ROADSIDE DIARIES: Sang Lee Farms

Step into the shop at Sang Lee Farms, and you might think you have entered a time warp, fast-forwarding to summer. The shelves are teaming with color, filled with items that most other Long Island farms won’t harvest until July or August.

Sang Lee Farms has a jumpstart on the season.

PECONIC—Step into the shop at Sang Lee Farms, and you might think you have entered a time warp, fast-forwarding to summer. The shelves are teaming with color, filled with items that most other Long Island farms won’t harvest until July or August.

Baskets overflow with leeks, radishes, carrots, beets, onions, scallions, garlic, and tomatoes (cherries and beefsteak), as well as more predictable choices like spinach, mesclun, and asparagus.

There’s a cooler filled with a dizzying assortment of bagged Asian greens: stir-fry combo pack, baby bok choy mix, pea shoots, Shanghai choy, nyu choy sum, guy lon, mizuna, and tatsoi.

“Right now, we’re ahead, but not for long,” said Mr. Lee, who is soft-spoken with perfect diction. (During the day, he will variously speak English, Spanish, or Cantonese.) He sports a “Sang Lee Farms” cap and a neat, salt-and-pepper mustache. Customers stream in and out of the shop, buying potted flowers for their garden or greens and stir-fry sauce (also made on the farm) for dinner.

But, while the Lee family has been farming here for over 60 years, this bustling operation is relatively new. In the 1970s, when Mr. Lee took over the family farm that his father and uncle began in the 1940s, it grew roughly a dozen Asian vegetables like Chinese cabbage, bok choy, and Napa cabbage to supply Chinatowns from New York to Toronto. It was a reliable niche market. But that didn’t last.

“As soon as the supply came on from other regions or offshore, our prices began to fall,” Mr. Lee recalled. The family was cultivating 550 acres in Long Island and Florida, ramping up the volume as the profits fell. “We asked ourselves what else we could grow,” Mr. Lee recalled.

Some neighbors and drive-by shoppers began asking if they could buy some of the greens that were being shipped to restaurants and supermarkets in brightly colored “Fresh-Lee-Cut” boxes. Karen, Fred’s wife, set up a self-serve stand shaded by an umbrella on the roadside. The stand sold out almost hourly.

Today, this white-washed, full-service farmstand on County Road 48, is open seven days a week year-round, has two cash registers and accounts for some 70 percent of Sang Lee’s sales.

Mr. Lee scaled down to the 23-acre family farm in Peconic, plus 40 acres it leases nearby. The farm grows 250 different varieties of vegetables, herbs and flowers, including 35 varieties of tomatoes. “The mesclun mix alone contains more species than we used to raise,” Mr. Lee said, weeding in one of his greenhouses surrounded by trellised tomato, French radishes, and seemingly endless rows of tiny lettuce leaves in a rainbow of green and red. (The farm just introduced mail-order mesclun for those faraway customers pining for a taste of home.)

Completing this evolution are 36,000 square feet of greenhouses that allow the farm to produce almost year-round—and have a crop of greens roughly 60 days ahead of anyone else—and a commercial kitchen where the family turns surplus produce into highly popular dressings (ginger scallion, Asian vinaigrette, toasted sesame and citrus), pestos (cilantro, basil, arugula and spinach), and dips (herb garlic and ginger scallion).

Being able to respond to feedback from customers is “my only advantage over distant shippers in California, Mexico or offshore,” Mr. Lee said. The farm recently started making kimchi, and will soon roll out a carrot soup. “That’s them guys,” Mr. Lee said in a feigned farmer’s drawl, referring to his wife, Karen, and several other women in the kitchen. One of them shouted back, “But you grow it!”

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WHAT: Sang Lee Farms

WHERE: 25180 County Rd. 48, Peconic, 734.7001

WHEN: Mon-–Sat 9 a.m.–-5 p.m., Sun 11 a.m.–-5 p.m.

MUST TRY: Mesclun, stir-fry greens and sauces

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