Ep. 369 Regenerative Agriculture for Enhanced Nutrition with Farmer Lee Jones

Your trusted source for nutrition, wellness, and mindset for thriving health.

Today, I am thrilled to connect with Farmer Lee Jones, who oversees The Chef’s Garden, a family-owned regenerative farm dedicated to cultivating the most flavorful and nutrient-rich vegetables, herbs, and microgreens. 

With a legacy of over three decades, The Chef’s Garden has been the go-to supplier for some of the finest chefs and restaurants worldwide. 

Join us as we dive deep into the differences between regenerative agriculture and traditional industrial farming, looking at the importance of flavor-focused cultivation, the limitations of USDA guidelines in determining mineral efficacy, how the pandemic affected the operations of the Chef’s Garden, the rising trends of seasonal eating in the vegetable industry, and the differences between hybrid and GMO products. 

Get ready for an enlightening conversation with Farmer Lee Jones, whose infectious enthusiasm for sustainable farming practices is bound to leave you inspired.

“The nutritional level in vegetables from 1920 to 2020 has gone down 50 to 80% and continues going down.”

– Farmer, Lee Jones

IN THIS EPISODE YOU WILL LEARN:

  • The differences between regenerative agriculture and traditional industrial farming
  • Why traditional industrial farming is unsustainable, and how it negatively impacts soil and human health
  • The benefits of regenerative agriculture
  • Why Farmer Lee grows for flavor, not just for nutritional levels
  • The importance of maintaining healthy soil 
  • How Farmer Lee managed to keep his team together and maintain his farming operations during the pandemic
  • It is essential to pay attention to the packaging and labeling when purchasing produce.
  • The nutritional benefits of microgreens
  • Farmer Lee explains the difference between GMO and hybrid vegetables
  • Why we need to tune into our bodies and understand what they need instead of relying on artificially available produce throughout the year

Connect with Cynthia Thurlow

Connect with Farmer Lee Jones

Transcript

Cynthia Thurlow: [00:00:01] Welcome to Everyday Wellness Podcast. I’m your host, Nurse Practitioner, Cynthia Thurlow. This podcast is designed to educate, empower, and inspire you to achieve your health and wellness goals. My goal and intent is to provide you with the best content and conversations from leaders in the health and wellness industry each week and impact over a million lives. 

[00:00:29] Today, I had the honor of connecting with Farmer Lee Jones. He oversees The Chef’s Garden, a family-owned regenerative farm that aims to offer the most flavorful and nutritious vegetable, herbs, and microgreens. We spoke at length about differences between regenerative agriculture and traditional industrial agricultural systems. Why it’s important to grow for flavor. Why the USDA is not reliable for determining the minimum effective dose of minerals. The impact of COVID on their business, eating seasonally, trends in the vegetable industry, the differences between hybrid versus GMO products. I know you will love this conversation with Farmer Lee Jones. His enthusiasm is truly infectious. 

[00:01:23] Well, Farmer Lee, it’s such a pleasure to have you on. I’ve been really looking forward to this conversation. Welcome. 

Farmer Lee Jones: [00:01:29] Thank you. Thank you so much for having me on. 

Cynthia Thurlow: Yes, I’m a huge fan of your work, and I would love to start the conversation today helping listeners understand the empiric differences between regenerative agriculture versus industrial agriculture, which is very, very different. And I would imagine the average person probably doesn’t understand the differences because they’re quite significant. 

Farmer Lee Jones: Well, keep in mind, we’re vegetable farmers. I’m not a doctor, and my father always had a saying that we had to continue to make mistakes at a faster rate than the competition. [Cynthia laughs] He also said that we do mistakes well, but there are a few facts that I can talk about and how I believe that we got to the place that we currently are in America and beyond. The nutritional level in vegetables from 1920 to 2020 has gone down 50% to 80% and continues to go down. When I tell people that, it’s like, how did we get there? And, my personal opinion is that you have to follow the money. After World War II, there was lots of nitrogen left and they found ways to be able to make plants grow faster and higher yields. 

[00:02:38] If you can accept the fact that as it relates to our income in the United States, and that’s a key part of it, as it relates to our income, we produce food cheaper than any other country in the world. There are third world countries where people are working literally around the clock to put food on the table for survival, much less homes, automobiles, insurance, sending children to schools of their choices, or any of those wonderful luxuries that we enjoy here and some of them are starving to death. But as it relates to our income, we produce food cheaper than any other country in the world, yet we have the highest healthcare in the world. And the farmers are not at fault here. 

[00:03:18] The model is for them to keep their expenses as absolute low as possible and produce as many tons per acre. And if there no hiccups, if there’s no big mistakes, they might survive and they might make it into the next year. It’s a challenging, difficult business. So, based on that model, pharmaceutical and chemical companies recognize that they could help the farmers. So, they give grants to the universities, $10 million grant. And we want you to help the farmer by doing research. And, oh, by the way, this research that you’re going to use the dollars on, needs to include our chemicals. And so, we find that we can, based on the model that a farmer is trying to survive on, be more efficient by using a genetically modified plant. 

[00:04:02] And so, when it’s planted, it’s also sprayed and it kills everything other than the genetically modified plant, because you hear farmers talk about and you suggest, that farmers cultivate their fields. Well, what does cultivate mean? I mean, cultivation for us meant that, if you maybe to take it down to lay terms, you have a hoe in the garden, and you go through the rows and you eradicate the weeds mechanically with the hoe. In essence, cultivating is basically hoes attached to a tractor. And you drive the tractor through and the shovels go around the rows, and they eradicate the weeds mechanically. No harm, no foul. It’s a mechanical eradication of weeds that are competing for the light and the moisture and the nutrients in the soil. 

