Run your fingers through the chocolate-colored soil of the Jones family’s Huron, Ohio, farm, and you will know you have hit pay dirt, or more accurately, dirt that pays. The soil is the medium in which the Joneses work, and they nurture it with the same care that they lavish on the vegetables and herbs they sell through their company, the Chef’s Garden. “It’s all about soil quality,” says 40-year-old Bobby Jones, who serves as the farm’s production manager alongside his 43-year-old brother, Lee, who handles marketing. “Healthy soil smells good,” Bobby says. “You haven’t lived until you have the experience of tasting a perfect field-ripened tomato with the warmth of the sun still clinging to it.”
Chefs appreciate the power of a perfect tomato, which is why they order from the Joneses, who also produce a broad menu of specialty greens. If Alain Ducasse wants 1-inch-tall heads of lettuce, he calls the Chef’s Garden. Andrew Carmellini, executive chef at Café Boulud in New York, relies on a French green bean that is grown here expressly for him. Carmellini hails from nearby Cleveland, and the Jones brothers wanted to do something special for the homegrown chef.
The Joneses do not develop new plants, but instead concentrate on variants that have been overshadowed by the strains dominating the marketplace. They introduced Carmellini to a dark green string bean that they harvest when it is young, small, and tender. It takes four field workers more than an hour to pick a pound’s worth—about 800—of these tiny legumes, which costs $60. A Café Boulud menu item may include only five of the beans, but each will have an intense flavor that diners cannot find elsewhere.The Joneses have farmed for their entire lives, having learned the trade from their father, Bob, 64, who contributes advice and assistance to the operation. The brothers started down their current path 20 years ago, when a local food writer asked if they grew zucchini flowers. At her suggestion, they began offering the blooms, which sold well, prompting the brothers to experiment with other exotic greens. Today, their harvests include 47 root crops, 87 different heirloom tomatoes, and more than 40 different herbs, all of which are shipped overnight—primarily to professional chefs.
Amateurs can gain access to the Joneses’ produce with a minimum annual donation of $1,000 to the Culinary Vegetable Institute. CVI, a two-year-old organization that promotes the virtues of vegetables, is situated on 100 acres in nearby Milan, Ohio, and features an 11,000-square-foot facility that houses a teaching kitchen, a 90-seat dining room, a library, chef accommodations, and experimental gardens that grow nearly extinct and almost forgotten varieties. Still a work in progress, CVI is the means through which the brothers intend to achieve various goals: educating schoolchildren about healthful eating, offering cooking classes for connoisseurs, providing a space for chefs to experiment. But ultimately they hope to do for everyone what they did for Carmellini: introduce their palates to new and powerful flavors.