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   Pundit's Mailbag - Farmer Lee Jones As Keynote Speaker Of IDEATION FRESH Foodservice Forum A "Most Interesting Strategy"
by Jim Prevor, Jim Prevor’s Perishable Pundit
Posted: Saturday, November 5, 2011 at 9:37AM EDT

Our piece, Farmer Lee Jones To Keynote IDEATION FRESH Foodservice Forum At The New York Produce Show And Conference, brought some divergent responses:

It is gratifying to me that The New York Produce Show and Conference is placing more emphasis on foodservice this year.  I applaud their efforts in recognizing the important contribution foodservice makes to the produce industry. 

Many of the most significant trends and ideas in produce start out in the kitchens of our finest restaurants.  They slowly filter down to a broader base of restaurants, then to specialty retailers and eventually to the mainstream supermarkets.  By this time, of course, the fine dining restaurants have moved on to the next latest concepts in produce. 

If you want to see the future of produce, it is happening right now, in some way in these avant-garde white table cloth establishments. It may not be easy to pick out the next big thing, but it is there to be sure, among the delicious, beautifully plated, imaginative creations coming out of these high-end kitchens. Spring mix lettuce, baby vegetables, heirloom vegetables, endive, and specialty produce of all sorts for the most part came through this evolutionary process. 

To have Lee Jones as a Keynote Speaker is a most interesting strategy for this year’s event. Mr. Jones, in his trademarked red bowtie and overalls, is part farmer, part marketing genius, and the success of The Chef’s Garden is truly remarkable. His operation is about as far afield from the majority of the New York Produce Show participants as one can get, and it’s a good bet that most of the audience is not familiar with his farm.  That is part of what makes him unique and why it promises to be a most interesting presentation like no other keynote you’ll hear at an industry event. By the way, the red bowtie and overalls really are trademarked.

Most of us should be in awe of The Chef’s Garden.  Marketing their products directly to only the top one thousand or so restaurants in the country and the world, they have created an amazing offering of unique specialty items, some of which most farmers have never even heard of.  Their message is current and relevant to the themes and trends found in the very finest restaurants. They are skilled marketers whose strategies are sophisticated and highly effective.  They are able to command top dollar for what they grow and never sell on price.  Instead, they sell their story.  It is a focused, well-honed message that resonates with today’s chefs and foodies.

Many of us have suffered through adversity. To hear the way they have come back from failure of their family farm is the kind of story that is filled with hope and perseverance, which we all appreciate.  Mr. Jones’ story is an integral part of their marketing strategy and is told in nearly every interview and article he does.  It sets the foundation and theme for his overall message; humble beginnings, wholesome products, passionate about quality, and service. 

Theirs is a dynamic operation that can produce highly specialized crops year ‘round. By utilizing climate-controlled greenhouses, they can even produce throughout the harsh winters of Northern Ohio. They are excellent growers and their products are top-notch quality. Spoiled by our mild year ‘round growing climate here in San Diego, as a grower, I am amazed at what they produce there. 

It is truly a remarkable feat considering their location; about 250 miles due east of Chicago, less than 10 miles from the Canadian border, near the shores of Lake Erie; the only one of the great lakes that freezes over in the winter. Finding a way to turn the repeated freezing of the soil into a method to market his root vegetables is very inspirational indeed.

Although Mr. Jones is a competitor to my farm; Fresh Origins, he is the kind of competitor we want. We have plenty of the kind that sells only on price, not on quality. These low-priced growers devalue what we do and bring no real contribution to the table. People like Mr. Jones elevate our industry with their ingenuity.

His presentation promises to be unique. His message may inspire more growers to specialize as he has done in niche products.  He will no doubt challenge the listeners to find ways to better connect with the end-user of the products as he has done.  He will probably encourage the audience to sell the story to get top dollar, to cultivate a unique position apart from the rest, to add value. 

His views are from a different vantage point than most, and I would encourage everyone to take the opportunity to hear and learn from what he has to say. 

—David Sasuga
President
Fresh Origins LLC
San Marcos, California

David’s point is well taken. Firms that manage to compete by adding value do much to elevate the trade. We also confess that we find these kinds of products extraordinary and very special. We enjoy looking at them, learning about them and eating them very much.

We would even say that to use David’s phrase, we find ourselves “in awe” of the people and the products.

Yet we add a little caveat, which is that we are also in awe of Wal-Mart and Aldi and Wegmans and Costco and many others. By this, we mean that, though it is absolutely amazing that Farmer Lee Jones can freeze and thaw a vegetable 69 times and in so doing raise sugar levels to create new peak flavor experience or that he can offer a one-inch cucumber with the blossom still attached, and we would relish the chance to enjoy these things, we also think it amazing and laudable that Wal-Mart can provide an economical source of food for so many.

We are very much looking forward to hearing Farmer Lee Jones. Beyond his story, though, we want to think it out and see how the beauty he has created can be painted on a larger canvas.

Another reader was more skeptical about Farmer Lee Jones:

I really enjoy reading your insight into the fresh produce business and generally agree with your points (or at least understand your reasoning behind the points you make).  With that in mind, I was very surprised that you let two statements be made by Farmer Lee Jones without questioning them. 

In the interview he stated, “Still, the Census report came out, and family farms are no longer represented; they’re in the “other” category at less than one percent. I’ve been relegated to “other”.” 

I’m not sure what Census he’s referring to, but the USDA Census still has a classification for family farms and they make up a significant majority of the farms in the U.S. Generally it is estimated that 97 percent of farms and ranches are family-owned; this includes family-held corporations and partnerships.  Farms held by families and individuals as categorized in the Census make up 86 percent of U.S. farms and ranches. 

The second point was even more surprising.  “Ninety percent of food consumed in the U.S. is produced in third-world countries with labor at prices like $1.35 a day.” There’s no way that I could believe that 90 percent of the food we consume comes from imports, so I checked out USDA’s figures on production and consumption and came up with a back-of-the envelope figure of 27 percent of the food consumed (or technically available for consumption) is imported. 

I can’t comment on the labor prices, but if Mr. Jones is that far off on his consumption figures, what else is he misrepresenting?   

Keep up the good work, and don’t let people get away with making unsubstantiated statements.

Noelle G. Cremers
Director, Natural Resources and Commodities
California Farm Bureau Federation
Sacramento, California

We thank Noelle for her kind words and appreciate her elucidating the facts, although we don’t think Farmer Lee Jones intended any deception.

The Census report he was referring to is not the USDA Census but the actual national Census called for in the Constitution. There he is correct, although there are various agricultural worker categories; there is none for “family farmer” or anything similar.

Sometimes in writing, the flavor of a speaker is lost and we don’t think Farmer Lee Jones was being literal. He was using a little hyperbole. It is, however, interesting to note, though, that the actual imported food percentage isn’t that high. Best estimates are that roughly 15% of US foods are imported by volume and 7% based on value — though the percentage has been increasing.

In any case, it is asking these kinds of questions and thinking these kinds of issues through that is what IDEATION is all about.

So we hope that both David and Noelle will find their way to New York City and to the Ideation Fresh Foodservice Forum  and the broader New York Produce Show and Conference.

You can see the incredible IDEATION FRESH Foodservice Forum program here.

If you would like to register, please send us an e-mail here.

Hotel rooms are available here.

And travel discounts are available here.

Source: Jim Prevor’s Perishable Pundit


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