This is a chapter from Bounty from the Box: The CSA Farm Cookbook, (Twisted Carrot Publishing, LLC) which I wrote to help community-supported agriculture subscribers figure out what to do with all the fresh goodies in their boxes. The book covers more than 90 different fruits, vegetables and herbs commonly grown by CSA farms throughout America, and features more than 360 recipes curated from professional chefs, highly regarded food bloggers and others. All in one resource, the book offers comprehensive, sometimes hard-to-find information on selecting, storing and cooking fresh produce. But besides being a cookbook, Bounty tells the story about hundreds of CSA farms and related organizations across the country that are doing remarkable work supporting their communities on an individual human level, way beyond just providing nourishment on the table.
This chapter focuses on Sang Lee Farms in Long Island, New York, which was started by Chinese immigrants who began raising Asian vegetables for New York City’s Chinatown in the 1950s, but the farm has had to adapt to wildly changing market conditions over the past six decades.
Sang Lee: Immigrant Roots to Organic Renewal
If you were a Chinese man living in America in the early 1900s, your choices were decidedly limited. Most likely you had immigrated to a strange new land in search of work with the railroads or to seek potential fortune with the gold rush out West. Or perhaps racial discrimination and the Chinese Exclusion Act had forced you to flee the West Coast and head east to New York City. You didn’t know the language, you were treated like a second-class citizen, and you were relegated to menial jobs in the restaurant or laundry business. You intended to stay in America for only a few years so that you could make some money, go back to China, and marry.
And how you missed the food of your homeland. Yes, rice could be had, and if you were fortunate enough to live in a large enclave of other Chinese people or in a big Chinatown, you might be able to enjoy some familiar foods—congee, Peking duck, steamed dumplings, pork buns, chicken feet, and pig’s blood soup. And the vegetables—gai lan, bitter melon, napa cabbage, bamboo shoots, yardlong beans, pak choy, bok choy, Asian eggplants, garlic chives, tung ho, daikon radish, gai choy…
In the 1930s, two Chinese brothers and one cousin decided they wanted to avoid working in the hot, miserable laundries of New York City, and they established a small farm in Queens to supply NYC’s Chinatown with badly needed high-quality Asian produce. In spite of their not having had any previous farming experience, word of these delicious vegetables quickly spread. After George Kim Lee finished his navy tour of duty in World War II, he joined his brother Kim Poy Lee and cousin Hugh K. Lee on the farm. In the 1940s, they incorporated the business, naming it Sang Lee Farms, and moved it to Huntington. Although there was some competition from Chinese farms in New Jersey, the Lees’ produce was in strong demand, and they began trucking it all over New York City and Boston. In the late 1950s, the farm expanded to Hobe Sound, Florida, to provide customers with vegetables in the winter and thus a year-round supply.
In 1964, in an effort to reduce expenses and find more affordable land, the New York operation was moved to East Moriches, Long Island. Over the next three decades, Sang Lee production and wholesale distribution expanded to Asian markets all along the East Coast. Tractor-trailer trucks plied the highways from Canada to Florida, delivering Asian vegetables for Chinese markets in Toronto; Montreal; New York City; Chicago; Washington, DC; Atlanta; Miami; and other cities in between.
With the sudden death of George Lee in 1980, the fate of the farm fell to his son Fred, who was attending Boston University at the time. As the only son of a Chinese family, Fred felt great responsibility for the business and was compelled to return to the farm. In addition to the cultural component that motivated Fred to return, there was the farm business aspect as well. As his wife, Karen, says, “A farm has a life of its own, and you can’t just stop it—there’s the crew and customers to think about and take care of.”
Karen met Fred when they were both studying for MBA degrees at Boston University. She was a nurse working toward a health care management career, and he was majoring in finance. She was a city girl from Boston who had never known farm life, but that was about to change. Fred took over the Florida farm after his father’s death, they married shortly thereafter and started a family, and, as she describes it, “We literally did not come up for air for 10 years.”
In Florida, Karen and Fred farmed from September to May while his uncle and cousin continued to attend to the Long Island operations. It was very challenging, with farms in two states to manage, deliveries to numerous cities, and all the accompanying logistics. When his uncle and other landholding partners decided they wanted to get out of the business, Fred decided to move the operation to Peconic, on the north fork of Long Island. The land in both Florida and East Moriches was sold. Then, shortly after establishing the new base in Peconic, Fred bought out his cousin’s share in the business and became the sole owner and operator of the farm.
