As the “plant forward” movement gains momentum, putting vegetables front and center is heightening the demand for high-quality, earth-grown, farm-fresh ingredients. And, with fresh vegetables cast in the starring role, they have to satisfy customers’ palates, and also their appetite for sustainably farmed, responsibly sourced, highly nutritious, flavorful food.
“There are so many choices today,” said The Chef’s Garden’s Farmer Lee Jones. “And I think people are understanding what quality is, and respecting it and appreciating it and paying for it and demanding it. And I think chefs are hearing that.”
“Food enthusiasts, people who are going out to eat, are more savvy, more in tune, more aware, more conscientious of food sources than ever before,” he continued. “There are more farmer’s markets than at any time in the history of the United States. More vegetable seeds were sold last year than at any time in U.S. history. It’s exciting to see. People are getting it that we need to be more plant forward.”
As reliance on commercially grown produce and produce grown outside the U.S. gobbles up more than its fair share of the marketplace, Farmer Lee said small farms like The Chef’s Garden are more essential than ever.
“We don’t produce anything in America anymore, because we can do it so much cheaper someplace else, so small family farms are kind of like that last vestige of hope that we can produce something of quality and value and integrity, and to know that there’s a conscientious team of people who are attempting to grow it in an almost spiritual, holistic, healthy, meaningful way,” he said.
At The Chef’s Garden, rather than focusing on high yield, the goal has always been to grow a wide variety of superior quality, unique, specialty vegetables grown using regenerative farming practices that enrich the land rather than depleting its nutrients.
“It really is like a garden,” said Bob Jones, Jr., the Farm Manager. “The largest planting of any one crop is a quarter of an acre as opposed to 500 acres.”
Farmer Lee likes to use the phrase “products with purpose.”
“It’s about growing with a purpose,” he said. “What’s the purpose? Why? I’ve been seeing that more and more, and I’ve been talking about that.”
The Chef’s Garden’s “why” is in the stories and the people behind the final product according to Farmer Lee. More and more customers are placing higher value on the compelling stories about where their food grows, and who grows it. He said that sharing those food source stories can make a difference in a chef’s bottom line.
“If the mentality is to push the price down as far as they can and squeeze all the blood out of a turnip, it’s no fun for anybody,” he said. “It’s no fun for the vendor, it’s no fun for the food and beverage person. There’s only so far down you can go and something gets compromised - quality of life, quality of product.”
“Where the real opportunity is, then, is instead of paying two dollars on your food costs, pay three dollars. You can tell people where the product came from, that there’s a conscientious group of people, a team of growers on a farm in the United States producing this, growing it in a regenerative fashion.”
“I think people underestimate what the end user recognizes as quality, and that they’re willing to pay a little bit more to have it. That’s why storytelling is so important. It’s important for us, but it’s also important for us to give chefs stories that they can tell.”
Farming according to the flow of nature’s seasons is another surefire way to grow the best quality, farm-fresh vegetables, according to Farmer Lee.
“There’s a natural rhythm to food,” he said. “And, if you listen to your body, there are times your body will tell you that it needs certain foods. You need beets, you need kale. I think there’s an emerging group of people who are really listening to their bodies. It’ll tell you that you need iron. It’ll tell you that you need calcium. I almost think it’s in our DNA. If you listen to Mother Nature, she’ll tell you what to put on the menu. When it’s in season, celebrate it. When it’s out of season, move onto the next thing.”
Philosophies, strategies, stories and economical logic aside, Farmer Lee said if the vegetables doesn’t taste good and people don’t eat it, quality becomes irrelevant.
“I don’t think we can ever talk about the importance of flavor enough,” he said. “Flavor and quality go hand in hand. Flavor is the single most important thing that we do. It can be nutrient rich, it can be nutrient dense, it can be healthy, but if it doesn’t taste good … how do you get a kid to eat a vegetable? For it to taste good. How do you get an adult to eat a vegetable? For it to taste good. All the other things don’t matter because they’re not going to eat it if it doesn’t taste good.”
“I’ve heard adults say ‘I don’t do beets,’” he continued. “Maybe they had a beet when they were a kid. Remember those huge jars of pickled beets on the store counter? They’re nasty. I’ve had people eat a fresh beet that has flavor, and it’s almost like an awakening. They’re literally in tears because they’re like ‘oh my god, I didn’t realize what I was missing.’”
“For us on the farm, we’re never going to do it cheaper and we’re never going to do it extremely efficiently,” he said. “There’s a misconception that they can’t afford to use it, and I think that it’s almost exactly the opposite of that. They can’t afford not to.”