For over 30 years, Sang Lee Farms has been a North Fork haven for fresh produce, but its history dates long before their 1987 roots settled in Peconic. A family business since the 1930s, the Lee family serviced the Chinatown market with over 30 varieties of Chinese vegetables. The farm has relocated over the years from Queens, to Huntington, and East Moriches before finally settling into today’s Peconic location. Amid uprooting came expansion, servicing Boston, Philadelphia, and eventually the entire East Coast.
Fred Lee grew up on the East Moriches farm but didn’t originally plan to become a farmer. He attended the University of Vermont before obtaining his master’s in business from Boston University. There, he met his wife, Karen, who was studying to become a nurse. It was during these years that Fred Lee’s father, who ran the farm at the time, got sick and suddenly passed away. As the only son of this Chinese family, Fred left his career aspirations in the dust to fulfill his familial duties of caring for the farm. Karen followed suit.
“I had no idea what it took to grow food and he was a very understated Asian man,” said Karen Lee, co-owner of Sang Lee Farms, of her father-in-law. “So, I jumped in and found out how it really goes. Yes, he chose to farm, but there’s staff, there’s customers, there’s a whole business, you can’t just walk away. This is an issue of a family owned farm.”
The Lees continued the farm’s legacy of selling baby greens to high-end restaurants. In 1999, New York City luxury supermarket Balducci’s began to place their Sang Lee Farms branded bagged mesclun greens. Years later, as Karen and her three children Jenn, Will, and Michael (who were eight, 10, and 11 years old at the time) were selling fresh cut flowers on the side of the road on the North Fork, customers would stop to recognize the name from the city markets.
With family in mind, the Lees’ three children incited change. With the young ones running through the fields on a daily basis, it was a matter of safety for their health to keep an eye on what was being sprayed in the fields. In 2006, Sang Lee Farms applied to become Certified Organic. The Lees continued to grow their Chinese vegetables, but began adding new crops and an indoor greenhouse for summer and off-season. Soon after becoming Certified Organic, they began their community supported agriculture program, in which customers prepay for weekly vegetables early in the farming season, allowing Sang Lee Farms to better allot their finances and plan crops for the upcoming season.
The CSA program has now grown to include a home delivery service. In addition, customers from all across Long Island and the five New York City boroughs can get farm-to-door delivery service. Order by 3 PM, and vegetables will arrive the next day by noon. For the rest of the Tri-State Area, Sang Lee Farms can FedEx any package.
Sang Lee prides itself on the diversity of its staff. “They’re comfortable in this environment where other languages are spoken, where other people don’t look the same,” Lee said, noting a baker is from Ireland and a kitchen staff member is from Thailand. In the world of farming there’s a common denominator to what they all do, she said. “They place great value on fresh food, more than the paycheck.”
Gao Yang, a member of the Sang Lee team for over 30 years, hails from China, where he attended college during the country’s cultural revolution. Yang was sent to work on a farm and was hired by the Chinese government for agricultural research before making his move to the U.S. and to Sang Lee Farms.
With a plethora of organic food at their fingertips, the Lee family keeps to a vegetarian diet 95 percent of the time, “We eat what we grow and therefore, we eat seasonally.” Their son, Will, is a free diver, catching local fish and traveling the world exploring the seas, half the year delivering a real catch of the day.
Right now, fresh off the farm are seasonal favorites of ginger and turmeric, perfect for teas or flavoring rice and soup. Lee recommends their Asian Slaw, made of nappa cabbage, scallions, cilantro, sesame seeds, and carrots.
Farming aside, Fred is a firefighter and EMT with the Southold Fire Department, and Karen utilizes her nursing degree by taking their large St. Bernard/Golden Retriever mix, Molee, as a pet therapy dog to work with Eastern Long Island Hospital patients.
Join Sang Lee Farms for its family harvest day on Saturday, October 13, to harvest, learn, and cook. The farm will also hold an open house on October 27. Guests can partake in medicinal herb classes and “cookshops,” where students can tour the farm and pick what produce they will cook in the class. “It gives a whole different flavor to the class. It’s definitely a farm-to-table experience,” Lee concluded.