The transition from conventional farming to organic was a gradual one, spurred on by several serendipitous factors. One is that, after Fred moved the farm to Peconic, Karen started a roadside farm stand. “I wanted to get our children involved in the business, but not directly farm,” she says. The three kids were responsible for managing and selling cut flowers at a self-serve table. Visitors loved them, and ultimately 10 acres were devoted to cultivating fresh flowers. Soon baby greens, herbs, and seasonal and Asian vegetables were added to the burgeoning stand.
One day, after spraying a field with pesticide, Fred suddenly realized that he was the only one handling these harmful chemicals. He worried about the safety of his children, and he speculated that the sudden illness and untimely death of his father, who had been strong and healthy all of his life until his diagnosis of cancer, may have been caused by the pesticides he had used on his farm. “Back in those days, farmers didn’t don all of the protective gear, masks, and gloves like they do now,” reflects Karen.
“Growing organically felt like the right thing to do, both for personal and business reasons,” she says. “We wanted to do it for our own family and for all of the families eating our food.”
Organic farming is a dynamic practice that requires the management of soil health through the application of organic matter, crop rotation, and the planting of cover crops, according to Karen. “All of these practices provide essential nutrients for the soil. Our organic certification requires that we submit a seasonal plan that outlines the rotation of our crops each year. It also requires the careful management of pests without synthetic insecticides, fungicides, or herbicides. We use ‘naturally occurring’ products for pest control, all of which must be approved by the Organic Materials Review Institute and inspected by the Northeast Organic Farming Association (NOFA), who comes yearly to assess, give input, and make recommendations. To supplement these natural applications, we release thousands of beneficial insects such as ladybugs and praying mantises that help maintain the natural balance of insects, keeping our crops healthy without harmful applications of systemic products. It is always difficult, however, to control the weeds. There are many tasks you can’t mechanize, like weeding. We weed by hand—and it takes many hands.”
As part of soil health management, it is also necessary to apply fertilizers to supplement the mulching and cover cropping that provides the foundation. “For a long time, Fred kept using chemical fertilizers because, at the time, organic alternatives cost three to four times as much and provided fewer nutrients per pound,” explains Karen. “Once he made that final step of using organic fertilizers, transitioning the land and becoming certified required a final three-year waiting period. But Fred is still on a learning curve when it comes to knowing all there is to know about growing this way.”
At last, in 2007, Sang Lee Farms became Certified Organic by NOFA. Karen admits that it has taken a lot of hard work and a strong commitment over the last 10 years to transform their farming practices and to establish an organic farm that is financially viable as well. But she and Fred believe it is important to the health of the soil and water in their community to grow food this way, and to be stewards of the land for future generations. They also believe it is critical to the health and well-being of their family and their customers.
At the same time that they were transitioning the farm to organic, market dynamics for fruit and vegetables were drastically changing. Wholesaling had always been Sang Lee’s mainstay, but in the 1990s, the advent of the North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA, changed everything for many farmers on both sides of the border by opening trade between the United States, Mexico, and Canada. Both NAFTA and the American government economically favor farmers who grow commodity crops like corn, wheat, soybeans, and rice, not fruit and vegetable farms, which are considered specialty farms. It is these farms, especially smaller family-run operations, that have felt the worst effects, and many have been forced to go out of business altogether.
Suddenly supermarkets, food-service companies, food manufacturers, and individual consumers alike were awash in foreign produce imported from Canada and Mexico. Because labor and production costs are so much less, especially south of the border, American farmers simply cannot compete. “There used to be Polish farmers all over this area who grew huge acreages of cabbage, potatoes, and cauliflower,” says Karen, “but many had to close because of competition from California and Mexico. Some of our buyers reneged on big orders from us because they were able to get cheaper produce from foreign growers. Even we were offered the opportunity to grow our vegetables in Mexico. We knew we couldn’t compete in the long term, just as other growers of commodity products could not, despite the fact that we had a specialty niche market. We were working 24/7 as it was, and it just wasn’t sustainable. The writing was on the wall.”
Fortunately, because the Sang Lee name had been around for so long, its produce was widely recognized and well-respected by many discriminating customers. Balducci’s was a legendary specialty food market in NYC that was the first to have a top-flight butcher shop, fishmonger, delicatessen, and greengrocer all under one roof. In its halcyon days, it was renowned for the incredible quality of its foods, and it would become the model for many specialty markets today. “It was visionary for its time,” Karen says, “partly because it would source the very best from specific suppliers and put their names out on signs for customers to see. Balducci’s wanted to carry our mesclun salad mix in those huge bowls with the self-serve tongs. That in part led to NYC restaurants wanting to order our mesclun.” Happily, it also led to people recognizing the Sang Lee name when they stopped by the farm’s roadside stand to buy flowers.
