NORTH SEA—Towards the end of July, Richard King of North Sea Farms received a shipment of 500 baby turkeys. “You can order them in large, extra large, medium, or small,” said Mr. King, in anticipation of Thanksgiving. “They sex them out as babies and tell you exactly what size they’re going to be. The biggest are about 18-pounders. The big ones are nice, but you need a big family.”
North Sea Farms specializes in poultry, so raising and butchering the gobblers is no problem. But when turkey day arrives, it’s a rush to get the birds dressed in time. “We have to do everything in a week,” said Mr. King, who depends on a crew of locals who are experienced butchers. “They’re big birds, so you want big guys.” Still, the hectic gobbler-buying is worthwhile. “It gives us a good kick before winter,” Mr. King added.
In fact, although you might not know it from the farmstand’s unassuming appearance, North Sea Farms figures prominently in holiday meals around Southampton. It’s one of just two farms that raise turkeys on the South Fork, and it raises by far the most. And one of Mr. King’s daughters, Kathleen, founded and owns Tate’s Bakery, whose cookies, brownies, and pies are ubiquitous at parties, office get-togethers, and on kitchen counters. “A friend recently told me that, between my daughter and the farm, we’re a big part of Thanksgiving in Southampton,” Mr. King said, looking up from under his wide-brimmed leather hat. “Throw in the liquor store and that’s the whole holiday.”
Mr. King does joke on occasion. (“I’m the shortest guy in town,” he said, deadpan. “I drive a big, old car. I’ve got a reputation to uphold.”) But he’s completely serious when he notes that the turkey business is just one of the many “draws” that are essential for any small farm to survive on the East End.
Look inside North Sea’s immaculate year-round farmstand and you see evidence of other customer-enticing decisions. The main cooler holds eggs from chickens, pullets, and occasionally geese, next to freshly butchered poussins and ducks, and chicken strips from the farm’s flock of 1500 birds. “People come from UpIsland for fresh eggs,” Mr. King said. “And there’s no such thing as a fresh egg if it doesn’t come off a farm.”
The farm offers baked goods (from Tate’s, of course), its own barbecue sauce and sundried tomatoes, and a full range of produce. Assorted farm paraphernalia and nostalgia, including an ice-cutting saw, scythes, and a 2-man hedge clipper, hang from the rafters. “One of our biggest things is keeping the farm image,” Mr. King noted.
Mr. King, who is “banging on 80,” and just finished selling the farm to his son, Richard, and daughter-in-law, Robin, still works every day and is a familiar presence at the roadside stand. On a recent late-summer day, his grandsons Brad and Nate, sought his advice on how many heads of cabbage and broccoli to buy from the nearby Falkowski farm and what steps to take in a planned truck repair. Sitting in the front seat of his 1978 Cadillac Deville, wearing paint-stained blue work pants and top, Mr. King surveyed the farm that he refers to as “a shrine to my family.”
“My biggest asset was being born dirt poor,” said Mr. King, who goes by “Tate,” a moniker bestowed by his older brother when they were playing in a potato field as kids. “So everyday I knew I was making progress.”
He pointed to a number of blessed twists that allowed his family to keep the farm: when a quirky neighbor left him an inheritance in the 1980s; when he won $7,500 in the Farm Bureau raffle in the late-1970s; when, in the early-1970s, Ray Halsey of the Green Thumb suggested that Mr. King abandon the dairy business and set up a roadside farmstand; when Ted’s Market on Hampton Road became his first consistent egg customer (and remains one); when, in 1952, he married his wife Millicent, whose steady job as a nurse at Southampton Hospital allowed the farm to secure loans; and when, at the height of the Depression, Henry Schwenk hired Mr. King’s father for $10 a week and let the Kings live and raise some of their own food on the Noyac Road parcel that would eventually become theirs.
“This was like an abandoned area,” Mr. King laughed. “People thought we were crazy. We could have been moving to China. There was no excitement here except the house next door was a regular whorehouse. We used to listen in on the party lines.” A few years later, in the summer of 1944, Mr. King shipped off to war along with a handful of other local boys, lucked out when his field artillery regiment was sent to New Caledonia instead of Okinawa, and eventually marched on Tokyo. While he was away, he received a letter from his father saying that Mr. Schwenk wanted to sell the 27-acre farm for $12,500. “Most people said you’ll never live to pay it off,” Mr. King remembered. “I told him to go for it. We never had nothing, so we didn’t have nothing to lose.”
Today, the farm works 13 of its 20 acres, planted mostly in flowers, tomatoes, and other specialty veggies. It supplements its own harvest with produce from nearby. (The farm also has resident peacocks, goats, pigs, geese, and black turkeys, an attraction for children and a hobby of Mr. King’s animal-loving daughter-in-law.) Mr. King believes that the growing public interest in “real food” means a bright future for the farm. “Everybody wants to get back to the root,” he said. “And few people actually try.”
But Mr. King’s devotion to friends and family, like his nick-name, is a refreshing anachronism. Reflecting on his life, he praised his wife and four children (including two that didn’t go into the food business, Karin, a registered nurse, and Kevin, a marine engineer), mentioned the minister who married him, friends at the Fire Department, and the lawyer who advised him on finances. North Sea Farms has hosted girl and boy scout hikes on its woodlands, and Mr. King regularly drives his 1936 John Deere in the 4th of July parade. “I’ve always told my kids to go out of your way for other people and help them every way you can,” said Mr. King, who plows neighbor’s roads, trims trees, and tends houses in the off-season. “If you can get along with people and you’ve got ambition, you’ve got it 95 percent made.”