[00:04:47] But chemical companies say, “Hey, well, we can do this more efficiently. We can give them a genetically modified plant, and we can give them a chemical that will kill everything other than a genetically modified plant.” And now, we don’t have to drive the tractor through to cultivate the ground. So, now we’re more efficient. We’ve reduced costs. You got to understand, every time you’re moving that tractor up and down through the field, it’s adding cost and fuel and wear and tear, and the equipment isn’t cheap, so we reduce the cost. And so consequently, and of course, they told us that when those chemicals hit the earth’s surface, they dissipated, and it just killed the weeds on top of the ground. It was a lie. We all know that now that it was a lie. And what did it do? It killed the biodiversity and the biology within the soil. 

[00:05:28] So, the farmers are now putting synthetic fertilizers on the plant to get increased yields, because if they can go from 130 bushels an acre instead of 100 bushels, everything becomes more efficient. Well, the fertilizers aren’t working, so we put a little bit more on. But why aren’t they working? Because the biodiversity and the biology is not alive in the soil to break it down. So, what’s happening? You get a heavy rain. It runs off into the creeks, into the tributaries, into the rivers, and into the lakes. We happen to be located right along Lake Erie, which being in this region provides us an amazing microclimate, because, you see, Lake Erie is the shallowest of all the great Lakes. Consequently, it’s the warmest. 

[00:06:04] You go to the western basin of Lake Erie, where it’s the shallowest, and you have all this fertilizer that’s come off of these fields. We’re growing amazing algal bloom, even to the point where it’s plugging up the water systems, and they can’t even get water at times because there’s so much algal bloom growing there. Now, I have actually done some testing, or we’ve done some testing on algal bloom, and there’s not appear to be any nutritional value to it, even if you could harvest it and take it to market somehow. But so, the chemicals are running off or the fertilizers are running off. The nutritional level is going down.

[00:06:36] So, from 1920 to 2020, as we– And really, this didn’t start until about 1945 or 1950, and those nutritional levels just continue to go down, we’re adding more chemicals, we’re adding more synthetic fertilizers to try and boost those yields. It’s not sustainable. If you just think about a nutritional level in 100 years, going down 50% to 80%. At the same time, a 3000% increase in occurrences of kidney, liver, heart, cancer disease, attention deficit disorder, autism, childhood obesity, allergies, diabetes. It’s not sustainable. This is a crash course for the next generation. Not even our grandchildren’s generation, the next generation. It’s a crash course right now. But I don’t want to paint this as all doom and gloom, because there’s really exciting news. We can make a huge difference and a huge impact, but we’ve got to move. 

[00:07:22] I would highly recommend everybody go to Netflix and watch Kiss the Ground. And, of course, the follow up to that is common ground. We’re not in those. I’m not trying to self-promote in any way. I’ve watched Kiss the Ground about eight or ten times. My brother, Bob Jones, who I work with in partnership here at The Chef’s Garden, has probably watched it 15 times and has been in contact with them and they’re really getting a message out. But they’re also suggesting that if we don’t make some really significant changes right now, that we have about 60 harvests left now. Is there some fear mongering there? I hope so. But I think that they’re pretty accurate on the direction that we’re moving. And it’s kind of scary. But what’s really exciting, food and country, is another documentary that’s just coming out. We were part of that one, but we’re seeing is and it’s our personal belief. I’m not trying to cast any of my opinions or aspersions on anyone. 

[00:08:12] It’s our personal belief that God designed a system far superior to anything that we can fake out chemically or synthetically. For us, it’s about working in harmony with nature rather than trying to outsmart it. You can go back to the Old Testament, harvest fruit for six years, on the 7th year, let the fruit fall to the ground, on the 8th year, they had an abundant harvest. This isn’t rocket science. My dad also had another saying, “The only thing we’re trying to do is get as good as the growers were 100 years ago.” And if you think about that, why is that, that a hundred years ago, the nutritional levels were 50% to 80% higher. 

[00:08:45] With all the technology, with all the brilliance, with all the AI, with everything that we have available at our fingertips today, and the nutritional levels are down 50% to 80%. It’s unconscionable. So, you think about cultivating the land. We used to think that in between the rows needed to be weed free and clean. It’s interesting. Now that we’re two thirds of our acreage are committed to cover crops, we actually put a lab in, and that lab basically does the same thing as you going and drawing blood and you get the mineral print out of what’s going on in your blood system. The exact same things happen in the soil that happen in the blood. All life fundamentally starts with the health or the lack of health of the soil. And so, what we’re doing is finding out what the deficiencies are in the soil.

[00:09:27] Just like if we go to the doctor, we’re not feeling well, we do a blood analysis to find out where those deficiencies are. So, what’s really cool? And if you can get your mind around the fact that. And Cynthia, I’m sure, you’ve said it or you heard your mom say it. And the listeners have probably heard somebody say it. Oh, I think I need some vitamin D. I’m going to go get some sunshine. We’ve all heard it said. We may have said it tongue in cheek or jokingly or is it a myth? Is it a folklore? The reality is it’s very true. There’s more truth to it than people understand. 

[00:09:57] So, if you can get your mind around the idea that your body is a receptacle for energy from the sun, it’s not such a stretch to recognize that once we find out what those mineral deficiencies are in the soil, we can plant crop specific. And what I mean by that is clover, alfalfa, buckwheat, rye, vex, sudan grass. We have a multiple 15 species planting that we’re planting into the earth, two thirds of the acreage. It’s an unprecedented commitment to harvesting the energy from the sun. We’re planting that acreage into cover crops, harvesting the energy even in between the rows. Cynthia, where we used to think needed to be weed free and clean and pretty. We’re planting cover crops in between those rows. It goes down through the roots. 