Like so many produce farmers in recent years since foreign fruits and vegetables started flooding the market, Sang Lee has had to adapt in a rapidly changing world. It is no longer enough to grow top-quality product these days; farmers who want to survive have to be savvy at identifying and marketing new ways to package and sell their crops. In 2002, Sang Lee stopped wholesaling completely and shifted its business exclusively to retail. It now supplies farmers markets, runs a large CSA program, and produces an entire line of prepared food products and precut vegetables.
Currently, Sang Lee farms over 100 different types of vegetables on about 90 acres of land. Out of this acreage, Karen and Fred own 23, with the rest on leased property. At any given time, 65 to 70 acres are actively farmed, and the rest are planted in cover crops, which is critical for the health of the soil and pest and disease control. It is a “large small farm,” as Karen puts it.
Their location between the waters of Long Island Sound and the Peconic Bay enjoys a maritime climate with mild year-round temperatures. This allows for a considerably extended growing season in this part of the Northeast. Although they do occasionally get hard frost, heavy snow, and single-digit temperatures, winters do not last as long. In a mild year, they can start cultivating outside as early as mid March and go all the way into November and December before it gets too cold.
Temperatures in the 90s, rain, and heavy humidity are typical in the summer, to the delight of funguses that attack watermelons and heirloom tomatoes. To grow certain crops year-round, such as mesclun, and also to get an early start on spring planting, they use 20 hoophouses. These also enable them to sow certain crops in October and have them ready when their farm stand opens in April.
The glacial soils are lovely here as well—rich, well-drained, sandy loam that is ideal for growing vegetables and grapes; the area is well known for its vineyards and a flourishing wine industry.
The staff of Sang Lee Farms is diverse in both ethnicity and talent, coming from America, Guatemala, Central America, China, Ireland, and Thailand. The farm has 25 to 30 employees who work in the field, the kitchen, the office, the farm stand, and at the farmers markets. Some are part-time, and many are old-timers who have been coming back for 25 or even 35 years.
An enormous part of Sang Lee’s business is its line of Loca*Lee prepared food products, which include delectable dressings, dips, jellies, pickles, sauces, pestos, soups, salads, juices, roasted vegetables, and baked goods. For customers who want fresh vegetables but don’t have the time to prep them, Fresh-Lee-Cut products fit the bill nicely, with all sorts of Asian vegetables, baby greens, and herbs that are already washed, cut, and ready to eat.
Karen says that the inspiration for this came from the farm stand, when customers shopping for vegetables repeatedly asked her what dressings, dips, and sauces she would recommend to serve with them. Karen immediately recognized this need for great pairings that would inspire her customers to make the most of their veggies.
The sheer array of Loca*Lee and Fresh-Lee-Cut products is astounding, especially when you consider the mind-boggling amount of work it takes to have a fully state-certified organic kitchen and to meet NOFA standards. “It is essential that we have a fully traceable product,” says Karen. “There is no specific required way to do it, but you have to keep really careful records and extensive logbooks that document every ingredient, and every lot and batch. And I want to keep our quality very high, so we make everything by hand in small batches.”
Labeling must be absolutely accurate, and it can be a tricky thing. A product that says “organic” must be made with no less than 95 to 100 percent certified-organic ingredients. If the label says “Made with organic,” that proportion drops to 75 to 90 percent. The sourcing of certain items such as oils and vinegars can be problematic, and forecasting what will be needed in the most cost-effective quantities (drums versus jars) can be difficult, especially when they are already in scarce supply. “Organic rice wine vinegar has to be made especially for us,” Karen says, “or we need to put in our order when a larger quantity is already being made for someone else.”
Rules and regulations being what they are, it means that Karen is required to document cleanliness, to submit a profile for each product that outlines accurate ingredient and nutritional percentages, and properly record every supplier for every ingredient and their certification in turn. She also has to train all of her food-prep staff in many of these procedures and record-keeping. Annually their kitchen and records are checked in what is essentially a yearlong process to get through all of their products over the course of a year. Fortunately, Karen gives NOFA credit for being extremely supportive and fostering excellent communication, which helps immensely. “They take the time to get it right and help us through things—after all, they don’t want to see us fail.”
And she has found that all the extra work has been worth it. “People really love our prepared products, and they get really excited about them. Our customers know that I am very particular about the quality of my foods, and they appreciate that.”
