Talking turkey with Lee family
EAST WINDSOR, N.J. — Raising and selling produce has a longer history for the Lee family in Mercer County, but it was raising turkeys that gave the farm a much-needed boost during a tough time.
Growing up in the 1930s, an 11-year-old 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, said his son Ronny Lee — who owns and runs the farm with his wife Janet and their son Dylan.
Ronny said his father raised 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.
During World War II, Richard served in the U.S. Army.
When he returned home from the war, the Depression had ended, but his father owed the bank a considerable sum of money.
“My grandfather was ready to sell the farm and become a bus driver in New Brunswick,” Ronny said. “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.”
“Turkeys really turned the farm around, which is why the name was changed to Lee Turkey Farm, in honor of the birds,” the family states on the farm website.
Turkey production peaked at about 7,000 birds the Lees said.
As regulations on meat processing became more strict, many of the Lee’s customers stopped butchering or went out of business so the farm family began processing their turkeys on the farm and built retail routes to supply turkeys to local grocery stores and butcher shops.
In the 1960s, small stores and butcher shops began to be replaced by supermarkets that had their own meat suppliers, forcing the Lees to cut back on the number of turkeys raised and focus on selling directly to the customers.
Now, in the 10-12 days leading up to Thanksgiving in November, it’s all hands on deck, 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,” Ronny said, noting about 10 extra people to come in and help him and Dylan the week before Thanksgiving.
“All our turkey processing is done in this barn here,” he said, rolling up a garage door to reveal a kitchen and refrigerated area. “This room is multi-use, and we only use it about 10 days a year (for processing.) We’ll clean it out and disinfect everything and turn it into a processing plant.”
“This is [likely] the oldest processing plant in the country,” Lee boasted, as going back as far as 1802,” if there was anything on the farm that had to be killed, this is where the animals were processed. Can you think of another one that has been in continuous use since 1802?”
Success with turkeys wasn’t the only trail blazed by the Lee family. They also claim to be the first farm in New Jersey to initiate pick-your-own as a part of their business.
“My parents made it unique in 1964 because it was [likely] the first you-pick farm to open in New Jersey,” Ronny said. “Different farmers would always invite friends to come out, but you didn’t invite people you didn’t know onto your farm. My parents were the first ones who went totally retail. We wholesale nothing.”
Ronny’s parents, Richard, 92 and Ruth, 90, are still on the farm, offering advice when needed, Ronny said.
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.
They had also read about a Michigan farmer trying pick-your-own cherries.
“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.
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.
Now, visitors to Lee Turkey Farm are greeted by rows and rows of vegetables, all maintained and started from seed in cold frames by Ronny and 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.” Ronny and Janet’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 Ronny, “I’ll work here with Dylan until I’m 72.”
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