[00:10:35] The plants that we’re going to consume are picking that back up, and lo and behold, we’re seeing 30, 50, 150, sometimes 300% above the USDA average. This is amazing and exciting to see that we can make such changes as this.

Cynthia Thurlow: [00:10:51] It’s really incredible. And, for me, watching your enthusiasm, you’re so passionate about this. And in preparation for our discussion today, and I want to just give listeners some perspective, the industrial agricultural systems are what actually dominate right now. They dominate western food and fiber supply chain. They incentivize practices that promote soil erosion at a rate 10 to 100 times higher than soil formation. There’s the nutrient runoff that you were alluding to. You have harmful blooms that can impact the water supply. And the thing that’s interesting, and I know today we’re really focused on the work that you’re doing, which is with vegetables, but helping people understand that there’s animal component to this traditional system. 

[00:11:35] The chemicals that are used to control the weeds that you were speaking to, synthetic fertilizers, as you appropriately mentioned, cheap food equals higher health care costs. And certainly, this is a topic that we talk about with great frequency on this podcast, that we have escalating rates of metabolic disease, diabetes, in many ways over the last 25 years. Even as a clinician, what I have been witness to suggests that we are heading in the wrong direction. And as an antidote to those more traditional systems is regenerative agriculture, which as you appropriately mentioned, it takes into account the harmony with nature, prioritizes climates and ecosystems, water quality. And the big thing is it limits mechanical soil disruption and disturbance.

[00:12:19] So, the things that you’re speaking to, that you’re adding in clover, buckwheat, to add to the soil, what it’s missing, to replenish it, I think is so exciting. Now, I know that you probably also grow for flavor and nutrition. So, let’s talk a little bit about when you are replenishing these vegetables with what is needed. I would imagine you have a vegetable that probably has a taste. I recall what my grandmother’s carrots tasted like from her backyard. I recall what tomatoes tasted like versus now you have oftentimes vegetables, or fruit, for that matter, in the grocery store that look pretty. They’re not bruised, they’re not molding, but they also don’t taste like anything. 

[00:13:00] I oftentimes will say, I feel like I have to over salt tomatoes, because tomatoes don’t taste the way they did when I was growing up. And so, have you and your team been able to determine when you are making the soil more nutrient dense, does that translate into a vegetable that has a more vibrant flavor profile? 

Farmer Lee Jones: [00:13:17] Well, that’s such a great question. And so, to back up a little bit, I mentioned that we’re located along Lake Erie. At one point, this county hosted the largest concentration of vegetable growers of any county in the world. Now, you can say, wait a minute, what about California? There are counties out in California that are 100% agriculture, from the north to the south, to the east to the west. But it’s 30 growers that each have 10,000 to 30,000 acres. These were what they called truck farmers. A large farm was about 100 acres. Usually, they were smaller than that. They would harvest their vegetables, and they would take them into market, and they would meet grocery store buyers. Today, that’s all gone, because it’s all chain grocery stores, and it’s by the truckload. 

[00:13:55] My dad went to work for a vegetable farmer that recognized that competition from chain grocery stores was coming. So, he worked cooperatively with about 65 other growers, and they invested in hydrocooling, which brings the temperature of the vegetable down. Sorting, sizing, packaging, palletization, distribution. And the gentleman that my dad went to work for at 14 years old, his name was Mr. Nichols. He had no children, and my mom and dad bought that farm from him. By the time mom and dad bought it from him in the 60s, the 65 growers that Mr. Nichols was buying from, in addition to the 300 acres he was growing, those 65 growers had diminished down to a handful. So, my dad, to offset that, continued to increase his acreage, following the way the universities were teaching. 

[00:14:35] Here’s the chemical you use to get rid of this disease. Here’s the chemical you use to get rid of this insect. Well, this isn’t working. Now, next year, this isn’t working. Well, we got to make this chemical, we got to add more chemical to it, or we’ve got to add more disease resistance through more chemical to eradicate. I liken it to western culture of medicine. You go to the doctor for a strep throat, and they give you a penicillin or amoxicillin or a [unintelligible 00:15:01]. It’s always putting a band-aid on the situation. They’re never– I don’t want to say that completely and generally across the board, but I’ve never had one say, “Look, this is the third time in five years you’ve been in with a strep throat. Let’s look at the cause of this. Why are you getting this strep throat?”

[00:15:15] No, we’re going to sell you the medicine that’s going to eradicate the strep throat temporarily and put a band-aid on it, and then we’re going to come back. But so, using the chemicals never really felt right to my dad. He had seen a day when we didn’t use chemicals like that. So, I don’t know how old your listener group is, but there was a time in the late seventies, early eighties, the interest rates hit 22%. They’re up a little bit right now. Seven, seven and a half slowed the housing market. Of course, that’s why we had the housing boom in the last 10 to 15 years, because interest rates were historically low 22%. I was 19 years old. My dad was borrowing money from banks at 22%. We had a hailstorm that wiped out every crop. The banks came in and sold every single thing that we owned, right down to my mother’s car and our house, every tractor, every piece of equipment, all the land, and we crawled away. We were desperate to be able to survive in agriculture. Now, I’m going to circle back to the flavor. I haven’t lost you completely, Cynthia, but I felt like some background how we arrived at this point. We started back at farmers markets. We met a chef. We didn’t know the first thing about chefs. This lady was brilliant. She was in a chef’s jacket. We came home, and I told dad that I met a chef, and we became friends, we developed a relationship. 

