into one fruit. The Chef's Garden charged $65 a melon.

The Chef's Garden sends out a monthly newsletter and biweekly e-mails to its 1,200 customers. Lee, the head marketer, is a ubiquitous presence at restaurant conventions and food-related charity events, instantly recognizable in his trademark blue overalls, crisp white shirt, and bright red bow tie. The Joneses won't talk about revenue, but they allow that they've had to keep growth down to its current level of slightly more than 20 percent a year. At one point, the business was growing at 40 percent annually and they couldn't handle it. As it is, the Chef's Garden dispatches 600 to 1,000 orders a week from its 225-acre farm. "You could pick up the phone and talk to a farmer, ask him to grow something, he would say yes, and boom, you had the product," says Lawrence McFadden, director of food and beverages at the Ritz-Carlton in Naples, Florida, explaining why he had become a loyal customer. "You were artisan to artisan. You say to Lee, 'I need some celery microgreens'--they're not really in existence, and he grows them. He customizes from your imagination."

However, along with demanding a high price from clients, this level of service exacts a toll on its owners. By pioneering a high-end niche in agriculture, the Joneses discovered a way to escape from the commodity-based farming that had bankrupted them. To escape the relentless grind, at this point, they must look beyond. Half of the acres that they farm are planted each year in cover crops, but they recognize that not only the soil needs replenishment. "As a small family farm, we had to reinvent what sustainable agriculture means," Lee says. "In the past, it was about preserving the land. But in reality, there has been such an exodus from the American family farm, we have to redefine sustainable agriculture to be about the people as well as the land."

The Culinary Vegetable Institute, in the small town of Milan, near Huron, was born from the Joneses' desire to serve chefs in a less backbreaking way. Construction of the $2 million facility--which features a state-of-the-art professional kitchen in a four-bedroom woodsy lodge--was begun on the inauspicious date of September 15, 2001, four days after the terrorist attacks that grounded U.S. air traffic. For a business that relies on next-day air shipment, it was an especially difficult moment, but at any time, the institute would qualify as an audacious idea. "It's one thing if you do it 30 minutes outside Manhattan," Trotter says. "But to do it where they put it is something else." The Joneses persevered. Last year 487 chefs traveled to Ohio to visit the institute. It is a great marketing tool, enabling customers to visit the fields, experiment with the products, and deepen their relationship with the farm.

The institute also allows the Joneses to earn income that is not the direct result of agricultural toil. To help carry the costs, they rent out the lodge for weddings and other events, including corporate retreats. A dozen companies have used it "as a place to expand creativity," Bob says. When they are food-related corporations, the Joneses can land future orders along with the rental fees. Large companies, including Birds Eye Foods and Ameristar Casinos (NASDAQ:ASCA), have sent teams to the institute.

Now that Bob Sr. has reached what used to be retirement age, the Joneses are working with a consultant to develop a 15-year business plan, which they hope to have in a preliminary draft by early 2007. "There is a real gulf between an entrepreneurial business where you can do anything through harder work and an ongoing sustainable business that is run through good management technique," Bob says. "That is the point where many businesses fail. There was no plan for the future, everyone was working too hard, it was wearing on everyone, and it wasn't sustainable."

For their kind of farming, shortcuts don't work. In a business that requires a long lead time between seeding and harvest, it would be nice to have a more reliable order pattern, for example. "A chef will say, 'I love this, I want 30 packages," says Mike Ineson, the company's sales manager. "We will expect to get that, we seed more, and then if he decides he doesn't want so much, we have to try to find something else to do with it. Nothing is more discouraging for the growers than to get the seed, plant it, water it, and then not have a home for it and dump it into the compost. It becomes a very expensive compost heap." Some years ago, Chef's Garden experimented in stabilizing demand by selling vegetables in reliable quantities to a middleman firm. That ended unhappily. "They would not take care of the product, and they would deliver it after days of storage," Bob says. "They'd buy 15 containers and sell it out of inventory. There is no substitute for cutting it and putting it on a plate." Indeed, when they promote their products, the Joneses refrain from referring to storage. They do not want to dilute the image of their farm as a virtual cutting garden right outside the chef's door.

The Joneses hope to expand their consulting business, Lee says, as a way "to maintain our identity as a small family farm but generate more revenue." He believes there is long-term potential in collaborating with a big company such as Birds Eye. "They have perhaps a limited number of vegetables they are growing," he says. "The idea is getting them to think outside the box in terms of flavors, and then bringing in that third dimension of showing how they can do that affordably. I do a presentation with microbasil. It costs $140 a pound, but two or three pieces enhance the value of the product for pennies." The Joneses also believe that the research they are doing on soil enrichment as a means of flavor enhancement could be applied by other farms. They're looking at anything and everything that will allow them to, as Bob says, "expand the business without taking more blood and sweat from us."

As every farmer knows, that's a lot to ask. If they come up with a business plan that permits the Chef's Garden to keep growing without sapping more of their energy, the Joneses will have created something even more remarkable than a $65 melon.

Arthur Lubow is a New York journalist who writes often about culture, including food.

Last updated: Oct 1, 2006




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