Talking Turkey: Life on the Lee Family Farm

The Lee family maintains a 75-year tradition, raising broad-breasted birds with a personal touch.

Ruling the Roost: Ronny Lee sits among the birds in a mesh-walled barn at his family’s 54-acre turkey farm in East Windsor. Lee’s turkeys have room to roam and are raised antibiotic and hormone free.
Photo by Marc Steiner

Ronny Lee remembers only one year when his family did not have a turkey for Thanksgiving. He was 16, and a young couple had come to the farm in search of a turkey to replace the one they had bought at a supermarket. The supermarket bird smelled off. The couple had looked everywhere for another, but were running out of time.

“They were having the whole family over, and they came into the house and started talking to my mom,” says Lee, the owner of Lee Turkey Farm in East Windsor. “Next thing I know, we’re eating spaghetti for dinner because my mother gave the couple the turkey from our oven.”

The Lee family has operated the 54-acre farm since 1868 and has raised turkeys there ever since Ronny Lee’s father, Dick, joined a turkey club 75 years ago as part of a 4-H program promoting farm skills. When he was 11, Dick raised 33 turkeys to sell to neighbors. Each year he doubled his flock until the turkey club grew into a business that produced about 9,000 turkeys a year.

Initially, Dick sold his birds to local butchers. But starting in the 1960s, large supermarkets forced out the independent butchers. That changed the live-poultry industry for everyone—including the Lee family. “When supermarkets made the butchers disappear, we realized we would have to start processing the turkeys ourselves,” says Ronny Lee, who took over for his father 25 years ago. “We started to sell exclusively to customers.” Today, the sweet spot for Lee Turkey Farm is just 3,000 turkeys annually, all sold to individual customers for pickup at the farm. In addition to being one of the oldest you-pick farms in New Jersey, it is one of the few that raise turkeys on such a small scale.

On a brisk afternoon last fall, a stillness had settled over the farm. It was the calm before the storm. The harvesting of apples and seasonal vegetables like squash and pumpkins had slowed, and the harvest tours had ended. Lee, his wife, Janet, and their 20-year-old son, Dylan, had shifted their focus to the main attraction: a flock of squawking, white-feathered birds with reddish-pink necks and heads. (The male birds, called toms, can sometimes have a bluish-colored head, to impress the hens.)

Last year, Lee sold fresh turkeys on the farm for $3.09 per pound. He also sells frozen ones for $2.89 per pound.That compares to an average of $1.62 per pound last year for a frozen supermarket bird, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service. Despite the higher price, it’s hard to predict how much the farm will net from the turkeys. The initial cost of an infant bird is $3.05, but overhead expenses like wages and grain can vary from year to year.

So while turkeys give the farm its name, they are just a “piece of the puzzle,” Lee says. Fruits and vegetables—such as apples, peaches, broccoli, cucumbers, peppers and eggplant—and harvest tours for schoolchildren help keep the operation profitable.

At age 87, Dick Lee is still hands-on during turkey season, but with some concessions. Manual labor, he says, “lets you know what part of your body is going to go first.” In Dick’s case, it’s his aching back that must be spared. Still, the senior Lee insists that all the work is done the old-fashioned way: by hand, not “in a factory assembly line.”

The preparation for Thanksgiving begins in January, when Ronny Lee places his order with a hatchery in Pennsylvania. The first flock of Broad-Breasted White turkeys arrives in East Windsor in late June when they are less than a day old and go immediately into an 80-to-90 degree, temperature-controlled room for two weeks.

After the incubation stage, the turkeys are placed in brooder shelters—wooden enclosures with wire caging on the front and space for heat lamps in the back. Many farmers consider these old-school structures inefficient and don’t use them anymore, says Lee. But he feels the shelters make it easier to maintain temperature control. The raised structures also protect the birds from predators such as squirrels and raccoons.

After another two weeks, Lee releases the turkeys and guides them toward a larger barn, where they will stay until fully developed. The crimson-colored barn is spacious, with large silver feeders in the center. While there is room for the turkeys to range freely inside the barn, they tend to gather together. Empty water bottles and strings of colored twine tied to the metal wiring of their enclosure keep them entertained. The turkeys, Lee explains, “think they are going to pull the string down. They can’t—but they just keep trying.”