[00:16:32] And she said, “I believe if you would grow for flavor, grow for the integrity of the product, try and grow this without chemical, that there would be enough chefs that would support you.” And it was music to our ears because it appeared like there might be a chance for a little farm to survive yet in America without it being a corporate. And we latched around both of her ankles, and we wouldn’t let go. And we said, teach us. And she did. Her name was Iris Bailin Broudy, and she went on to become the senior food editor at The Cleveland Plain Dealer. And we’re still in contact with her today, some 40 years later. But we started talking to chefs and everything in America was all about the tons per acre. 

[00:17:11] It’s just like you said when you were a child. You can remember that tomato when it was so good and it was dripping down your chin and it tasted like a tomato and it was alive, or that carrot. And the chefs would come to America, and it was all blah. There was no flavor. And they said look, we started talking to them, and they reiterated what Chef Iris was telling us and so went to work. Interestingly enough, as devastating as it was to lose the farm, it’s our personal belief that God sometimes has to use a bigger two by four on some of us than others. And this was a pretty good thump upside the head and say, “Hey, dummy, you got this wrong.” Here’s the direction I want you to go. 

[00:17:46] We started looking back at agricultural books that are 100, 150 years older. What were they doing? Well, guess what? They were using plants to harvest the energy, they were rotating where the crop that they were taking to market was this year. Next year, it sat fallow, and then one third was in crops to feed the animals. Now, farmers are rotating today, but it’s between corn, wheat, and beans. But the most important thing that chefs kept telling us over and over and over again was grow for flavor, grow for flavor, grow for flavor. And so, that was our goal for the last 40 years. About 10, 15 years ago, dad said, “My hypothesis is that as we’ve been working to achieve flavor, my suspicion is that we’ve probably been bringing nutritional levels along. We need to figure this out because we believe our little farm in Huron, Ohio, Erie County, that our end run ultimately is the increased demand for real food, nutritious, healthy, high antioxidant, high nutritional levels.”

[00:18:46] So, we put in times painfully, the equipment to build out a lab and started testing. And we don’t have it perfect. We don’t claim to have it perfect, but we’ve started testing to figure out what was working, what wasn’t working. And like you talked about with me, you hear farmers ploughing their fields. We’re not ploughing anymore. The less you can disrupt that land and allow that biodiversity to work and do what it’s supposed to do. Significant results.

Cynthia Thurlow: [00:19:10] Yeah. And it makes so much sense. And I think back to, my grandfather was Italian, my grandmother was German. They had this beautiful vegetable garden. And my grandmother used to talk a lot about earthworms and how important they were for the soil. So, for the benefits of listeners, what are some of the indicators of the health of the soil? Like, things that are tangible, that like an earthworm. That makes sense to me. If an earthworm wants to be there, it’s probably because it is a nutrient dense soil. But what are some of the things that impact soil quality when you’re growing vegetables?

Farmer Lee Jones: [00:19:41] Well, I love the question. I mean, you have no idea how excited I get this fall. I pulled up a whole Brussels sprout. We opened a farm market in the middle of COVID to be able to make product available to our community. We were out of Brussels sprouts at the farm market. And I said, “Just a minute, I’ll run down to the field and get some.” And so, I pulled a couple of the Brussels sprouts, the whole stalks, and they’re 4 or 5ft tall. Oh, I was so excited. The earthworms that came and the smell of that healthy soil was amazing. Look, the reality is there’s more life below the earth’s surface than there is above. We’ll take and put this soil under a microscope and to see all of the different life that’s abundant there. 

[00:20:22] And we have them all named, and there are two big a words names for me to pronounce. We’ve got people on the team that really, they study and count this per square foot, and the indicators are whatever, when you’re seeing this life in there, they basically can break down the food into a form that the plant can pick it up. But if they’re dead because you’re using those chemicals, it’s not breaking the food down into the form that the plant can pick it up. And then the nutritional levels are going down. It’s not that hard when you stop and think about it. We’re the ones that have mucked this up for the last hundred years. If we get out of nature’s way and work with her, she will take care of us. I don’t know if that directly answers the question, but it’s very, very exciting to see the life be able to abundantly do its job down below the earth’s surface. 

Cynthia Thurlow: [00:21:08] And it’s interesting because I think so many of us think of soil as dirt. It’s like they’re synonymous. But there’s so much more to it. And one of the statistics that I read was that soil produces 95% of our food supply. It supports species of fungi, bacteria, invertebrates, those earthworms which help drive a carbon, nitrogen and water cycles which then, vis a vis go on to feed plants. And it’s this very symbiotic relationship. And do you think that we’ve gotten so disconnected from the value of soil because we as individuals are so disconnected from where our food comes from? I feel like, those of us that frequent farmers markets, we probably have relationships with individuals that are growing in our areas. 

[00:21:50] I lived in a county outside of Washington DC in the suburbs, and it was mostly cattle, but we had a lot of fruits and vegetables and flowers. And people would drive from even West Virginia into Virginia to come to these farmers markets. But in conversations with individuals that were selling their products, it was always surprising to me, not surprising, because obviously they love what they do, but how misinformed most of us are if we just go to the grocery store, we’re so disconnected from our food sources that we lose that opportunity to really understand. As example, you mentioned Brussels sprouts growing on a stalk. I think a lot of people assume they just show up in a bag in the grocery store, that we don’t even know what they look like when they’re in the ground. 

[00:22:31] And so again, I go back to the same thing, that we are disconnected from where our food comes from. 

Farmer Lee Jones: [00:22:36] Well, we jokingly say that dirt is what’s under your bed and soil is what we grow vegetables in. And there is a lot of truth to that. I think there is a definite disconnect. But I also think that people are more savvy, more interested, more excited, more hungry to learn than ever before. And that excites me to see people sitting up and taking notice and taking control of their own health. We like to talk about, growing vegetables for health. Of course, Hippocrates said, “Let’s food be thy medicine. And medicine be thy food.” Now, nobody likes medicine, but I think that food for health is a really special way to think about it. And we believe we’re on a path for a reason. We don’t have it all figured out, but we’re really making significant results. 

