Farm-to-table. Local sourcing. Sustainable agriculture.
These terms get thrown around very often in the restaurant industry, but have they become so ubiquituous that they've lost their meaning beyond just being trendy buzz words? More than just a marketing gimmick, these agricultural movements have long-term ramifications on our environment, economy, and industry.
To learn more about the reality behind farm-to-table and beyond, we chatted with Farmer Lee Jones of The Chef's Garden about his experience as a farmer and his outlook on the future of farming and foodservice. Hear more from Jones during his NRA Show 2016 education session, Sustainable Agriculture: Macro Returns from Micro Products, on Sunday, May 22.
Your path to developing a successful business plan included losing the family farm. What were the key learnings that helped you build your vision into a thriving future for your business?
Farmer Lee Jones: In the beginning, we were willing to do things that were challenging and different—things no one else was willing to do. We identified a niche market and worked to produce artisanal product. Today, we continue to make daily progress along this never-ending path. I don’t believe we will ever get to a point where we are satisfied. Everyone on the team is aware of our goal and very seldom does the day go by without someone suggesting a way we can do better with less. Building a successful business plan is not an easy journey or a journey with an end. It takes the whole team to make progress, a little bit at a time. We are working on some bigger projects nowwhich will make a quantum leap but they are longer-term projects. Our immediate goal is to get a little better every day and hopefully we can continue to do that.
As a farmer, how are you balancing the increasing demand for your products with maintaining the integrity of your product?
FLJ: A combination of century old agricultural practices and modern-day management ideals results in the highest quality, safest ingredients possible, with exceptional shelf life—and above all—flavor.
In part, the Jones’ family success is the result of adopting a farming method that considers the soil the most important growing aspect. By working to rebuild the soil naturally and planting cover crops on two-thirds of the land to nourish it, we envisioned a sustainable future before it became a fashionable term. The farm’s agricultural practices are environmentally friendly, socially responsible and economically viable—demonstrating a commitment to the well-being of our chefs and to future generations of farmers.
Also, from day one we have never stopped listening to our chefs. Keeping them on the leading edge of the culinary industry is a top priority for us. The farm’s team of experts does this by responding to requests to develop new products. We also research and reintroduce heirloom varieties that have been all but lost over the generations. Experimenting with products in new sizes, colors, textures and flavors keeps menu options exciting!
What would you encourage operators to consider when they are looking to source from local farms to ensure it’s not just a good fit, but one that is beneficial to the environment?
FLJ: The first thing I would encourage operators consider is food safety, protection of the environment and the integrity of the restaurant and the food system. Looking at the big picture of sustainability means working collaboratively. For example, we purchase corn cobs from one of our neighbors and use this renewable energy source for a boiler system on the farm rather than burning fossil fuels.
Also, let’s define local when it comes to farming. Name a Fortune 500 company that derives its sole income within a 150-mile radius of its location. In addition, many U.S. manufacturers have moved to third-world countries to reduce production costs, while the American farmer remains the lifeblood of society. I am reminded of the saying by Francis of Assisi: “He who works with his hands is a laborer. He who works with his hands and his head is a craftsman. He who works with his hands and his head and his heart is an artist.”
Who inspires you to continue to think progressively about how sustainability needs to evolve in the future?
FLJ: Several individuals come to mind and all for different reasons. Rick Moonen, an early champion of sustainable fishing practices, supports fishing that is not harmful to the ocean environment. He also has a flair for putting a spin on classic comfort food. On the business management side there is Peter Drucker, one of the most important thought leaders in the world of management. He considers that a company’s primary responsibility is to serve its customers and profits should be secondary. Peter also believes that employees are to be treated like valuable company assets. Also, I am inspired by the leaders at Google. Their culture continues to evolve because everyone is a hands-on contributor who feels comfortable sharing ideas and opinions. We foster that environment on the farm as well, as I indicated earlier.
At the same time, we get inspiration from books that are more than 100 years old—when synthetic fertilizers and chemicals were not used but cover crops were common.
In Dan Barber’s The Third Plate, he is searching for the true meaning and overall impact of farm-to-table. What do you think are the most common misconceptions about what sustainable agriculture really means?
FLJ: We are at risk of “farm-to-table” becoming an overused term. I believe there is a misconception that local is better and cheaper. It shouldn’t matter where local is. The fact that product is grown with a combination of time-honored farming practices, mixed with innovative methods to sustain the land and what it produces, is most important.
There is also a misconception that sustainable agriculture is less expensive. Doing things the right way by using cover crops to rebuild the soil actually costs more and takes more time. It is better but not cheaper. An old adage that holds true says you can, “Pay the farmer now or pay the doctor later.”
And perhaps most importantly, another misconception is the use of the term sustainable to only refer to agriculture. I believe the term should be used more broadly to include people. We work daily with those dedicated to preserving heritage by nurturing heirloom seeds traditionally grown by generations of farmers—and in some cases even before that—Native Americans, for example. Making an investment in the future to produce heirloom foods keeps the item from becoming extinct, while adding variety and nutrition to diets.
We also work with chefs who share our culinary vision. Their kitchens are filled with produce in its original state—not row upon row of canned goods. And the majority of ingredients in the dishes on their menus are fresh and seasonal. Since fresh food has so much flavor, chefs often choose to serve it simply or even raw. I’ve said it before. A favorite dish of mine is sliced, vine ripened tomatoes drizzled with olive oil and sprinkled with salt and cracked pepper. Mmmm.
The Chef’s Garden stands at the intersection of this creative farm-to-table process, helping to deliver the most flavorful, variety of nutritious vegetables possible. And we are humbly appreciative that chefs continue ask us to serve this role.