Freeholders to preserve family farm

Lee Turkey Farm guaranteed to remain farmland

By: Marisa Maldonado
   EAST WINDSOR — It was easy to see all 54 acres of the Lee Turkey Farm in Thursday’s cloudless weather, from the building that houses the turkeys to the apple and peach trees from which people can pick fruit.
   That farm, which has been operated by six generations of the Lee family since 1968, is now guaranteed to remain farmland. Mercer County has bought the rights to the land for almost $10 million.
   Owner Ronny Lee said the possibility of keeping the land in the family — his 12-year-old son, Dylan, has expressed an interest in farming — is what led him to pass up offers from developers that started at about $15 million.
   "I am not putting pressure on my son to farm — it’s his choice," Mr. Lee said at a press conference Thursday. "But I don’t want to be the one to pull the rug out and say, ‘Nah, it’s not worth it.’"
   The deal was announced Thursday at the farm, which lies at the corner of Hickory Corner and Dutch Neck roads. The Mercer County Board of Chosen Freeholders was scheduled to approve the purchase at a meeting Thursday night. Freeholder Pat Colavita said it would pass unanimously.
   The land now is worth about $1 million.
   The county will pay the $9.8 million to the Lee family over 30 years — an amount that Mr. Lee described as tiny compared to what they could have made from developers. But the family was not easily swayed, said Mr. Lee’s father, Richard.
   "Ronny used to say, ‘They always came on the wrong day,’" Richard Lee said. "That’s the day when everything goes wrong. That’s when you’re vulnerable."
   Now Ronny Lee can sell the land only to another farmer who plans to sell produce, he said.
   The Lees also own an additional 10 acres of farmland. Mr. Lee and Mercer County Executive Brian Hughes said preservation options for that land are being explored.
   Now was the time to preserve the majority of his land, Ronny Lee said. An attorney has estimated that he would have to pay at least $2 million in estate taxes if his parents died to keep the farm running, Mr. Lee said.
   His mother, Ruth Lee, also cited estate taxes as an obstacle to keeping the land in the family. They’ve been aware of the financial burden of farming for some time, said Ms. Lee, who has been married to Richard for 48 years.
   "When my husband (proposed), the second thing he said was, ‘I’m not sure I’m going to be able to support you,’" Ms. Lee said.
   Richard Lee started selling live turkeys after getting involved in a local 4-H club. After starting with 40 turkeys, the operation grew to selling 7,000 a year. The family eventually started cleaning and selling the turkeys directly to consumers.
   In 1980 the family started growing produce — a decision, Ms. Lee said, that was partially done to target vegetarian customers. Richard and Ruth Lee still help with the farm operations, and Ronny Lee’s wife, Janet, runs a store on the farm.
   People from as far away as New York come to Lee Turkey Farm to pick fruit and buy turkeys — including some of the dignitaries present Thursday.
   East Windsor Mayor Janice Mironov, who called the farm a "very beloved part of the township" said she has brought her niece and nephew there to pick strawberries. Mr. Hughes said he found out recently that his parents often had bought turkeys from the farm.
   "Now I know why I had to lose some weight recently," he said with a laugh. "It was all those great Lee turkeys I had as a child."
   The Lee turkey also is in Ronny Lee’s blood — he started doing chores around the farm as a child and got paid for produce he sold.
   "(My father) paid me minimum wage, but I was worth more than that," Mr. Lee joked.
   Now son Dylan also does paid chores around the farm. If Dylan decides to continue operating the farm, he will join a long legacy of Lee farmers — as his grandfather referenced Thursday.
   "My father and grandfather are looking down," Richard Lee said, "and I think they’re just as pleased as we are to have this land preserved."