Lee Turkey Farm more than just turkeys
EAST WINDSOR — If Ronny Lee and his parents have learned anything since they opened their farm up to complete on-site retail and you-pick operations in the mid-1960s, it’s to keep the place neat and tidy.
This 54-acre farm is surrounded by high quality deer fencing that is supposed to last at least 60 years.
Lee Turkey Farm also goes way beyond just selling turkeys. The tract on Hickory Corner Road here is completely surrounded by housing developments in this suburb of Princeton, and has been since 1972.
Ronny Lee and his son Dylan are sixth and seventh generation farmers at the farm. They live in a refurbished farmhouse on-site that was built in 1802 by Aaron Forman.
“My parents made it unique in 1964 because it was [likely] the first you-pick farm to open in New Jersey,” Ronny Lee explained on a Saturday in mid-May just a week before the farm opened to visitors in search of strawberries.
“Different farmers would always invite friends to come out, but you didn’t invite people you didn’t know onto your farm,” Lee explained, his son Dylan at his side at the kitchen table.
“My parents were the first ones who went totally retail. We wholesale nothing.” Fortunately for all concerned, Lee’s parents are still around for consulting. His father Richard “Dick” Lee is 92 and his mother Ruth is 90.
“We keep it simple here,” Ronny Lee said in explaining the family’s philosophy, “we don’t run a farm stand year-round, we’ll open for you-pick strawberries on Memorial Day Weekend.”
Crowds of people, many first generation Americans, flock to the site on Hickory Corner Road each weekend. In line with their keep-it-simple approach, they donate all their excess produce to Farmers Against Hunger. Lee credited Pam Mount from nearby Terhune Orchards in Princeton with starting the charity, now a bustling non-profit organization.
Explaining the genesis of the closely monitored you-pick operations — the family lives on-site in a refurbished 1802 farmhouse — Lee said it dawned on his parents to open the farm up to you-pick clientele when a housing development was going up across the street and Portuguese immigrants asked for permission to come onto the farm to pick some apples and peaches. That was in 1964.
“Later in 1964 somebody on WOR radio called in and wanted to know where to go to pick fresh produce. Somebody mentioned Lee Turkey Farm, they kept announcing that until my Dad finally called them and said ‘You got to stop it, we’re too busy over here.’ So it just evolved from that point,” Lee said. His Dad Richard helped his grandfather emerge from some Depression-era debt unscathed because he got into raising turkeys at the orchards. Ronny’s father, Richard Lee began raising turkeys at the farm when he was 11.
“The apples, we were down to 200 trees,” Lee recalled, adding, “the turkeys made them money, he sold retail and sold a lot of live turkeys to restaurants and to smaller markets.” At one point Lee Turkey Farm raised 9,000 turkeys a year.
Richard Lee wanted to join 4-H but the only opening was in the turkey club, so he developed a lot of expertise and a wealth of knowledge over time in how to raise good tasting turkeys.
Lee recalls his father did 32 turkeys the first year, 64 his second year and was raising several hundred turkeys by the time he was in nearby Hightstown High School.
Similarly, Ronny Lee and his son, Dylan have no college background, but they really applied themselves while working on the family farm and attending Hightstown High School. Both of them play guitar and write songs to unwind after long days on the farm fields.
“My grandfather was ready to sell the farm and become a bus driver in New Brunswick. My dad Richard said to him, ‘Look, I really want to farm, with turkeys. Let’s do them by the thousands instead of the hundreds.’ So by the early 1960’s, they had pulled the farm out of debt.”
Today, visitors to Lee Turkey Farm are greeted by rows and rows of immaculately maintained vegetables, all maintained and started from seed in cold frames by Lee and his son Dylan.
“Everything you see here is just the two of us,” he said, “as far as employees, we’ll hire about a dozen high school kids who will help my wife Janet in the market. She handles the market end and hiring the kids.” Lee’s daughter, Charli, lives nearby and handles the farm’s website and social media. Charli works off the farm as a dental hygienist.
“As long as I can keep it together,” said the 59-year-old Lee, “I’ll work here with Dylan until I’m 72.”
During the days leading up to Thanksgiving in November, it’s all hands on deck for 10-12 days, processing and selling more than 3,000 turkeys just before the holiday with temporary helpers, neighbors and former neighbors who come back every year to help out on the farm.
“I’ve got people that fly in from Utah and they know the process, they know what’s going on and it behooves me to hire these people who have done it all before,” he said, noting about 10 extra people to come in and help him and Dylan the week before Thanksgiving.
When his parents jumped into a complete retail and pick-your-own operation in 1964, Lee estimates his parents had 200 apple trees and just 180 peach trees. Today, Lee Turkey Farm has 700 apple and 760 peach and nectarine trees. Aside from extensive half-acre and full acre plots of tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, squash and cantaloupes, the Lee’s grow 15 varieties of apples and more than 20 varieties of peaches and nectarines. On a brief tour of the farm’s growing fields, Lee pointed out the rows of cherry trees, thorn-less blackberries, as well as distant fields for sweet corn, 2,400 pepper plants, 1,200 eggplants, fields for cantaloupe watermelon, zucchini and cucumbers. Lee starts all of his plants from seeds in a series of cold frames near the 1802 farmhouse they live in.
Asked about his deer fencing, which looks immaculate and surrounds the 54-acre property and includes cattle gates — customers have clearly defined entrance and exit signage, and a big driveway to accommodate weekend traffic — Lee said he spent just under $50,000 in 2013 to have one contractor install the fencing and cattle gates. An occasional deer may pop over the fence onto their property, he said, but he or she is handled expeditiously under Right-to-Farm regulations. Lee’s fencing has heavy duty posts and black wire to make the fencing nearly invisible, which both he and his neighbors appreciate.
Ronny’s father paid him minimum wage in his youth for his time on the farm but then offered him the chance to grow his own vegetables and expand the fruit tree operations on half-acre and full acre sections of their land in high school.
By the time he was in his early 20’s a few years out of high school, father Richard Lee was able to retire at 62 from day-to-day operations at the farm yet still be available as the all-important consultant.
Dick Lee told his son repeatedly he’d be available and around if he had questions.
Lee said what he and his son and wife and crew are ultimately selling at their you-pick farm is a day in the fresh air and sunshine and a recreational activity for families.
Thus, an expanded children’s playground right behind the farm store and extra hands on golf carts on weekends to keep an eye on people as they navigate small ladders to pick cherries, peaches and apples from rows of trees.
“I find that customers don’t like to pick shoulder to shoulder,” with vegetable rows or rows of fruit trees.
“Apples grow on trees, so I’ll start them picking on the ground and then I get them 5-foot step ladders and then I get them picking poles. I pay the insurance and there’s always somebody riding around on a golf cart.”
“It’s the idea of coming out to the farm with your family picking fresh fruit and vegetables, spending the day doing it, and having a nice time doing it,” he said, “it’s not like going to the beach where you spend a couple hundred dollars and all you got to show for it is a sunburn. You come to us and you’ve got groceries for a while. We have a lot of people that come out here in groups and families that come out every week from Manhattan and Brooklyn,” Lee said.
“We try to keep the place looking like a picture in a book.”
1-800-634-5021 410-822-3965 Fax- 410-822-5068
P.O. Box 2026 Easton, MD 21601-8925