Growing up in Rowan County, farmer Lee Menius was surrounded by his family’s agricultural past. The 50 acres he still calls home have been handed from one generation to the next since at least 1870. Yet as a young man choosing a future path, farming was not on his radar. “I pretty much hated it when I was a kid,” he recalls over pizza at Charlotte’s 7th Street Public Market.
You’d never know it to talk lamb or pork production today with the lean man across the table. Sporting his ubiquitous ball cap combined with a placid, crinkled gaze, he masks a wicked sense of humor. Menius can rattle off processing weights and revenue estimates as easily as urbanites spouting Starbucks orders. The owner of China Grove’s Wild Turkey Farms (WTF) has a harder time figuring out what brought him so literally back to the land after starting college as a textile major.
“Good looking girls in animal science,” jokes his wife Domisty. “He decided to switch majors.”
Whatever it was, Lee ended up leaving NC State with both a future wife and an animal-science degree of his own. He shows no signs of regret as he and Domisty settle ever deeper into the farming life with their two young sons Charlie and Rosty.
It’s been 17 years since WTF came into existence, but only five since Lee left a job with the state’s Cooperative Extension to make the farm his sole source of income. 2015 marks another step in its growth, as WTF moves away from retail sales at local farmers’ markets to focus on wholesaling pork and lamb to area restaurants and food vendors.
As he discusses the business, two words continually crop up in Lee’s vocabulary: consistency and quality. He chose to raise Berkshire-cross pigs because of the breed’s reputation for high-quality marbled flesh, and he carefully manages his breeding program to retain amiable animals that produce reliably good meat.
“My goal is that everything you get from me is going to be high quality, and consistent quality all the way through.”
Lee feels lucky to have moved so quickly to a mostly wholesale business model, and recognizes the role played by Piedmont Culinary Guild.
“I think it’s been a really good networking opportunity for us as farmers to get in front of chefs,” he says, “and for chefs to talk to each other and to run into us.” Today Wild Turkey Farms counts about 15 regular restaurant clients around the city, including Pure Pizza, whose pie that day came topped with WTF chorizo. Through the PCG, Lee says he’s recently gotten another half-dozen inquiries from area chefs.
As unpredictable as his career trajectory has been, Lee has clear goals for the future of his farm. Through his years of hard-working experience and his association with PCG, Lee understands price pressures faced by restaurants, and has developed a reputation for working with chefs to get what they need at a price that makes sense.
“At the end of the year, you made money, I made money, we’re all happy and we’re in it together.”
Profile written by Alison Leininger