My dad has a saying that, at The Chef’s Garden, “All we’re trying to do is get as good as the farmers were a hundred years ago.” Those aren’t just clever words. They’re the words we live by day in and day out. It’s more than just a philosophy. It’s a creed ─ a guiding principle that keeps us focused on who we are and why we remain dedicated to growing vegetables in ways that run counter to modern farming culture.
So what were farmers doing a hundred years ago that makes them worth emulating?
A hundred years ago, farmers collected the fruits of the season at the peak of perfection. Seasonal eating was not something they had to be reminded of or encouraged to consider. It was the only option they had. They trusted Mother Nature to provide the necessary ingredients for their meals, whatever the time of year.
At the farm, we are a hundred percent in support of seasonal eating. We don’t try to grow summer crops in the winter, or vice-versa. It seems wrong somehow, like a violation of the core, fundamental rules of nature. Sure we can grow some things year round in our greenhouses. But tomatoes? Only in the summer. Asparagus? Only in the spring. Fall squash? Heck, that one is in the name! Mother Nature is the perfect menu planner, and we’re tickled pink when chefs wholeheartedly share our mindset. It’s a joy to supply them with the ingredients they need as they transition their menus through the seasons.
Another thing my dad often says is that “the best fertilizer is the footprints of the grower.” A hundred years ago, farming was about as low-tech as it gets. Farmers planted and harvested their fields by hand. They walked the rows, leaving footprints as they went along.
Drive past our fields or stroll through our greenhouses on any given day and you’ll see our dedicated field teams at work. Their feet are in the soil and they harvest with their hands ─ pulling carrots, plucking tomatoes, digging potatoes, picking edible flowers and filling trusty green bins with their treasures.
A hundred years ago, farmers tilled their land with horse-drawn plows. They worked with hand tools like shovels, hoes and rakes. It was time-consuming, inefficient work. When the earliest tractors finally came onto the scene around 1919, they were small and slow, and relatively light by today’s standards. But, back then, farmers weren’t doing the kind of field work that required giant tractors. Their needs were well-served by small, affordable, general-purpose machines.
We maintain a fleet of vintage tractors on the farm that perfectly suit our needs. Like our ancestors, we prefer the smaller, slower machines, and for similar reasons. Their narrower tires fit better between the rows in our smaller-scale fields, and their lighter weight won’t over-compress our precious soil. Our tractors aren’t bright and shiny, by any means. They’re weathered and worn witnesses to the history of our land. They’ve seen our successes and our struggles. They often move at a snail’s pace, opening the soil a few feet ahead of our field teams who follow close behind, gently tucking tiny plants into the fresh seams. It’s time consuming, inefficient work. But slowly and gently is how we do things at The Chef’s Garden, and we’ll never compromise on that.
A hundred years ago, farmers grew vegetables in vast variety, from seeds they’d saved, nurtured, and handed down for generations. The quality of those precious seeds was directly linked to the quality of the vegetables. Over time, these precious “heirlooms” developed superior qualities of flavor, robustness and resilience.
Today, large-scale farmers shy away from heirlooms. Their focus is on genetically modified hybrids bred for disease resistance, massive yields, and the stamina to withstand shipping across the country and around the world. Qualities like flavor, nutrition and variety are being sacrificed in the name of quantity.
At The Chef’s Garden, we have always prided ourselves on the staggering variety of fresh vegetables, herbs, microgreens, edible flowers and leaves that we offer our chefs. And many of our varieties are the products of seeds that we’ve selected, saved and relied on for nearly 35 years. Particular favorites like Mr. Frye’s Rhubarb reach back for generations, and we like to think that every stalk is flavored with the story of a gentle, generous farmer who shared his heritage with us, so we can share it with our chefs.
A hundred years ago, farmers planted cover crops to encourage and maintain the health and productivity of their soil. Little did they know that things like cover crops and rotation would someday be linked to a highfalutin’ word like “biodiversity.” They just used the good sense God gave them and nurtured their soil so it would sustain them into the future and produce the best tasting fresh vegetables.
As modern industrial farming practices continue to deplete soil nutrients, and chemical applications destroy life-giving organic matter, regenerative farming practices are no longer the norm.
They are for us, though.
We choose to look back as we move forward, but that doesn’t mean we’re ignoring the future. With modern science and on-farm research, we’re gleaning all of the knowledge we can to keep a good thing going.
(Speaking of sustainability, our forebears were even up to snuff on renewable energy. A hundred years ago, many farmers heated their homes and cooked their food by burning stripped, discarded corn cobs as fuel. We do the same thing by heating our largest greenhouse during the winter with warmth generated by a biofuel burner fed by ─ you guessed it ─ spent corn cobs from a neighboring popcorn farm.)
Lastly, as we look back through the generations, farmers who suffered hardships were characterized by their tenacity to fight through the tough times. When disaster struck, they found a way to survive, rebuilding from the ground up if that’s what it took.
The Chef’s Garden wouldn’t exist if not for our family’s grit and will to pull ourselves up by the bootstraps after losing our farm in a devastating hail storm. That day would claim everything we had ─ except for our will to find a way to begin again.
We started this farm focused on serving the culinary leaders in the industry. It is our pleasure and our privilege to be your farmer, and we’re proud to have you in The Chef’s Garden family.