HAVE KALE, WILL TRAVEL

They are on their way now, by overnight express, nestled in tissue paper and custom-designed boxes, to any place where restaurant menus take more than a dozen words to describe a $14 salad. Peacock kale and baby red brussels sprouts, butterball turnips, bull's blood beets and all the greens, micro- and otherwise, plus 17 kinds of potatoes, in five sizes. From the unlikely neighborhood of Huron, Ohio, where it was 18 degrees last Friday, vegetables from Bob Jones's Chef's Garden are in the air, bound even for places like Los Angeles that are perfectly capable of growing their own salads, challenging the reigning orthodoxy formulated by the great advocate of fresh, seasonal, local produce, Berkeley, Calif., restaurateur Alice Waters. When Waters told NEWSWEEK that "we should try to eat from within a range of an hour or two from where we live," she meant by truck, not jet. The Jones family, farmers in northern Ohio for six generations, has created a model for the 21st-century market garden.

That wasn't the idea back in 1983 when Jones, now 64, went bankrupt after losing a crop on his 1,200 acres to hail. He started over on six acres belonging to his son, Lee, growing vegetables for the local farmers' markets. A chef's offer to buy squash blossoms at 50 cents apiece ("She's crazy, nobody eats flowers," was Bob's initial reaction) got him thinking about growing arugula and radicchio, around the same time that customers in fancy New York restaurants were learning how to eat them. He uses no pesticides and only vegetable compost and cover crops to fertilize the rich sandy loam. Greenhouses and cold frames extend the growing season almost year-round. "They're on every menu I do, no matter what season," says San Francisco chef Michael Mina. "I order micro everything: tiny white asparagus, tiny marbled fingerling potatoes, all impeccable, and the flavor is incredible."

By selling only to high-end chefs--their phone number is unlisted--the Joneses have freed themselves from the tyranny of shelf life. Grocers want "a tomato you can drop from a skyscraper," says Bob. "Ours would go splat before it hit the ground." Their staff of 90, which hand-picks to order, can have one of their 85 varieties of tomatoes on a plate in Las Vegas in 24 hours--and a good thing, because some of them last only two days off the vine. Bob believes his vegetables are so tasty even fourth graders will eat them, which he hopes to demonstrate in a pilot program of gardening, cooking and tasting in local schools--a concept pioneered by Waters's Edible Schoolyard project. "It took a long time to ruin the soil in this country," Bob says, "but if you farm right, you put the nutrients back in the land, you get a better vegetable, and you get a healthier kid." And someday that kid might grow up and order a $14 salad.

HAVE KALE, WILL TRAVEL | News