And, sometimes, people find The Chef Garden’s website when searching for the answer to this intriguing question: “Is Farmer Lee Jones real?”The short answer to that question is, of course, yes. He’s real in the sense of being an actual person (versus a cartoon character) and he’s real in the sense of being genuine. He’s a son, a husband, a brother, an uncle and a dad—and, of course, he’s also a farmer.
He may be best known, though, for his iconic outfit: a pair of blue jean overalls with suspenders, a crisp, white, short-sleeved dress shirt, a red bow tie, and a ball cap.
Now, here’s more about the real Farmer Lee Jones.
“My earliest memory,” Lee tells us, “may be when I was holding a light for my dad while he was working on a tractor. From the time I was very young, I would do anything I could to help on the farm. In fact, my dad would sometimes say, ‘Well, it’s sure a nice day to work in the field. Do you want to go to school or stay home and help?’ While that wouldn’t fly today, you already know what my answer was. I wanted to help on the farm.”
When Lee was a bit older, his dad (“Mr. Bob”) taught him how to drive a tractor and, one day, Lee was quite proud of the driving he was doing. This made it especially puzzling when Mr. Bob started running behind Lee, frantically waving his arms. “I really was driving just fine,” Lee remembers. “But, when Dad caught up to me, he let me know that I was also driving on the wrong side of the road.”
On another memorable day, the Jones family found an abandoned Conestoga wagon, a brittle one that had obviously been sitting there for a very long time. These horse-drawn freight wagons were built in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania as early as the mid-18th century, and they carried farm products primarily throughout that state, as well as in Maryland, Ohio and Virginia.
“Although it was clearly old, it was otherwise in pretty good shape,” Lee remembers, “and I often wondered about that wagon. Who was using it? Why, of all places, did they choose to stop where they did? Was it really a choice? I have no answers, but I do know that my parents resurrected the wagon in the colors of red and white with a red awning. They added a white sign and attached it to a walking plow to make a wagon-style farm market.”
The Jones family sold produce from their wagon, and Lee remembers trying to persuade customers to try some especially hot peppers. “That probably didn’t do much for sales,” he said, “but I did learn how to take care of customers.”
When customers requested a dozen ears of corn, Lee said they’d add in one or two extra ears. If someone wanted a crop that the Jones family grew, but it wasn’t on the wagon—say, green tomatoes—they’d harvest it while the customer waited.
“I could never imagine doing anything but farming,” Lee says. “Nothing.”
Break in the Action
At this point in our conversation, Lee asked for a “32-second break.” Why? He’d ordered historic issues of farm magazines for his dad on eBay, and three of them had just arrived:
Farm and Fireside: March 1923
Farm Life: November 1922
Better Farming: July 1955
Lee used his 32-second break to slip them into his parents’ front door.
(Note from the editor: We sure hope Mr. Bob was pleasantly surprised!)
Filling Tomato Baskets
“On another day,” Lee says, returning to his reminiscences after dropping off the magazines, “Dad gave me the assignment to fill up tomato baskets. After that was done, I could go out and play. Because it looked like it might rain, I had to work pretty fast. And, once I was finished, I hurried out to play.”
“When my dad would holler, you could hear him clear across the entire farm,” Lee says. “And, holler he did. He said I had another box to fill before I could play. So, I stormed past Dad and my grandfather, probably with a bit of an attitude. I’d fulfilled my end of the deal, after all, and then Dad goes and changes the rules.”
Lee flips open the lid of the box—and there was a bluetick-coonhound/beagle mix puppy, happy as all get out to meet Lee. “I was given,” he remembers, “five names I could choose from, and so I picked one. I was then told I’d chosen the wrong name, and so the puppy was called Chester, one of the other four options. That’s because Chester was also the name of the person who had given us the puppy.”
As for his first pony, it was a really cool black Shetland that arrived with a red ribbon. The name? George.
Quick Q & A with Farmer Lee Jones
What’s your favorite color?
Candy apple red
What’s your favorite season?
The next one
What’s your favorite high school sports team?
What’s your favorite college sports team?
Ohio State Buckeyes
What’s your favorite professional sports team?
What’s your favorite pizza topping?
Who is your favorite singer?
What do you think about people searching online to find out if you’re real?
That’s kind of funny, actually, although I can understand why people might think Farmer Lee Jones is really a cartoon character.
How Lee Jones Became Farmer Lee Jones
Lee attended Huron High School, where he learned that he could write book reports and pass English tests by reading the Cliff Notes versions of books, rather than reading an entire book. “We thought we were really smart,” Lee said, “figuring out a way to get around reading actual books.”
But, one story grabbed hold of him and just wouldn’t let go: Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck. “I could picture families during the Great Depression losing their farms through foreclosure,” he said, “piling all of their belongings—along with Gram and Gramps, and the family dog—in one old jalopy.”
Although Grapes of Wrath was fictional, families really did experience horrific times as they lost farms in this era. “They just wanted to work,” Lee says, “to earn enough money to feed themselves. They weren’t looking for handouts. They were just looking for opportunities.”
