Lee Jones is a farmer in Huron, Ohio. He is also a devotee of John Steinbeck, whose Depression-era masterpiece “Grapes of Wrath” sang to him of lands that robbed him of value and people who stole homes and livelihoods.
Today, Jones and his 400-acre “Chef’s Garden” farm and state-of-the-art cooking school on the shores of Lake Erie are the toast of Michelin-starred chefs. But about 40 years ago, when they were just 20 years old, the Jones family experienced how the climate and the economy can destroy a business. In 1983, hundreds of acres of fresh Jones Farm vegetables were crushed in an unprecedented hailstorm. The avalanche of debt that followed at 22 percent interest rates choked the business almost to death. The bank took their house and land and they moved into a 150 year old house with a leaking roof and curtained doors. They rebuilt their growing acreage on small rental parcels, selling goods from the back of farm trucks and station wagons. Farm life is tough, but this was next level.
It was at that point that Lee Jones learned firsthand how ravages of climate, poor agricultural practices, relentless monoculture—in this case, cotton crops—and systemic economic depression made life hell on the prairies of his decade. 1930 in America.
“The crust of rain broke, and the dust rose from the fields and drove gray plumes into the air like sluggish smoke. . . . The finest dust settled not on the earth now, but vanished into the blackened sky.” John Steinbeck, 1939, Grapes of Wrath.
The Dust Bowl with its terrible droughts, the black storms that blind not rain but mock the dry dusty soil is almost a hundred years in the mirror. Ultimately, the history of American agriculture was reset through the aggressive New Deal conservation and agriculture programs of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who famously told American governors in 1937, “the nation that destroys its soil is destroyed.” Also useful, a changing climate cycle.
What gives us hope about nature is that there are cycles. And what makes us afraid of nature is that there are cycles. And while science, machinery and now agricultural technology have soared in the 21st centurySt century, so is the brutal environmental reality. These are the challenges of planet earth in 2022. The vise of predatory agricultural practices, climate change, a deadly pandemic, inflation and war has gripped hundreds of millions of people on the planet.
That’s why agriculture is front and center at this juncture in history and the degraded state of soils worldwide shares the stage as political leaders, environment ministers, advocates and climate-focused organizations of all kinds gather in Egypt for the summit of the COP27 summit.
The United Nations World Food Program (WFP) and the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) report that the world is facing the biggest crisis in modern history, with 50 million people on the brink of starvation.
World organizations agree that feeding the hungry is a shared moral responsibility of wealthy nations. At the same time, these nations face the reckoning of climate extremes and the radical depletion of soil quality, says Ronald Vargas, Secretary of FAO’s Global Soils Partnership.
When governments and activists talk about environmental quality, Vargas observes, they are referring to air quality and water quality. But they will rarely include soil quality or soil health. However, he says, “the interface between air and water is soils. With the Dust Bowl, for example, soil rose into the atmosphere. If your soil is contaminated with heavy metals or pesticide residues or other materials, these pollutants will also be found in the air. And the quality of the water depends on the soils.”
Today, exacerbating an already bad situation is the onslaught of Covid19-era plastics for a host of health equipment. At the same time, the food packaging that has kept restaurants alive has kept microplastics from seeping into the atmosphere. “These pollutants are everywhere,” Vargas says. “Where do masks and packaging end up? In the soil. And in many countries, waste management is not adequate. These microplastic particles go into the soil, from there into the air, and then into the water. “
Sustainable farming practices that give, rather than take away from the soil, are in high demand, Vargas says. And the question, will there be enough calories to consume? is very different from the question: will there be enough healthy food to eat?
What’s on the ground is the difference between boom and bust for Lee Jones, a supplier
top quality vegetables to the best restaurants and now to consumers online. Emerging from the near-destruction of their farming business nearly four decades ago, the Jones family learned there was an opportunity to do better by nature, and therefore better by consumers. Since then, Jones has hired a staff of farmers, packers, managers, scientists and a resident chef to tend his crops. He has cultivated a network of discerning chefs who have inspired him to develop unique,
regeneratively grown produce: golden squash blossoms, miniature zucchini, delicate multi-colored carrots, tomatoes and cucumbers in a myriad of colors, sizes and flavors, cauliflowers, lettuces and root vegetables in a rainbow of colors and more.
“The farmer’s goal is to leave the land in better shape for future generations,” says Jones. “We’ve added to it. We believe that a farm should have healthy soil, grow healthy food, feed healthy people, in a healthy environment. My dad had a saying, “We’re just trying to be as good at what we do as the growers were a hundred years ago.”
The Chef’s Garden fields are fertilized through strips of clover and other small growth, placed between rows of plants, drawing nutrients from the sun and pulling them into the soil for the largest harvest. Composted plants and grasses protect the base of the plants along each row. And the pace of cultivation is oriented towards the restoration of soils, as opposed to the ravages of big business monoculture.
On his 400-acre farm, Jones keeps 200 acres planted with undemanding crops to harvest the sun’s energy. The other half is getting the crops to market. The two sections alternate each year. Jones won’t say his products are organic, strictly speaking, because – even though chemical fertilizers and pesticides are avoided at the greatest cost – if a chemical can save a crop, it will be used.
In his signature everyday outfit of blue overalls, white Oxford shirt and red bow tie, Lee Jones expresses his solidarity with the farmers who struggle and endure, and salutes those who have gone before, like the workers Steinbeck depicts in “Grapes of Wrath.”
Jones knows he’s just a farmer working a few hundred acres on a planet where only 38 percent of the land is arable. For him, it is “one step” in the common human agricultural “journey of a thousand miles”, but it is worth the passion.