[00:23:19] We’re seeing other growers taking this methodology of regenerative agriculture, and it’s really exciting to see that we can make such significant change. I would definitely encourage people to build relationships with those farmers. There’s some farmers that are figuring it out, and there’s some farmers out there growing stuff that really don’t have it figured out. Just like there’s some nutritionists that are still using the nutritional numbers provided by USDA previous to 1945, when all the numbers were higher. The numbers that they’re using are totally inaccurate for what we’re looking at today. And you have nutritionists who are making recommendations in hospitals, in nursing homes, for babies, for just people, and that they don’t have a connection with what the real nutritional levels are. So, I’m excited to be on. I’m excited to maybe provoke somebody to think about their health and I’m excited. 

[00:24:08] Your podcast is amazing, and I’m just grateful to be on here today and get to talk about vegetables. We launched a nationwide home delivery in the middle of COVID because 100% of our business was direct to restaurants. And, we lost the farm when I was 19. And COVID hits, and I’m like, “Oh, my gosh, it’s going to happen again.” But there was enough of a safety net that said, “No, not this time.” And we launched this nationwide home delivery where we could send vegetables direct from our farm out to individuals. And you can pick your own box, you can curate a box. We have chefs that curate boxes. It’s exciting. There’s hope. Don’t be too discouraged, pleased. We’re on a path and we’re making changes. All of us, keep pushing, keep pushing. We’re on the right path. 

Cynthia Thurlow: [00:24:53] Well, and it was funny. One of the questions I was going to ask you is, what has been the net impact of the pandemic? And so, you were ahead of me. Were already answering that question. You mentioned that you pivoted to selling to restaurants, to selling direct to consumers. Were there other things that changed for your business or the way that people were consuming vegetables during the pandemic? 

Farmer Lee Jones: [00:25:12] Well, it was really a big decision for us. We had been advised that a downturn in the economy was coming. Traditionally, it happens every seven years in the US. We were in year eleven and it hadn’t happened. The bankers, all the advisors were saying, it’s coming. So, in 19, we did not make capital improvements. We held back on building a new greenhouse. We held back on some things to try and store up where that rainy day that we suspected was coming. We had no idea that it was the mother lode that it was, because if you can imagine these restaurants, they just stopped. And we have 168 full time team members on our farm, and they’re family to us. We have a world exchange program where students come in from all over the world. They’re in agricultural programs in their respective countries.

[00:25:58] They come here for a year. They learn, they bring ideas with them. I love to consider our farm an international farm, because there’s this exchange of ideas, and we make friends from all over the world. But you don’t furlough a farm. For us, it’s pretty intimate, Cynthia. I mean, if you can imagine in a relationship, your significant other walking out for a year and then walking back in a year and say, “Hi, honey, I’m home,” they’re probably not going to be received very well. And we felt that way about our farm, to walk away and say, we’re going to just walk away for a year, or our team even more importantly. So, we kept working. We took on the farm to family program. We did everything we could. We launched a nationwide home delivery. 

[00:26:40] We opened a farm market. We were working hard to keep afloat, and just there was no profit. But we were able to keep our team together, and we were able to take care of the farm. And as we came out of this, she was there for us, and our team was there. We have a thousand years of experience on the farm, and I don’t mean years of experience at another farm. Javier’s son Cruz is now here. And it’s a multi-generational farm. So, it’s really exciting. I think one of the things that we did, we have a facility called The Culinary Vegetable Institute. We wrote a 600-page book in the middle of COVID The Chef’s Garden. Chef Jamie Simpson did 100 recipes in it. One of his personal passions, pass ins, is reducing waste. 

[00:27:22] And so, we look at a plant, and we’ve learned from chefs that at every single stage of the plant’s life, it offers something unique to the plate. So, even the Brussels sprout, if we can continue on with that same example, it grows magnificent leaves out. It’s nature’s way of protecting the Brussels sprout from getting sunburned because, you see, that plant is there in the field for 10 to 11 months. Can you imagine being exposed to the sun for 11 months straight? So, these magnificent leaves protect it, and then all we do is pick off the Brussels sprout off and you have all of this. I would be willing, first of all, I’d like to extend an invitation for you to come out to the farm. 

Cynthia Thurlow: [00:27:57] I would love that. 

Farmer Lee Jones: We put in an Airbnb at The Culinary Vegetable Institute in the middle of COVID. But if I blindfolded you, I would defy you to be able to tell the difference in a collard green and a Brussels sprout leaf. They’re in the cruciferous family, so why not look at that plant in its entirety? So, we do that. But also, I can remember the days, and of course, we were naive to think that COVID was going to be over in three weeks. We really just thought it was a blip. And it turned out to be a way bigger thing than a blip. So, if you understand anything about pruning a plant, you prune the old parts of the plant so that the new growth will continue. So, even though we weren’t selling any edible flowers, we’ll change to an edible flower example.

[00:28:38] And so, we’re picking these off. There’s rows and rows of these edible flowers and we’re picking them off because next week, we’re losing the sales this week. But next week, when the chefs come back and we don’t have the flowers, we’re going to lose the sales next week. So, naively, we’re just picking these off and thinking it’s going to bounce back soon. And our chef walks in the greenhouse and he sees, I call it our tear of trails– Trail of tears, I should say. Because there were just thousands of these edible flowers laying on the ground that we’re picking off to prune so that it would keep growing. And he’s like, “No, we can’t do that.” [Cynthia laughs] I want you to put all of those in a wheelbarrow and bring them up to The Culinary Vegetable Institute. 

