Roots 2014: Lee Jones On Keeping America Close To Its Food

The second annual Roots Conference will take place this weekend, October 19 and 20, at The Culinary Vegetable Institute in Milan, Ohio.

The symposium will cover a wide array of important food topics, from the preservation of the relationship between farmers and consumers to issues of food security and politics, to the value of seed systems and how modern technology protects ancient food traditions, and much more.

Speakers at the conference will include keynote speaker José Andrés, modernist cuisine proponent Maxime Bilet, culinary scientist Ali Bouzari, and many others. Food Network's Ted Allen will serve as the conference's master of ceremonies. 

In advance of the conference, The Daily Meal spoke with Farmer Lee Jones, the dedicated James Beard Award winner and one of The Daily Meal's own "Coolest People in Food and Drink," whose leadership at The Chef's Garden in Huron, Ohio has been invaluable to the sustainable agriculture movement.

Farmer Jones will serve as the host of the Roots Conference 2014, the theme of which will be "Connect and Unite Through Food." 

What do you think are America's most important food traditions that should be restored and preserved?

The most important food tradition should be to eat food as close to its original condition as possible. When I say eating a vegetable as close to its original condition as possible, that means zero processing. It's amazing the amount of the American diet which comes from processed foods. There is no processing that can improve upon the original fresh quality of a vegetable. When it is freshly picked it has the maximum nutrients, taste, and total quality that it could ever have. Even the best processing can do nothing to improve the quality; it only decreases it in varying degrees. It is impossible to improve on a fresh vegetable.

Food should come directly from the grower. Any intermediate step in the food chain has the potential to lessen the quality of food products. The ideal scenario would be food going directly from the grower to the end user.

For example, food from Central America goes through several steps including brokers, food service providers, and often many other steps to reach the end user. This method of delivery has the potential to degrade the quality or contaminate the product.

When we lose contact with when or how a product was grown, we have no idea what was done to it. This could include: chemicals applied, temperature fluctuations, contamination from outside sources, and the time lapse between growing and consumption. How a vegetable is cared for has a great deal to do with its preservation in its original condition. The grower's knowledge of how to maintain a vegetable in its prime condition is a critically important part of maintaining quality. There are so many things that can happen, even when you consider a local vegetable that can greatly deteriorate the quality. It all comes down to temperature control, freedom from contamination from any source and getting the product to the end user as quickly as possible.

Why are seed systems important?

"Seed system" is a very broad and all-inclusive term. It has to be broken down into individual parts to truly understand the quality effects of seeds. The criteria used for selecting seeds is a beginning point. The criteria used depends on the purpose of the individuals setting the criteria. For instance, when my great-great-great grandfather saved seed, his main criterion was "how does it taste?" Who would want to save a vegetable that didn't taste good if you were growing it for yourself? We feel that should still be the main criterion and a great percentage of the criteria used to select a seed. Next are the qualities that seed has and the way it's grown. As in all kinds of growing, there are good growers and there are beggars. These growers also have different criteria. If they're growing for the highest yield, they may use one set of criteria. If they're growing for the highest quality and purity they would use another set of criteria.

How the seed is taken care of as it's harvested and as it is stored has a great deal to do with the end quality. A seed has the maximum potential it can ever have when it's originally grown. Seed quality deteriorates each time a person touches it. How much it deteriorates depends on the care given at each step.

If all seeds were perfect there would be no need for further steps, but unfortunately that's not always the case. When we as growers get seeds, whether we grow it ourselves or purchase it from a professional, it has to go through several checks before it is planted. The first of those steps is to check the actual germination under specified conditions in the lab. If that germination isn't up to standard, then it has to be cleaned and sorted by specific gravity, and retested. It makes absolutely no sense to plant a seed that will not grow. We have found that the seeds we grow ourselves are much more adaptable and produce a better quality plant than seeds grown in another location.

Without the highest quality seed it is impossible to grow high-quality vegetables.

How do we get more people to care about sustainably raised foods without it feeling like a class distinction?

We can't do it alone. It is happening now and will continue to do so through many people arriving at the same conclusion over time, that conclusion being that healthy food is fresh and unprocessed food obtained directly from the grower. We will never be able to force people to make that change. The American people are very independent and for the most part they want to make decisions based on the facts. Fortunately, the fact that fresh and unprocessed foods are healthiest is becoming common knowledge from a wide variety of sources including: nutritionists, the medical field and people willing to make healthier choices. Today people are beginning to see what a difference eating fresh can make. And this awakening is not coming from any single class; it is coming from a broad base of people that are making sound decisions based on facts about their life. Our part in that is to educate when we can but most importantly to continue to grow the very best, healthiest, and best tasting vegetables possible.

What significant changes, good or bad, have you seen in the attitudes toward the preservation of agriculture, farming resources, and climate change awareness have you seen in your lifetime?

My father, my grandfathers, and their grandfathers knew a totally different kind of agriculture than we face today. They knew a farming system without chemicals, a system where you produced your own nutrients and brought very little onto the farm from the outside world. They were participants in sustainable agriculture before anyone heard of the term. They grew their own seeds, produced their own nutrients, and to a great extent used their own crops. Storage and processing as we know it was nonexistent.

My father has seen the change from that basic production agriculture to a chemically based, commercial operation, based almost entirely on off-farm inputs. Now, in modern commercial agriculture, all of the seed, nutrients, and inputs are brought in from off the farm. On the other end of the spectrum, almost the entire output of the farm goes to some form of processor. This was brought about by many changes including government policy, the money to be made from chemical inputs by those producing them and the necessity for the farmer to become more and more efficient at producing cheaper food for a growing world. These farmers have become the most efficient and productive ever known. That does not mean that this method of farming is the best for the world.

I, fortunately, have seen a tremendous turn in agriculture in America. Although still in its infancy it is a turn toward the original agriculture in which my ancestors participated. Our goal is to get back to the system of my ancestors, where we produce the greatest possible share of the inputs needed on the farm. This is not an easy path and at times not the most economical, but what it does do is to allow us to produce the safest, healthiest and best tasting vegetables possible. This is a continuing path, learning this method of agriculture over again does not come quickly or easily. But it is the right thing to do. We are making progress day by day, year by year, toward that goal. Just as our ancestors never attained the ideal, we probably won't either, but we do intend to continue making progress toward that goal.

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Karen Lo is an associate editor at The Daily Meal. Follow her on Twitter @appleplexy.