Widgets Magazine

Karen Lee of Sang Lee Organic Farms Talks Farming, Food and Family

Karen and Fred Lee of Sang Lee Farms. Photo Credit (this and the beautiful produce below): Lucy Senesac. Q: I hear Sang Lee Farms is an old farm; are you from the North Fork?

A: We have been here on the North Fork for twenty seven years since 1987. I am originally from Boston, my husband Fred is the farmer—I married a farmer thirty years ago, and became one.

My husband’s family started the farm in the 1930s, incorporated it in the 40s—so it’s been a family business for many decades, always here on Long Island.

Q: Wow, that’s a long time-from the 30's--but you've been here 27 years--where was the farm before here?

A: Originally the farm was in Queens, but when Fred’s father, older brother and uncles incorporated in the early 40s they moved to Huntington—on the SE corner of Route 110 and the Expressway, which is now all office buildings.

In the early 60s they moved to East Moriches, which at that time was at the end of Sunrise Highway. They bought their farm there so they could get their trucks to market but still have access to large farm land. The farm was there for 23 years.

Q: Did you meet on the farm?

A: We met at Boston University where we were both studying for our MBA’s. I am a nurse and was continuing studies in Health Care Management. Fred was majoring in finance.

During our time there his father suddenly became ill and passed away. Fred went back to the farm.

Fred’s family is of Chinese decent, and culturally, the son takes care of things. He took over a substantial family business which spanned from Florida to Long Island. At that point they had two farms, the one in NY and one in Florida so they could provide year round fresh produce to the wholesalers. Fred went down to Florida, because it was September and I went with him. We got married a year later and started a family.

Q: Sounds like a very intense entrance to the family.

A: Yes. We did not come up for air for 10 years. There was so much going on—partners who wanted to get out of the business, two states to manage. In the midst of managing the two farms, and having children, we decided to purchase this farm here in Peconic, and we have been here ever since.

Q: The family business aspect is reflected in the name, right? Sang Lee Farms because it’s the Lee family?

A: The company name, in Chinese characters, is different than the name Lee; it actually means business prosper/business grow, and our patented logo is “Fresh Lee Cut”.

But yes, we’re truly a family business. In fact amazingly, through all of this, Fred and I started a wonderful family. Having three children changed the way we wanted to grow our vegetables, and luckily one of our sons, William, is currently managing the farm with us now.

Since having a family and becoming aware of the importance of environment and diet to our overall health and well being, we made a choice to change our growing practices from conventional to certified organic. It was and still is a commitment to the family as well as to the North Fork and to the people who eat our food.

Q: Did you simply switch overnight?

A: No, it was a gradual process. Originally we grew about 20 different varieties of Asian vegetables for the Chinese markets along the eastern seaboard. It has been 30 years but we now grow 100 varieties of specialty vegetables.

I started a retail farm stand, and also sold to special markets, exquisite restaurants, and top chefs. The farm had always focused on quality, service and specialty produce, and we continued to do that with these new niche markets. And as we added new and different products, we had to become innovative with our growing practices. We felt that our decision to grow organically added to that high quality and established cohesiveness to our personal and business lives.

We became certified organic in 2006. We received the official certification from the NorthEast Organic Farming Association (NOFA NY). It is very important to pay close attention to the certifying agency on all your food products.

To be certified organic you may only use soil additions and foliar sprays that are approved by the Organic Materials Review Institute (OMRI). OMRI is an international nonprofit organization that determines which input products are allowed for use in organic production and processing. OMRI Listed® products are allowed for use in certified organic operations under the USDA National Organic Program.

My kitchen is a certified organic kitchen as well. That is very unique. I wanted my customers to have the best products to complement the beautiful organic vegetables. I developed ‘ Local Lee’, our line of certified organic dressings, dips, and cooking sauces.

Q: What were you selling when you first opened the retail farmstand?

A: When I first started retail, I started with cut flowers, watermelon, bok choy and mesclun salad. I had ten acres of flowers, my son William grew the watermelons, and we had Fred managing the wholesale production of specialty Asian vegetables and salad greens.

We sold our crops, among other places, in a New York City market called Balducci’s. They had a big bowl of our mesclun, with a small sign: “Grown at Sang Lee Farms in Peconic”.

Some of my first customers from the city who stopped to buy flowers asked if we were the same Sang Lee Farms that sold at Balducci’s, and when I said yes they asked for the mesclun. I found myself running around putting together bags of mesclun for customers after that.