[00:29:15] We have the entire great room covered with food grade paper. Spread the flowers all out. And we began making teas. And of course, I’m a huge proponent of a cup of hot tea at night. I think there’s a lot of benefits there. But now, we have a whole line of teas and we started making marmalades and carrot mar– We had 300,000 pounds of carrots and beets for several different restaurants at Disney. And Disney wasn’t taking any carrots or beets, so we started making marmalade. So, there were a lot of things that came out of that. But I think that the health and wellness direction is something that came out of COVID and I believe it’s really a new direction for us. I’m excited about it. 

Cynthia Thurlow: [00:29:51] Well, and I think what I appreciate and value is that, they talk about how life hands you a lemon and you make lemonade, but literally taking and repurposing things within your business and then having a new revenue stream from making the marmalades and having all these other options, the teas, I think that’s masterful. Now, I know that one thing that I oftentimes will talk about is eating locally. If you have the ability to eat locally, and I know from listening to you on other podcasts, you talk about how local defines distance but not quality. 

[00:30:27] Can you speak a little bit more to that? Because I think it, again goes back to the tasteless vegetables that I think many of us experience purchasing in a lot of grocery stores because they go such a long distance. They’re nutrient depleted soil. And this is where that purchasing local, if you can, if you have that as an option. But getting to know your farmer is so important. 

Farmer Lee Jones: [00:30:47] Yeah, I mean, know thy farmer. I think that’s really the key is know thy farmer. I’m a huge proponent of local, but be cognizant that local defines distance, not integrity. So, do your homework. Talk to the growers. Have an understanding. Listen to them. My guess is if they’re really passionate about what they’re doing and you’ve been there two or three times, and they can tell that you’re interested, the next thing you know, they’re inviting you out to the farm to see their work. Because if you can’t tell, we get excited about talking about this stuff. [Cynthia laughs] It really is because it is personal to us. It’s our lives and those other farmers, it is too. You’ll be able to tell the difference if you just keep your eyes open and pay attention. 

[00:31:26] If you’re seeing this stuff coming out of a cardboard, a wax cardboard box out back where it says, packed in the USA and it’s probably grown someplace else and then shipped in may keep walking on down the market and looking and you see a person that’s- We use these black, hard plastic containers that brought tulip bulbs into the United States. Well, they get into the United States. They’ve done their job. Now they’ve got these cartons. We can buy those for about $0.50 apiece. we have a giant, if you can imagine, a giant commercial dishwasher. We used to be trying to dip them in a chlorine solution to sterilize them because, you see, they never go back to the field again without being sterilized because food safety is really that whole other component that we could create a whole another podcast on. 

[00:32:14] But if you’re seeing somebody that is using reusable containers, it’s probably an indication because they’re taking those back to their fields and they’re reusing them and filling them again. If you’re seeing stuff sitting on a pallet, there’s nothing wrong with sitting on a pallet because you don’t want it on the ground. But if you see it in a wax cardboard box, that, I mean, it’s certainly a dead giveaway when it says packed in the USA. Just talk to the farmers. They’re excited, they’re passionate, he or she, and they’re excited that you’re interested. It excites us that people are finally clued in to the fact that there’s a difference in the way this stuff is grown and that all that work is not for naught, that people really do care and people are getting it. And that’s exciting because we have to for sustainability of society, we’ve got to figure this out, and the sooner the better.

Cynthia Thurlow: [00:33:05] What are some of the emerging trends that you’re seeing in the vegetable industry? I’m talking about things like microgreens, heirloom tomatoes. I was trying to think of themes last night that seem to be very popular right now. What are your thoughts on microgreens? 

Farmer Lee Jones: [00:33:19] Well, we actually take credit for inventing them. I don’t know how many listeners knew who Charlie Trotter was, he was an American chef in Chicago at 816 West Armitage. And during the 80s, mid-80s or early 80s, the rage was Mesclun. Remember what we can now go to the Walmart, and we can get mixed young greens in a bag. And at that time that was the rage. And he called us and he said, I’m so over Mesclun. I want something really cutting edge. I want something innovative. And we had tried an idea a few months earlier and it had fallen on deaf ears, but what he was suggesting reinspired us to take a look. But we said, give us a few weeks and send somebody out. 

[00:33:59] And so, they sent a team out about a month later and they tweaked it a little bit and we made suggestions, and that would have been about the mid to late 80s. I think that microgreens are really important. Our personal belief is that the hydroponic microgreens, you’re not getting the integrity or the nutritional levels. We’ve done a lot of testing on that. We grow in soil. For us, we believe that’s the best methodology, and we believe we get a more nutritious and more flavorful microgreen and also will hold up better on a plate or in shipping. So, it’s our personal opinion that growing in soil is a more nutritious way to grow. Whether it’s a tomato we’re going to grow out, or a pepper or a micro green, we believe soil is fundamentally really important. I’m not knocking anybody that’s doing hydroponic. 

[00:34:45] We believe that water is a very rapid carrier of E. coli. If you’ve got a problem, you’re going to move it very quickly, but you’re trying to mimic the natural things that happen in the soil through putting in food for that plant. And it’s just not the same. We’re not seeing it that way, not trying to start a controversy there. But those are our personal opinions, where we are seeing our absolute highest nutrient density nitrate oxides are on smaller greens in a microgreen or slightly larger, even higher than a full size. I don’t know if it’s a fair comparison, but we test natural sugars through a methodology called– they measure it in unit of Brix. And we’ll harvest carrots and we’ll try and replicate grandmother’s root storage and store those. 

