Sang Lee Farms was recently honored with the Farmer of the Year Award by the Northeast Organic Farming Association (NOFA). The Southold-based business has been operating organically since 2007, and has become a North Fork staple in the farm community. Owner Fred Lee is looking forward to another successful year of organic farming on the East End.
How did it feel to win the Farmer of the Year Award from the NOFA?
It felt great. We were very surprised and pleased. I personally didn’t see it coming. You don’t know these things until they say, “well, we’d like to have you up at the winter conference.” It was like, okay, wow, sure! It was a very pleasant surprise!
What does it mean to be “certified organic?”
To be certified organic you have to abide by federal organic production standards. All the state agencies, have to abide by federal standards. What it requires is a minimum of one annual inspection comprehensively; all your plants, what you’re doing, how you’re doing it, and then approved and verified with a physical inspection. There are requirements that if you start on a piece of land that has cultivated as a farm you must wait. It usually takes three years to get a parcel of land to be certified. We were in process for a good number of years before being certified in 2007.
When did you know that you would continue farming like your family?
I laugh because there were many difficult years. I think in the back of my mind it was always a great thought, but there were many years where I said, “how can we continue the tradition of farming?”
The other [question I get a lot] is, when did we decide to go organic, and that’s when we saw our kids running and playing in the fields. Now, conventional farming is not bad. I decided there’s got to be a better way, especially when the kids were young, we’re growing these crops and eating them ourselves, and I wanted the best way to do it. It took quite a few years. The markets changed so dramatically, we were almost forced to adapt to a different business model from truck farming to more direct to consumers at the retail level.
What’s it like to be part of a multigenerational farming family?
It’s been great. It wasn’t my original plan. I had other cousins and family members in the farm business—it was sort of an evolution. I was in my last semester at graduate school and my father got sick and passed away, and even though I loved the farm and worked every single summer on the farm, I wanted other options and, had he lived, I might have pursued another course or career. It drew me back.
One challenge led to the next, other family members dropping out or passing away, and there was a feeling that I’d like to keep it going. So that was a big factor. It’s great now. My son William, our middle child, is involved in the farm now. There’s healthy debate that goes on! There’s a little compromise here and there. And so far, it’s been worthwhile to see changes take place.
Why farm on the North Fork?
Southold is, in my opinion, a very agriculture-friendly town. I moved the farm here from Brookhaven, and moving here, it almost felt like I was coming home. I went from one agricultural environment to another, and there was more neighbor support, people were more welcoming and we were growing Chinese vegetables. I felt very welcomed and everyone I spoke to was very supportive of what I was trying to achieve.
What has your relationship been like with other North Fork food businesses?
We don’t sell a whole lot to restaurants but the community as a whole is so supportive, so it’s a nice environment to live and work here.
Are there any new crops you’ll be growing this season?
Every year we try to change the crops to different varieties, so we’re allowed to plant untreated natural seeds. We’re prohibited from planting GMO seeds, but there are new varieties we’d like to try. We have different colors and market taste/flavor characteristics. Those are always on the table. Every year we try to plant something different from before. Not every crop is successful. But we are looking into different varieties.
What are you selling from your greenhouses right now?
We have a limited supply of mixed greens, lettuces, arugula, scallions, some leeks, parsley, cilantro, baby bok choy and mixed baby greens. We also have a lot of storage vegetables. We have some fall cabbage, some fall squash and rutabagas that we’re still selling. We also do frozen soup bases. We make our own soups, so we froze some of the tomato stock. We’re selling those at the Riverhead Farmers Market and our farmstand.
How has your CSA worked out?
We started our Community-Supported Agriculture on-farm pickup site in 2006. It’s the best thing since sliced bread! We’re selling direct and at a reduced retail price, but we receive some of the funding up front. There are some perennial crops that we’re planting two and three years ahead, and to have some revenue is a big help.
That’s why the CSA model works; we receive funds to cover our costs. Otherwise, with the costs in the spring, we’d just go under! We’re not in a heavy revenue-producing time period. To have some income during that period is so crucial. It’s one of the primary factors helping us survive and be sustainable. There are many family-sized operations that have utilized it.
Can you tell us about your annual farming camp?
Yes, the plans are in place to do a similar program. Every year we try and change some programs. We’re looking forward to doing the farm camp this summer. The kids planted radishes last year. Some kids don’t know what goes into producing and growing vegetables, but somehow when they plant it themselves and harvest it, somehow that tastes better to kids than if they just went to the store and bought it. The flavor of locally produced vegetables is hard to beat.
Sang Lee Farms is located at 25180 County Road 48, Peconic. For more information, visit sangleefarms.com.