For more than 35 years, the Chef’s Garden
in Huron has been the supplier to the stars in terms of specialty produce, with the farm’s in-demand products bound for temples of gastronomy around the globe. But as a garden for chefs, Chef’s Garden's goods have largely been out of reach for the general public.
“The chefs were extremely demanding,” owner and farmer Lee Jones says of the decades-long policy. “And as the old saying goes, you can’t be all things to all people, so we focused on them.”
But nobody knows better than a farmer that you have to roll with the punches. So when the pandemic washed across the country, taking out all of the restaurants in its path, the Chef’s Garden had to find a new market for its inventory in order to survive. It began offering produce directly to the public on a regular basis for the first time.
“We knew that we had to pivot and it seemed like it was the right thing to do to make the product available to folks,” explains Jones. “We knew that we could provide a food-safe, quality and nutritious product to them at an affordable value – direct from the back door of our farm to the front door of somebody’s apartment or condo or wherever.”
At the time, the bulk of the items were late-winter crops, originally planted and earmarked for wholesale restaurant clients. But gradually, changes were and are being made to the planting mix to move away from specialty items like microgreens and edible flowers to consumer-friendly crops like corn, peppers, eggplant, melons and tomatoes.
“It takes months and it takes cost, but we’ve been slowly changing the mix to what we believe the demand is at this moment,” reports Jones. “We planted sweet corn for the first time in 35 years.”
Shoppers can select from a variety of produce boxes on the farm’s website
, with themes like Best of the Season, Summer Vegetables or Tomatoes. When customers began asking if they could save on shipping costs by picking up their boxes at the farm, another pivot idea was hatched.
“We dragged the old farm stand out from the weeds, power washed it, patched the old boards, gave it a new paint job and it looks brand new,” says Jones.
Now, when people stop by to pick up their boxes (thus saving themselves the $9 shipping fee), they can also visit the farm stand. As can the general public. On offer will be seasonal produce like greens, beans, peas, rhubarb, tomatoes, peaches, melons, sweet corn and herb bouquets. Most items will be coming from the 350-acre farm, but seasonal produce from other sources will be added to the mix. Of course, there will be squash blossoms too, the niche product that spurred the farm’s initial pivot from commodity grower to specialty-produce provider.
“It’s back to our roots,” says Jones. “Here we are 37 years later and we’re back to selling direct and I couldn’t be more happy about it.”
Ever the optimist, Farmer Lee says that despite being mired in a depressing reality, there is some good news beginning to sprout beneath our feet.
“Nobody would have wished this on 2020, nobody,” he says. “But I think out of ashes of this or anything that’s totally devastating, new things will come about. I’m excited to hear that there will be more gardens planted this year than in the history of the United States. Kids follow what their parents do and if the parents are invested in doing a garden, then guess what, the kids are going to be out there gardening too. We are creating a generation of new gardeners that will be gardeners for a lifetime and that’s a wonderful thing. We have to be optimistic that some good will come out of this.”