[00:35:32] And one of the things, and maybe listeners know that a wine that is first harvested tends to be a little bit green, but then as it matures some, it gets better. Well, we’ve actually tested like every 15 days on sugar levels. And we know that our carrots are better, actually at their absolute best flavor between day 90 and day 123 is where they peak. And they just keep improving from the time we harvest them in the fall and we put them in a winter storage and replicate grandmother’s root cellar, and then that carrot starts to feed on itself and those natural sugar levels will start to go down. So, it’s really exciting. The carrots are absolutely delicious right now, to answer the question or not. 

Cynthia Thurlow: [00:36:12] No, no. I mean, it’s interesting because I think about, I mean, obviously a banana is not a carrot. But you have a banana that’s green, and then as it starts to ripen, has a higher sugar content. I would imagine it’s probably similar with the carrots. And if the carrots taste anything like my grandmother’s carrots she used to have in her garden, I mean, we used to just walk outside and eat them, which my grandmother loved. Any other, trends that you’re seeing, like heirloom tomatoes? Is that really a thing? I mean, or is it just the overpriced tomato that’s in my grocery store that’s, generally, they’re brightly colored, but they tend to look a little less perfect and pretty is what I’m trying to say. They may aesthetically not look as pretty as your perfectly round, red tomato that tastes like cardboard, but they’re twice as expensive. But heirloom varieties of vegetables is that something that’s you’re doing or is that popular at your farm right now? 

Farmer Lee Jones: [00:37:07] It is. I think the beauty is in the eye of the beholder. I think that an heirloom tomato with all of its imperfections, just like all of us, is far more beautiful than a perfect tomato that, like you say, you’d better off to throw it away and eat the cardboard that was shipped in. These things are full of flavor, interestingly enough. And I want to make sure that listeners understand the difference between GMO and hybrid. A hybrid is just going down through the rows and picking the characteristics that you like from that plant and crossing them with another. It’s been done for hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of years. There is no harm in it. We don’t believe in the use of GMO. We don’t use any GMO. 

[00:37:44] But what they’re doing right now is one of the detriments to heirlooms is they don’t have the disease resistance. They don’t have the yield. They don’t have the ability to ship as far or as well, but they’re doing hybrids, where they’re crossing a hybrid with an heirloom that you get the best of both worlds. So, we’re really exploring that. But one of the most exciting things, and I’m sure that you’re talking about this all the time, is sweet potatoes. So much potential, so many good health benefits. We’re working with LSU, and just like so many things that are becoming extinct, there are hundreds and hundreds of varieties of sweet potatoes. We see about three varieties in the grocery store. 

[00:38:24] The three that produce the most tons per acre, the three that ship the farthest, and the three that do the best in whatever environment of shipping 3000 miles and holding for six months or eight months or nine months. We never see any of those other varieties, and we’re probably never going to see them because until the model changes in the United States, when it’s not about, keep the cost as low as possible, produce as many tons per acre, keep the costs be as efficient as possible, you’re only going to see those varieties that are going to do the things they need to do in the model they exist in. LSU sends us about 100 varieties at a time, usually once a year. And they’re like VR-462 because there’s no name to them, but they’re individual varieties. 

[00:39:06] And they ask us to do tasting notes. Maybe some of your listeners have done wine tastings where you’ve taken notes, where this one has notes of floral and this one has, you taste the oak or whatever, very specific. I mean, a whole team of us at The Culinary Vegetable Institute give very detailed notes on these sweet potatoes. In exchange, we send those notes back to them and they allow us to pick the eight to ten varieties that we are just absolutely jazzed about. We name them, we grow them, and we create a demand for them. The only way to save them is to create a demand for them. The one that I am the most particularly passionate about is one that we just served at a special dinner at The Culinary Vegetable Institute Saturday night for a valentine’s dinner. It’s a variety called crème brûlée. [Cynthia laughs]

[00:39:51] It is amazing. We have been doing some filming with Rachael Ray over in Italy at her home there. And she put us up in this boutique hotel called Monteverde. It’s near Tuscany. I mean, way fancier than any. It’s not my Marriott that I have become much accustomed to for $149 a night. [Cynthia laughs] Rachel was very generous in putting us up there. But of course, we went down and met the chef, and lo and behold, she said, “Well, I worked with you when I was a chef, and I had a restaurant in Miami.” We extended an invitation for her to come over. Her and Chef Jamie Simpson cooked an amazing Valentine’s dinner that was open to the public. And they served the crème brûlée, sweet potato with– I don’t know the name of it. 

[00:40:29] I’m embarrassed to say I don’t. But it was some cheese that she brought with her from Italy that’s amazing. And they put that over. It was ridiculous. It was just that good. It was about a nine-course dinner and of course they paired wines with that. We walked through the gardens and the menu developed as she got here. And we walked through and took a look at the. I’m really excited about Kale Mesclun. I think we all get our minds around Mesclun because it’s been here on the market for so long. But we do about six or eight different varieties. Even some of the kales, like you see when you go to the big city and you’re seeing them as ornamental kales. Now, we’re not picking those outer leaves that are tough. 

[00:41:08] I mean, it would be like eating shoe leather, but we’ll break those off and we’ll get, we’ll force for the new growth. We’re harvesting from some plants right now that are 18 months old in a greenhouse and all new inner growth. And they’re inch and a half to two inches with some of them are white and some of them have got– They look almost like a leaf and just different shapes and texture. We eat with our eyes. I encourage people to eat the rainbow, eat as much color as possible, but texture, color, flavor, and it’s exciting to see these kales and they’re just really selling well. 

