When spring rolls around and the farm fields begin to show signs of life, farmer Lee Jones of the Chef’s Garden in Huron makes it a point to get out and walk among the rows of burgeoning rhubarb, one of the first crops to punch through the thawing ground on this 100-acre family farm. His stroll is a ritual as well as a reminder that he’s been entrusted with keeping a tradition.
As far back as the late 1930s, neighboring farmer Bill Frye was one of more than 300 vegetable growers in Huron County, all drawn here by the fertile, sandy earth—formerly lake bottom soil—the proximity to the Huron River and a microclimate enhanced by nearby Lake Erie. As a young man, Jones recalls Frye and his farm were “the best in the area.”
“I can remember visiting his farm and admiring how neat and orderly everything looked,” said Jones, “how the rows in the field were plowed arrow straight and the rhubarb plants stood tall like soldiers.” The words Frye used when talking about the vegetables he grew, filled with details about the specific varieties or stories behind them, impressed Jones who even then realized what Frye was doing was something more than just growing vegetables.
When he reached the end of his career around 1980, one that wrapped up at least three generations of family farming, Frye gifted the Jones family with some bare roots gleaned from his prized rhubarb patch, confident he was handing them to farmers who would care for and appreciate the plants as he had. That was 30 plants ago.
Today the Chef’s Garden cultivates and harvests close to 3,000 rhubarb plants, respectfully named Mr. Frye’s Rhubarb, that chefs around the country order by name for their spring menus. To hear Jones talk about the crimson stalks would confirm Frye’s decision to pass along his legacy to this innovative farming family.
“It’s the sweetest, most flavorful, succulent rhubarb I’ve ever tasted,” said Jones. “It comes on early, holds its color when cooked and our chef customers tell us that knowing the story behind Mr. Frye’s Rhubarb only adds to the depth of the experience in the kitchen,” he adds. “In turn, they share the story of Mr. Frye with customers, which enriches the dining experience.”
It might have been easier to plant rhubarb with a higher yield and more resistant to the disease and pests that Ohio’s wet springs bring, but Jones believes in the importance of holding onto and propagating old cultivars—heirloom and antique fruits and vegetables that preserve personal and culinary histories as well as genuine flavor.
“These are varieties that are pure in composition and most come from faraway places, arriving with the people who brought them here in order to share their culinary heritage for the next generation,” Jones said. Mr. Frye’s Rhubarb is the only rhubarb grown on the farm, unusual for a business that thrives on and is well known for the variety in the kinds of produce grown here. “It’s so good,” Jones adds, “that there really isn’t a need to look for anything better to grow.” O
The Chef’s Garden is a 100-acre farm and production facility in Huron County visited and patronized by some of the world’s most notable chefs who use their micro greens and herbs, heirloom vegetables, specialty lettuces and edible flowers—a world of boutique-style, premium quality produce—to feed and delight their customers. While the produce grown here is available to the public through online and home delivery, it’s a service subscribed to by a select audience.
“Not everyone will buy from The Chef’s Garden for their home kitchen,” admits farmer Lee Jones. However, he believes that the media attention, publicity and reputation the farm earns for adhering to rigid sustainable agricultural practices helps raise awareness of local foods and sustainable farming. “Even if people are buying elsewhere, they are looking for growers who think like we do,” Jones said. “More than anything we preach quality first and we share this thinking with the rest of the world. We think it helps keep every family farm in business.”
Marilou Suszko is a food writer from Vermilion. She is the author of Farms and Foods of Ohio: From Garden Gate to Dinner Plate and The Locavore’s Kitchen.
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