Every so often, Peconic farmer Fred Lee is approached by someone who wants to know how he had the foresight to convert his farm to organic more than a decade ago.
The move, which saw the farm become certified organic in 2007 but began several years earlier, came just ahead of a dramatic shift in more consumers seeking healthier, organically farmed produce.
“Some people say, ‘Wow you really switched at the right time. You’re a marketing genius,’ ” Mr. Lee said.
But the transition, he added, was more fortuitous than clairvoyant and more a personal decision than one dictated by market trends.
“The reality is that the kids were little and I was the primary pesticide applicator,” he recalled. “So I would spray the field and we’d come back after the time limit was up for days to harvest and we’d be harvesting, but sometimes [our three] kids would come and they’d be playing in the field. I thought there’s gotta be a better way to grow the vegetables.”
Fast forward a dozen years and Sang Lee Farms is among the more successful, well-respected organic farms in the region. Earlier this month, Fred and his wife, Karen, were awarded the Northeast Organic Farming Association of New York’s Farmers of the Year award. Presented at the chapter’s annual conference in Saratoga Springs, the Lees were also invited to deliver a keynote address, where they talked about how they shifted from a more traditional wholesale farm growing Asian vegetables to one that now produces more than 100 varieties of organic produce it sells at its farm stand, farmers markets and through a robust Community Supported Agriculture program.
They grow all their products using naturally occurring applications for pest control and they must submit an annual plan for crop rotation through NOFA. The weeding on their more than 100 acres of farmland is done mostly by hand.
“It’s just a personal commitment to what we felt was right,” Ms. Lee said of the farm’s shift to organic growing practices.
The history of Sang Lee Farms dates back to 1948, when Fred’s father, George, launched the business in Melville along with his brother, John, and a cousin.
For its first 40-plus years, the farm’s focus was on growing Asian vegetable varieties for the Chinatown markets.
“We were conventional truck farmers selling wholesale mostly to the New York City-Chinatown area and then branching out to other metropolitan Chinatown areas,” Fred Lee said. Eventually the Lees serviced Asian markets up and down the East Coast from Miami to Montreal.
The organic farm in Peconic is actually the third property the family has farmed, having moved to East Moriches in 1963 and the current location on Route 48 in 1987.
For Fred Lee, the family business wasn’t something he always set out to operate. He initially envisioned a career in finance and was studying for his master’s degree in business at Boston University when his father fell ill in 1980. He began to seek counsel in his future wife, a nurse who was also studying for her MBA at BU.
“That’s how we became close,” Ms. Lee recalled of that difficult period in her husband’s life. “His father died a few months later.”
The only son in his family, Mr. Lee felt the right thing to do was to return home and sort through business affairs for his grieving mother. He asked Karen to come with him.
“I had no idea what I was signing up for,” the Boston native recalled, citing the lack of street lighting and sidewalks on the East End among the reasons she experienced major culture shock when she began living life on the farm.
Nearly four decades later, the Lees have navigated through several more transitions. First came a shift in the Chinatown markets as competition flooded the market in the 1990s. The niche Sang Lee Farms once held was being overtaken by farms from south and north of the U.S. border, Mr. Lee said, and large-scale U.S. purveyors who, recognizing the growing popularity of Chinese vegetables, also now served as competitors.
“It became a price war basically,” Ms. Lee said.
And so the Lees spent the next decade shifting from a wholesale to a retail farm. In 2002, they stopped wholesaling altogether.
Asian vegetables now mark a small percentage of the crops the Lees grow, though they do help set Sang Lee Farms apart a bit from other area farm stand offerings.
For Mr. Lee the shift away from the Chinese markets meant learning how to grow vegetables he’d never worked with before. And the couple had no experience with farm stands. The new business plan was loaded with uncertainty.
“We had no master plan,” Ms. Lee said. “Just giving the customers what they wanted.”
The reward, it would turn out, far outweighed the risk as their gradual shift to a farm stand came with many success stories that have led them to expand their offerings.
Take, for example, the dressings they sell. That came from Ms. Lee being asked by customers for dressing recommendations to put on Sang Lee Farms salad mixes.
“I would give people recipe cards and I’d see a glazed look on their faces,” Ms. Lee said. “I said, ‘Fred, I need to start making dressings because I don’t want people to put junk on this stuff.”
They now also offer dips, fermented products, a cider tonic and more through their commercial kitchen. They also host nutritional classes in the kitchen and a young farmers camp that has introduced a generation of North Forkers to organic produce and the hard work that goes into growing it.
For the Lees, who now operate the farm with their son Will (their daughter, Jennifer, and son Michael have relocated to New York City), receiving recognition like the recent honor from NOFA-NY makes the constant adaptation all worth it.
“I’m really very honored to receive it,” Mr. Lee said of the award. “It’s great recognition not just to myself, but it’s a testament to where we are. I have to say if it were not for our staff and our long-term employees, we couldn’t do what we do today.”
“I was very overwhelmed when I heard, just total disbelief,” added Ms. Lee. “For me, I feel a great responsibility for the future. Like how can we continue to be doing this work in the best way we know how.”