To offer their subscribers more options, Sang Lee has a tiered system for its CSA program. For a base price, you start by becoming a Vegetable Share member; then you can join their other CSA programs, for which Sang Lee teams up with other area farmers. You can enjoy 18 weeks of cow, goat, and sheep’s milk cheeses from the East End of Long Island and Hudson Valley. Or you can add a fruit share, which may include rhubarb, berries, peaches, plums, apples, and pears from local fruit growers. And you can try Sang Lee’s Value-Added Share, which, on top of the regular vegetable allotment, adds its own prepared foods, dressings, and sauces.
You can also get Home Delivery Boxes that consist solely of prepared foods, or a Roasting Box that contains one pound each of five different vegetables, cut up and prepared for cooking, along with toppings and recipes. Sang Lee also offers a Soup-Salad-Side Box with toppings and recipes. A link to a fun YouTube video created in the farm’s kitchen is sent to customers to view each week with tips and suggestions on using their box selections.
Besides having its own farm stand, Sang Lee participates at four different New York farmers markets, where it sells produce, prepared foods, and nursery plants and seedlings. CSA members can also pick up their shares here. The farm has slowly been growing its nursery business, offering its own potted organic herbs, vegetable starters, an exotic selection of perennials and annuals from local greenhouses, pots, soils, tools, and other gardening supplies. It has also been offering gardening classes in organically growing your own herbs and vegetables.
As you might imagine, the transition from wholesaling to retailing has meant that the farm has stepped up its outreach efforts in recent years. For youth aged 4 to 12, the farm offers camps that gets children involved in learning where their food comes from and actively growing, exploring, harvesting, and tending to their vegetables. Cooking classes are another natural outlet for the farm, giving visitors ideas on how to improvise in the kitchen with what they might find in their CSA boxes that week, or how to preserve and can that fresh-veggie goodness in July and August.
During the summer, the farm offers tours every week to the public, kids on school field trips, scout troops, summer camp participants, and others. Open houses are held regularly as well.
Philanthropy is another issue near and dear to Fred and Karen. As a producer of perishable items, they are constantly thinking of ways to avoid wasting food, knowing that countless people need fresh food. Every week, they provide Island Harvest, a local food bank, with at least 10 to 20 crates of vegetables that will not last into the next week. In 2014, they did a campaign called Donate to Dig, where people donated money to the farm to fund the labor for digging potatoes (or came and helped dig themselves) that were then donated to Island Harvest right before Thanksgiving so that families could stock up for the holiday. Thanks to this effort, they were able to donate 1,500 pounds of potatoes!
Sang Lee also donates CSA shares that have not been picked up for the week to several nonprofits and food banks that distribute to local families in need. And every week it donates vegetables to Maureen’s Haven, a local service that cooks dinner for the homeless, and to a local church that offers community suppers.
This may all sound quite exhausting to keep up with, but Karen is encouraged by the tremendous demand she sees from their customers and the public for their outreach, plant sales, and cooking classes. She has noticed a renewed interest in home gardening, and she works on plant selection with her greenhouse staff, who are particularly attuned to what people want to buy. Asian vegetables such as white and baby eggplants are fast rising on people’s radar, as are seedless cucumbers and certain heirloom and cherry tomato varieties.
Karen sees her work now as much more than a farmer, grower, and purveyor; she understands keenly the need to support customers and educate them on their perceptions and expectations. “Seeing the links between farming, where their food comes from, how to grow it, and cook and eat it—that completes their circle of understanding. If you have people out in the field who can see their food from plant to plate, it gets them thinking in that framework.” Karen and her farm educator Lucy Senesac find that when it comes to recipes and tastings, “people are often very challenged as to what to do with their produce, to get new ideas. So we have recipes right there available at our pickup sites. And we introduce them to different ways of eating things—people are sometimes afraid to eat raw kohlrabi or cabbage. It never occurred to them to try these vegetables this way before.”
What’s the hardest part of farming? “After 35 years,” Karen says, “it has never gotten easier because the weather, the staff, the growing conditions, the marketing requirements—all of these are continually changing. It’s a different story each year, a different combination of conditions every year. The challenge is, how do we manage it for that year? We’ve become used to working with this continual state of change and have learned to stay calm in the face of it. It requires a great deal of stamina, and we do worry about sustaining that energy.”
Out of their three children, their son William has the most interest in continuing the family business and has been helping to manage parts of it. Still, Karen worries about the sustainability of the small family farm. “There’s just not a lot of financial return for all of the effort that it requires.”
Still, in spite of all the decades of hard work and challenges, she and Fred have no regrets. “We feel very blessed to have had deep insight into growing food and what it takes, and we’ve been very lucky to have had the energy and health to live this lifestyle,” Karen says. “It’s very satisfying.”