Lee’s hungry charges go through about 8 tons of food a week during peak growing season. Initially, he blends a protein-rich mix of soybeans, barley, wheat and rye with the farm’s own field corn. Toward the end of the season, he switches the ratios and uses a feed that is about 80 percent corn to create a layer of bulk and muscle on the birds—the key to a juicy turkey, he says.

“I change the feed-mixing ratio four times during the growing season,” says Lee. “When the turkeys are young, protein is really important so they have a strong frame for all that weight, but the corn is what bulks them out and gives them flavor.”

By early November, the turkeys are ready for processing. Lee and his crew kill and clean the first batch of birds, refrigerate and freeze them at 10 below zero. He sells them as fresh-frozen turkeys. He says the extreme cold temperature—about 30 degrees lower than most supermarket freezers—preserves the quality of his birds.

But the true test—and the most crucial point of the season—comes during the seven days prior to Thanksgiving. In that short span, the Lee family and a crew of 12 to 15 seasonal workers must kill, clean and package the remaining turkeys—more than 2,100 of them.

It all happens inside an old wagon house built in 1802; Lee contends it is the oldest processing plant in the country. The basement is where Julie Ealy spends her time during the holiday season. The East Windsor woman is among the workers who clean the birds, removing the kidneys, lungs and gizzards, while making sure they are undamaged and of good quality.

Lee typically pays his seasonal workers $12 to $15 per hour. But most of the hired hands, like Bill Hayward, don’t do it for the money. For them, it’s part of a seasonal routine.

Every year, Hayward takes a week of vacation from his job as a computer software engineer in Princeton to work at the farm processing turkeys. Arriving at 5:30 am, his first task is to catch the turkeys. He uses a hook to grab the birds by the ankles, quickly and carefully, so they aren’t bruised or marked. The birds are then crated for processing.

“When I’m at the farm doing the turkeys, there is no stress,” says Hayward, who has been helping since 1998, when he moved from New York to a house down the road from the farm. “I get home and I feel good because I’ve burned some calories, had some fun, and helped out a friend.”

The National Turkey Federation anticipates that Americans will consume more than 46 million turkeys this Thanksgiving, most from major brands like Butterball or Jennie-O Turkey Store. Unlike many large turkey-processing companies, Lee doesn’t use antibiotics or hormones to raise his birds. He says the mass-produced turkeys can’t come close in quality to his.

“You can have a Volkswagen or you can have a Mercedes,” says Lee. “The supermarket turkeys, they’re fine. McDonald’s hamburgers are perfectly fine too, but have you ever had filet mignon? There’s a difference.”

Grace Yu agrees. The West Windsor woman and her son, Jesse, have been buying Lee turkeys for their Thanksgiving dinner for more than a decade. “We moved to the area 15 years ago, and since the farm was nearby, we decided to try the fresh turkey,” says Jesse. “Since then, our guests claim we have the juiciest turkey on Thanksgiving.”

The Lee family takes all orders in person or over the phone (609-448-0629); there are no Internet orders or shipping. By Thanksgiving Day, they will still take phone calls for the few remaining turkeys, but mostly the family hopes for a quiet evening. In addition to son Dylan, the Lees have two daughters: Charli, 28, who lives about two miles from the farm; and Sadie, 25, who lives in Florida. They have never missed a Thanksgiving at the farm.

Janet will serve some of the classics—candied sweet potatoes and mashed potatoes—and of course, turkey, cooked according to Lee’s mother’s original recipe.

After all the work, Ronny Lee still loves to eat turkey. “They are a lot different on the plate than they are out in the building,” he says.

Not everyone in the family agrees. Dylan, who works full-time on the farm and aspires to take over for his father one day, prefers processing turkeys to eating them. “I’ll probably eat Pop Tarts or something,” says Dylan. “The s’mores kind.”

Jamie Lisanti is a graduate of Saint Peter’s University and the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. She lives in Clifton.

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