Oct 21, 2016
Underserved market helps Chef’s Garden survive

When Bob Jones Sr. was a kid, Huron, Ohio, was known as a vegetable-growing community. There were probably 20 vegetable farms along a single road.

Now, there’s only one: The Chef ’s Garden, his family’s farm.

Jones, 76, didn’t grow up on a vegetable farm, but farming was in his lineage – and he knew Huron had some of the best soil in the world for growing vegetables. So, he decided to try his hand at growing them when he was in high school. He was encouraged by his father, who was sick at the time (he died four years later). Jones started with about 5 acres, selling his produce to a local wholesaler. At that point in his career, he grew “very poorly,” he said.

“I didn’t know anything.”

But Jones was lucky enough to know some good vegetable growers. That’s a big difference between when he started and now: There were a lot of experienced growers back in the ’50s and ’60s, growers willing to spend half a day on his farm solving problems and giving advice.

“That’s the thing I miss most,” Jones said. “They told me things I never would have learned, and eliminated hundreds of mistakes. We try and help young growers when we can, but it’s not like it was then. Everybody was in a struggle together.”

The teenage Jones farmed for four years. Two years after graduating from high school, he sold all his farm equipment and moved south to attend classes at Ohio State University (OSU). He also had a full-time job on a nearby dairy farm. His boss told him he could go to class as long as he did his chores and milked the cows. So, Jones got up about 3 a.m. every day, did his chores, went to class, came back to work and finished the tasks he had missed while he was learning. He worked weekends, too. He made the “huge sum” of $30 a week at the dairy, he said.

“It wasn’t like I was doing it for the money,” Jones said. “It was a good education. I’ve been fortunate that every step of my life I’ve been able to learn something.”

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After two and a half years at OSU, Jones, his wife Barbara, their first son and their entire savings of $300 moved back north to Huron. They started growing vegetables on a couple of acres. No equipment this time. They did it on their hands and knees. Barbara took an off-farm job, and Jones worked winters as a welder. For a few years, he had a full-time job at an oxygen plant. Meanwhile, the farm slowly grew. Jones decided to concentrate on one crop, peppers, to give himself a better position in the marketplace. It was a risky decision. Peppers are a finicky crop, especially when it comes to weather, but Jones got good at growing them and started selling more. He and a partner bought out a local wholesaler in 1970. Jones bought out the partner in 1974 and bought his farm a couple of years later. But he went broke in 1981, he said.

There were a lot of “extenuating circumstances” involved in his farm going under, but Jones laid the blame on his own “poor management.”

“I’m responsible for whatever happened,” he said. “I can’t blame anybody else.”

Part two

Jones got a second chance at growing vegetables, thanks to his son Lee. Lee had his own small farm and market in Huron, so Jones decided to stick around for a few years and help him out. Another son, Bob Jones Jr., joined the operation, too. They started with a handful of acres and a few employees, selling through farmers’ markets and other local outlets. In 1984, they decided to focus on an underserved market: chefs. That’s when The Chef ’s Garden was born.

“Every chef would like to have his own garden,” Jones said. “We try to fill that need.”

Chefs started walking through their fields, asking them to grow baby vegetables, microgreens and this or that exotic variety. They had 450 chefs on the farm last year, from all over the world. Today, they sell vegetables in 49 states and nine countries. Hong Kong is one of their fastest growing markets, Jones said.

“We’ve taken a totally different position on soil than our neighbors,” he said. “We look at what it takes to grow the best vegetables we can – by that we mean taste, shelf life and appearance – then try to treat the soil in such a way to accomplish that.”

It took 30 years of cover crops, soil rotation and other practices, but they’ve dramatically improved the soil they grow on and the flavor of their vegetables. But it’s not the cheapest or easiest way to grow, he said.

“If you could define a more difficult business model, I don’t know what it would be,” Jones said. “So many things can go wrong.”

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Then and now

Jones got a second chance at growing vegetables, thanks to his son Lee. Lee had his own small farm and market in Huron, so Jones decided to stick around for a few years and help him out. Another son, Bob Jones Jr., joined the operation, too. They started with a handful of acres and a few employees, selling through farmers’ markets and other local outlets. In 1984, they decided to focus on an underserved market: chefs. That’s when The Chef ’s Garden was born.

“Every chef would like to have his own garden,” Jones said. “We try to fill that need.”

Chefs started walking through their fields, asking them to grow baby vegetables, microgreens and this or that exotic variety. They had 450 chefs on the farm last year, from all over the world. Today, they sell vegetables in 49 states and nine countries. Hong Kong is one of their fastest growing markets, Jones said.

“We’ve taken a totally different position on soil than our neighbors,” he said. “We look at what it takes to grow the best vegetables we can – by that we mean taste, shelf life and appearance – then try to treat the soil in such a way to accomplish that.”

It took 30 years of cover crops, soil rotation and other practices, but they’ve dramatically improved the soil they grow on and the flavor of their vegetables. But it’s not the cheapest or easiest way to grow, he said.

“If you could define a more difficult business model, I don’t know what it would be,” Jones said. “So many things can go wrong.”

— Matt Milkovich, managing editor





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