Ranchers, Lee explains, sometimes took advantage of this ready supply of cheap farm labor. “People would line up in their old junkers,” he says, “once they heard there was work to be had. They might get paid fifty cents for a day’s work, but then staying at the camp might cost a quarter, and then they had to pay for their meals and shower water. In the end, they’d almost owe the rancher after putting in a full day of work.”
Lee then refers to the film version of Grapes of Wrath, one starring a young Henry Fonda. “One scene that always stuck with me,” Lee says, “is the square dance scene. The clothes of the workers were worn and torn, but they were clean. Clean overalls, clean white shirts and clean bow ties. Despite being down and out, financially, they maintained their pride and their dignity. They were still proud to be farmers.”
Lee admits to being torn about the use of the word “pride” in his own life. “It’s important,” he says, “to be proud about your profession, about being part of this important work, but it’s not okay to be prideful. The characters in Grapes of Wrath worked hard and stood up straight and were proud without being prideful.”
Inspiration from this book and film, then, especially the square dance scene, led to the development of the outfit he now wears as Farmer Lee Jones. “I feel as though I can represent all farmers, all of us who continue to do what do we as well as we can.”
These thoughts and philosophies didn’t spring fully formed, of course, from a young Lee. He first graduated from Huron High School in 1979 and The Ohio State University in 1984 before returning to the family farm in Huron. This is right about when the Jones’s family farm evolved into The Chef’s Garden.
Here’s the thing, guys. Lee is a humble person, no doubt. But, as a blog editor, it’s my job to highlight his accomplishments, and he sure doesn’t make it easy. For example, did you know that Lee was one of the first farmers to ever receive the James Beard Foundation Award for Who’s Who in Food & Beverage? Or that he was the first farmer to ever judge Iron Chef America on Food Network? Or that—oh, shoot. Lee’s coming, right when I had something else really cool to share. Never mind.
PS: Don’t tell Lee we added this section to the post.
PPS: If you don’t see this, then he found out and it’s now on the cutting room floor. In that case, please read this bio of Farmer Lee Jones.
Frequently Asked Questions About Farmer Lee’s Clothes
How many sets of overalls/shirts/red bow ties do you own?
Has the outfit evolved over the years?
It started out with a long red tie, yes, but the bowtie is what really pulls the look together.
Is it true that you have a red bow tie on your pajamas?
Next question, please.
Well, you know what people have been saying about your pa—
I can’t hear you! Next question, please.
Oh, all right. What do you wear to black tie events?
The same outfit, but with a nice sports coat over top.
Is there anything else you’d like to say about your wardrobe?
Life is a whole lot more convenient this way. Think about this. I’ll watch my wife, Mary, put on a blouse. Then she’ll need to change that blouse because it doesn’t match her bracelets. Then she changes it again because it doesn’t match her mood. Then, when she decides to change her shoes, she needs to change that dang blouse all over again. I don’t have to worry about that kind of stuff. Ever.
Farmer Lee Jones and Pop Culture
In October 2018, the following answer was part of the game of Jeopardy: Imposing Farmer Lee Jones promotes sustainability clad in red bow tie &, of course, this classic farmer's garment.
The answer was “Overalls.”
Lee didn’t know, ahead of time, that this was going to appear on Jeopardy. In fact, he’d been flying to Detroit when the show aired. When he got off the plane, though, he saw that someone had texted him, saying, “Dude, you were a Jeopardy question!”
“At first,” Lee said, “I thought I was being pranked. But then I realized that there were 20 messages telling me that, then 30 messages. As I was entering the parking garage elevator in Detroit, I was so excited about this that I started sharing the news with the strangers in that elevator.”
Here’s more pop culture news. At one time, Chipotle was giving out cards with a local farm theme—and, on those cards, Farmer Lee was in fact a cartoon character.
Plus, last Halloween, he went out to dinner at a local restaurant and he complimented the waitress on her costume. She, in turn, complimented his, thinking he was dressed up as Mario of Super Mario fame. “I just thanked her,” Lee says, “although it should be noted that I have in fact had my picture taken with a life-sized statue of Mario in New York.”
Looking to the Future
“What I want,” Lee says, “is to preserve the past as we move forward. So, I continue to collect agricultural information, brochures and equipment. I dream of someday having a working agricultural museum—one where, for example, kids might really be able to use a walking plow.”
Lee has plenty of equipment that he’s purchased from auctions and so forth, stored in the basement of a farm house. So, who knows?
He also gives this advice to young people who want to become farmers. “Follow your passion,” he says. “There are so many facets to farming that it just makes sense to find what, specifically, you’re most passionate about and then stay focused on that dream. Find a demand that needs fulfilled, then find a way to match that with your passion.” And, if you’re interested in a culinary career, he suggests that you first work in a restaurant, ideally one where you can have a mentor.
Editor’s Note: Speaking of mentoring, here’s when Lee appeared as a Five-Minute Mentor for Modern Farming. It contains a quote that the real Farmer Lee Jones says often, maybe even daily: “We’re trying to farm in harmony with nature, like our ancestors did, instead of trying to outsmart it.”
We hope you enjoyed reading Will the Real Farmer Lee Jones Please Stand Up? and that you’ll share it on your blog, with your friends, and more. Contact us at ** to interview Farmer Lee Jones for your publication.