Cynthia Thurlow: [00:41:41] It’s really exciting because I think that, as I interview more experts and researchers and people that have businesses and physicians, I start to understand that we want as much diversity in terms of plants, vegetables in our diet as possible. I know Dr. Robynne Chutkan said 30 over the course of a week. And she said, listen, you could put 10 in a salad, so don’t stress about it. But really hearkens to what the work that you’re doing, reintroducing. I think I was reading something about different types of radishes. And I’m like, I’m a radish-aholic. Like, I love radishes. 

[00:42:15] I think that if you love a particular vegetable, like finding other varieties that are similar to it, but maybe taste differently, like watermelon radishes, I love, and I always think about those in summertime, but I think for everyone that’s listening, understanding that you can get access to different types of produce and vegetables and fruits, you just have to look for it. You just have to be diligent, go to the farmer’s market, look at your products online. I was perving. I was saying, my mother just had a birthday last weekend. Had I known I would have actually bought her a box and sent it to her home, because she’s someone that eats tons and tons of vegetables and really enjoys it. 

[00:42:51] Is there anything that we didn’t touch on today that you think is particularly important for listeners in terms of understanding the state of health, of regenerative farming, agriculture, etc.? 

Farmer Lee Jones: [00:43:03] Well, I really, you walked me into this, but I think that Mother Nature provides such a natural rhythm for what we should be eating, and I think we’re really out of touch with that. And what’s more, chefs are out of touch with that. I don’t want to eat asparagus in February. [Cynthia laughs] And it also alludes to me that the chef doesn’t understand the seasons either. Now, they’re getting better and better at it. And, one of the answers is, we do some work with the Ritz-Carltons, and their motto is, the answer is yes. What is the question? And some folks demand a raspberry 12 months a year or a strawberry 12 months a year, or an asparagus. 

[00:43:41] So, I get that, and I understand. I’m a little biased and I’m allowed to be so, but I really believe that your body, if you can get in tune with your body, your body will tell you what you need. And if you’re really tuned in, it will tell you that you need what’s in season. I have strong cravings at times for Swiss chard because it’s high in iron, it’s high in vitamin C. I read a National Geographic’s article many years ago about women that were pregnant and they were eating the dirt. They didn’t know why, but their bodies were craving a mineral in that dirt. And somehow, instinctively, they knew to eat that. I think that the winter radishes are a great example. The watermelon radish, the lime radish. We’ve got a Chinese daikon, red radish, a black radish. 

[00:44:26] I love to cut those with a mandolin and do a quick overnight pickle with any vinegar you’ve got in the house. But you know what they roast up really good, just like a carrot or a beet, and they’re amazing. So, those have so much diversity beyond what we tend to think of as plucking a radish and eating a radish and maybe a little bit of salt and butter like the French do, but there’s a lot of diversity. But the celery root and the rutabaga and the parsnip. The parsnip is so underrated and so healthy for us, but those winter vegetables that are in season right now, and it doesn’t, if we are trying to eat healthy, if it’s food for health, we don’t get bored with it because we’re just eating whatever we think of. 

[00:45:05] Where if we think about the season, I’m really jazzed right now about winter salads of all the radicchios and the chicory and the Treviso’s. I was just at Thomas Keller’s 20th anniversary of per se in New York City last Thursday night, and they had the whole, not only the kitchen, but the whole dining room, all these different stations cooking amazing foods. And I was so pleased to see this giant bread of all the chicories and the Treviso’s there. And I’m just really jazzed. I think that it’s been around for thousands of years, but I think it’s a very emerging product coming, a little bitter could be a little bit, oh, that’s strong. You can apply some heat to it, break that bitterness down. 

[00:45:46] But if you go with some fruit, some citrus along with that bitterness, I think it really just makes your palate dance with excitement of something a little bit different and follow those natural rhythms. And I think it’ll just be so exciting every single week when you’re eating food for health. 

Cynthia Thurlow: [00:46:02] Well, and I think, the comment about bitter, I always remind people bitter is specific information for the body, generally higher in polyphenol count. So, whether it’s extra virgin olive oil, radicchio is a good example. I love that you suggested adding citrus to it because it can help offset that. But bitter foods are very important. They’re important for digestion. They’re important for secretion of emulsification of fats. I mean, there’s so many things that go on with bitter foods. Don’t be afraid of bitter. And pairing it with citrus can make it a little bit more palatable.

[00:46:33] Farmer Lee Jones please let listeners know how to connect with you, how to find you on social media, how to purchase your book, or even get some of your boxes, which I’m going to be purchasing probably for my mom. It’ll be her post birthday gift. But for people in your lives who love vegetables, and if you go online, you’ve got marmalade, you have all these different things. Let listeners know how to connect with you most easily and readily. 

Farmer Lee Jones: [00:46:57] Oh, gosh. We would love to stay in touch with the listeners and of course, Instagram, Farmer Lee Jones three different words. And if you create an amazing dish, send it over and tag us. We’d love to see what you’re preparing at home. The Chef’s Garden also on Instagram, @farmerjonesfarm all one word will get you to be able to buy the vegetables at home. I mean, we do subscriptions. We have different chefs that we work with all over the country that’ll curate different recipes. It’s not a traditional, what is it a CSA where you get, well, this week we’ve got a lot of extra cucumbers, so you’re going to get 90% cucumbers. You can actually put together in the box what you want, which is kind of cool. But we would love to stay in touch with you, The Culinary Vegetable Institute follow that. The Chef’s Garden, Farmer Lee Jones and remember, eat your veggies.

Cynthia Thurlow: [00:47:45] [laughs] Yes. That’s a great way to end the conversation. One I would agree with. 

Farmer Lee Jones: [00:47:49] Great. Thank you so much for having me on. 

Cynthia Thurlow: [00:47:53] If you love this podcast episode, please leave a rating and review, subscribe and tell a friend.