Farmer Lee Jones To Keynote
IDEATION FRESH Foodservice Forum
At The New York Produce Show And Conference
Jim Prevor’s Perishable Pundit, October 27, 2011
We just recently received a little note regarding our coverage of the Cantaloupe Crisis:
It was a little “blast from the past” for us, as we haven’t heard from Karl since June of 2008. He usually weighs in on food safety issues, though, and we’ve been pleased to share his insight with the industry in pieces such as these:
Pundit’s Mailbag — Marketing Agreement Limitations
Pundit’s Mailbag — Farmers Are Not The Cause Of Food Safety Problems
Pundit’s Mailbag — Assume Product Delivered ‘Dirty’???
Well playing “produce geography” is fun and it turns out that among the various roles Karl plays is food safety consultant to a small, but certainly not obscure, farm in Ohio that is known as The Chef’s Garden.
The public face of this operation is Farmer Lee Jones, who speaks widely and frequently on topics related to farming, sustainability, chefs and similar topics.
His operation, which sells to chefs and direct to consumers, often via overnight delivery services, is a far cry from the massive farms that make up today’s mainstream produce industry.
To some, that would be a good reason to exclude him from any role in The New York Produce Show and Conference or the IDEATION FRESH Foodservice Forum, but to us the exact opposite is true.
One of the great difficulties in any industry is breaking out of the rut of everyone going to the same events, hearing the same people and reinforcing the same beliefs and prejudices.
It is a fine line though — step too far afield and it can be hard to see the relevance. Besides, not many busy executives have time to run off to events outside the industry.
So we think one of the ways we can provide a service is to identify people similar enough to the mainstream industry to be highly relevant but different enough to provide new perspectives and novel ideas.
We have already defined the nature of the new IDEATION FRESH Foodservice Forum, with this piece, and we explained how Amy Myrdal Miller of the Culinary Institute of America will lead us in an ideation exercise to help move produce consumption to half the plate in a piece you can find here.
Now we are thrilled to announce that Farmer Lee Jones has agreed to keynote the IDEATION FRESH Foodservice Forum. We asked Pundit Investigator and Special Projects Editor Mira Slott to meet with Farmer Jones while he was lecturing to students at New York’s Institute of Culinary Education, and he agreed to take time out of his schedule to sit down with her:
Farmer Lee Jones
The Chef’s Garden
Q: From your humble family’s farming roots in Huron, Ohio, you’ve become somewhat of a celebrity in your iconic overalls and red bow tie — this year becoming the first farmer to receive the James Beard Foundation’s “Who’s Who” award for significant and lasting achievements and contributions to your profession. Did you ever imagine you’d be a judge on the Food Network program Iron Chef America? What inspired you to become a pioneer in the sustainable agricultural movement with an innovative artisanal farm and learning center that draws a global following of renowned chefs?
Q: Forced in what way?
Farmer Lee Jones with his father Bob, Sr., and Bob, Jr.
Q: So you looked to reinvent yourselves?
Q: How have you capitalized on this within your sustainability umbrella?
Q: What are your thoughts about local?
Q: Could you elaborate?
Q: How do your local views translate to the organic versus conventional options? Chef’s Garden describes its goals of producing in an “organic fashion.” What does this mean?
Q: With family farms disappearing, what strategies have you taken to stay competitive?
Q: Is there a significant premium on such unique items?
Q: College loyalties aside, how do you take that enthusiasm to a wider audience?
Q: How did you get on Food Network’s Iron Chef?
Q: Is there any person that you still dream of meeting or working with?
Q: As we conclude this interview, what brought you to the Institute of Culinary Education (ICE) in New York City to speak with students and at other culinary schools around the country?
[Editor’s note: Rick Smilow, CEO and President of Institute of Culinary Education, dropped by to share a few words about his admiration for Farmer Jones: “I’ve known Lee for about a decade and actually visited his farm in Ohio. He’s an American agricultural and culinary innovator of notable proportion. I keep being amazed. As a business manager and entrepreneur, I respect him. Family farms have become a dying breed and Chef’s Garden found a way to innovate and stay viable. When I visited, I was struck by the range of international perspectives to learn about modern techniques and cutting edge technology.”]
Q: In November, you will have the chance to provide insight at The New York Produce Show and Conference. There will be produce suppliers, distributors, retailers, foodservice executives, chefs and culinary students coming to talk about buying and selling produce. What are some of the key issues you think the industry as a whole should be talking about at a gathering of thousands of people all focused on improving the industry?
Q: Your trademark overalls and red bow tie certainly provide an unmistakable identity. If you don’t mind me asking, what does your closet look like?
The story is amazing and, without a doubt, inspirational. We can’t wait to hear him in New York.
Some of the work that Farmer Lee Jones is doing — as with Veggie U, a non-profit organization dedicated to helping children develop better eating habits via school programs — is right in sync with produce industry priorities and with the goal of helping children both learn to eat in a healthy manner and appreciate food and where it comes from. We find the whole project so inspiring that we just donated $2,500 to the project and became a 16 Carrot Gold Sponsor. You may want to consider making a corporate or personal donation to support the effort here.
He has titled his talk in New York, Farming for Flavor and Sustainability, and the broader question for us is what ideas and lessons we can draw from what Farmer Lee Jones believes, and how can we apply them in the mainstream industry.
We find his interview gives lots of points of entry. He is not dismissive, at all, on subjects such as food safety; not willing to endorse being a “locavore,” and not thinking that organic is an answer to all problems.
There are many points of engagement with his way of thinking and the broader produce trade.
Yet, we confess that his core story, of how commodity farming failed for his family and how they had to recreate the business with a focus on flavor, innovation and sustainability, reminds us more than a bit of what retailers have gone through as Wal-Mart has rolled out supercenters across America.
Unable to compete with Wal-Mart, retailers have focused on being everything Wal-Mart is not — high service, high perishables, high organic, etc. In many cases, these strategies have been highly successful for individual retailers.
Looked at from an industry perspective, though, these efforts have not so much provided a mechanism to compete with Wal-Mart, but, rather, have served as a mechanism to get out of the way of Wal-Mart.
So the question becomes: Is farming of the sort Farmer Lee Jones speaks of — with a third of the acreage in cover crops, destined to be plowed under to enrich the soil — a strategy to serve white table cloth chefs and individuals, either wealthy or deeply committed, or is there a broader possibility to help feed the world?
Farmer Lee Jones makes the case that different farming methods can actually improve public health, and this, in abstract, may be true. On the macro level though, as countries become richer and, yes, farming more industrial, life expectancies generally rise.
There are a lot of people out there who want to tell farmers how to grow things that have never raised so much as a radish. This talk will be different because it comes from someone who has actually walked the walk. He respects old ways but is more than open to new technology.
We think he will remind us all of the importance of our work in fresh produce and point the way to making that work even more meaningful.
We look forward to welcoming him to New York.
If you would like to register for the IDEATION FRESH Foodservice Forum or any other facet of the New York Produce Show and Conference, you can do so here.
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