At Lee Turkey Farm, we have a heritage to be proud of. Sitting on 54 acres nestled in suburbia, our farm has been worked by seven generations of the same family.
The current owners of Lee Turkey Farm are Ronny and Janet Lee. The farm was first purchased by Ronny’s great-great-great-grandfather, Clement Updike, in 1868. The original farmhouse, where the owners still reside, was constructed by Aaron Forman in 1802. The property was passed through several hands until Clement bought the property, and it has been passed down through the generations.
Ronny’s son, Dylan, works side-by-side with Ronny farming the property, and Janet runs the farm market. Their daughter, Charli, helps with various things like social media projects, designing the yearly corn maze theme, processing turkeys, etc. Ronny’s parents, Richard (Dick) and Ruth Lee, still reside in the small farmhouse that was built at the front of the property in 1923 by Richard’s parents.
Richard says, “I enjoy seeing the customers come back over the years. They raised their own kids and bring back their grandkids. I’m glad I didn’t sell the farm when everyone else was selling. I love the place. I am happy to be a survivor.”
Throughout the years, each generation built on the contributions of the past. From the 1860s to the 1900s, it was a basic farm of the time with cows, horses, chickens, and pigs. Then they started focusing on orchards. Half the farm was an apple orchard and the other was various fruits and berries. Apples were sold in Trenton markets and cider mills. Ronny’s great-grandfather, Charles Lee, and his son, Levi, did well until the Great Depression. Things were difficult for everyone during that period, but they pulled through thanks to Levi’s hard work and persistence.
During World War 2, Richard served in the U.S. Army. When he returned home from the war, the Depression had ended, but his father owed the bank a considerable sum of money. Levi was contemplating selling the farm and becoming a bus driver. Richard came up with the idea to begin raising turkeys by the thousands, and they were out of debt in 2 years! Turkeys really turned the farm around, which is why the name was changed to Lee Turkey Farm, in honor of the birds.
At peak, our farm-raised 7000 turkeys, which we sold typically live to various places, including a Kosher plant in Lakewood. When the Federal government became more strict in their regulations for processing, some of the clients could no longer stay in business, so we began processing turkeys ourselves and built retail routes to supply turkeys to local “Mom and Pop” stores and butcher shops.
In the 1960s, small stores and butcher shops began to be replaced by supermarkets that had their own meat suppliers, so we cut back on the number of turkeys raised and did all the processing ourselves, selling directly to the customers.
During this same time, we were also selling apples and other produce through the local auction market, but it became very corrupt. Bidders would get together before the auction and agree to bid on a certain price and then split the load afterwards. Richard read about a farmer in Michigan who was doing pick your own cherries, so in 1964 Richard and Ruth decided to try it with apples and strawberries. Thus Lee Turkey Farm became the first Pick Your Own farm in New Jersey. It was so successful that we expanded it to include peaches, sweet corn, and all the other produce we grew on the farm at the time.
When Ronny was in high school, his father came up with the idea to give him some land of his own to plant his own crops to sell. Ronny started with pumpkins and peas, and that quickly expanded to include peppers, eggplant, broccoli, cabbage, melons, blackberries, and more. Ronny went into partnership with his parents in 1984.
Richard and his wife, Ruth, began giving tours to local school children in the 1960s. As they became more popular, neighbors were hired as guides. When Ronny graduated high school, he began filling in when a guide didn’t show up, and it became quickly obvious that tour groups would much rather have the actual farmer as their guide, especially when that farmer was as entertaining as Ronny. Eventually, he became the only guide.
In 1999, a corn maze was added to the farm after there was a drought that summer and Ronny was looking for a way to still profit off of his cornfield. There is a new theme every year, and it is fun for the whole family.
Lee Turkey Farm no longer sells to any markets; we only sell directly to our customers. We hold our farm to a very high standard and strive to produce the highest quality products possible, in addition to meticulously maintaining our beautiful property.
Fun fact: the brown farmhouse on our property was one of the first houses in East Windsor to have running water, electric lights, and a telephone!