They took note of our name, which was really remarkable. Some of our best customers now were some of our first from back then.

From there I added products yearly, and just as with these mesclun sales, my new product choices were always driven by customer’s interests—if someone wanted it, I grew it and I still do that today!

Q: That’s really cool, the Balducci’s connection. Nowadays so many places showcase where food comes from. They were ahead of their time when they started.

A: Yes. Another good fortune, ahead-of-its-time thing happened for us around 1998. Martha Stewart did a show on organic farming on the North Fork and featured us.

That’s when I started doing things in the kitchen. People would ask what dressing to use on the beautiful mesclun. So I started making it. I also started making a stir fry sauce that we still sell today. I’d do demonstrations of stir fry, with the wok, to show how easy it was, and again, people would ask for the sauce so we made it in our kitchen and bottled it up.

Q: Wow-from nurse to farmer to mom to organic farmer to chef. That’s quite a road.

A: Yes. At core I’m a nurse, I had no intention of doing any of this. But I’m so grateful I did. I don’t know where my health would be without this food.

It’s been such an incredible eye opening experience seeing how much goes into growing our food. I have so much respect for the produce, for the people who grow the food-for the staff who plant, tend, harvest, wash, prepare the food. There is a lot of love and hard work that goes into producing fresh vegetables.

Wherever I go, whenever I’m traveling I always think: who grew this, where did it come from, and how was it grown?

Q: Do you miss nursing?

A: Well, I see what I do as still connected to nursing. For me talking to people about food, about the health benefits of eating fresh organic produce is really part of the vocation. It’s educational. It’s proactive. I also see people with health issues, who are sick and who want to learn to eat healthy. I give them inspiration and direction.

It’s so important to practice a good diet and healthy lifestyle throughout your whole life.

Q: Is the farmstand the only way people can enjoy Sang Lee Farms?

A: There’s lots of ways. Our retail shop, we’re open April through November. We also attend three farmers markets, East Hampton, Southampton and Northport.

We have a CSA--Community Supported Agriculture--which means people can become part of a private vegetable club. They pre-pay, and then receive groceries all season long. CSA members see the seasonality of the various vegetables, and receive great value - nearly a wholesale price.

During the summer we do yoga in the quiet back fields where the honeybees are, Thursday and Saturday mornings. It’s so beautifully done. Participants enjoy the peace of the farm, the calm. It’s a restorative experience, listening to the birds and crickets, lying in the grass, just smelling the fruits and vegetables—the farm creates this exquisite experience for people.

We also run a summer camp for a children that is very popular. Digging carrots, watching the bees, tasting tomatoes off the vine, making pizza with veggie toppings helps get kids excited about food and farming. Getting children and families involved with agriculture and educating them about farm to table is so important, especially in a place like the North Fork where it is our heritage and there is such bounty.

Throughout the summer and into the fall I host “Tour, Taste, Talk”. I tour the greenhouses and fields, give a little history, try to show people what we’re growing. Then we do a tasting of whatever is fresh and delicious from the kitchen. In the last few weeks we sampled Heirloom Tomatoes, the sweetest, most amazing flavors ever!

Our kitchen makes a lot of products, dressings, pesto—this week we’re doing cilantro pesto, some with cheese, some without for those who avoid dairy. We make stir fry sauce, soups, and lately we have been making jarred heirloom tomatoes. There’s no salt, they’re just peeled, cored and jarred. Beautifully preserved for whatever you want to cook them into.

On the tour too, if people bring children I try to make it more hands on and fun, picking vegetables right from the field; if people are elderly we ride the golf cart. We can tailor it because the groups are intimate. We also host a large Annual Open House every May that Fred leads with over 100 people participating each year.

Q: You came here because of changes to the family business. But that was many years ago; you could have moved your farm again if you wished. Why do you stay?

A: This is a perfect spot. The soil is a beautiful sandy loam, perfect for growing. Yes I work 80 hours a week, but I have gorgeous sunsets every day, I can swim at the beautiful beaches, and my dogs can too, and there’s a bunch of other artisanal farms that produce and grow sustainably—I love Browder’s Birds, Mecox dairy, and Briermere fruit farm. The North Fork is a real food capitol.

All that and we’re still not in the boondocks. We are very accessible to NYC and all it offers. Our customers up island and in the city can reach us.

It’s very special here.