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Harvesting the Joy of Life

Posted on 07 October 2011

A community makes a joyful noise while working the farm.

A community makes a joyful noise while working the farm.

By Emily J. Weitz

At Sylvester Manor, the farm crew sings in the fields. With field hollers and work songs from all over the world, these workers harvest crops like garlic, potatoes, kale and carrots. Together, they’ve built a timber frame farm stand, and they have ignited the kitchen on the Shelter Island farm with song as they cooked. The idea of bringing a community together through music is at the heart of Sylvester Manor, and for the fourth year running, they’ll be inviting the entire East End to join with them for song, dance, poetry, theatre, art, work and play.

Between four and ten workers live on the farm at any one time. Because Bennett Konesni, Executive Director of Sylvester Manor and descendent of the Sylvester family, believes wholeheartedly in the power of music to create productivity as well as community, all the workers learn these songs.

“Most of the people on the farm are just out of college,” says Konesni, “and they plant and work together but they also cook together. We have a staff band called the Sylvester Manor Work Songers. We’re learning how to be farmers, musicians, cooks and simply how to be members of a community.” This combination of farming and music is “totally unique,” says Konesni. “But it’s also very old. That’s a fun dynamic – being new and innovative and traditional and old.”

Life on the farm synthesizes into such a tight-knit group in part because of the Manor House. The house, built in 1735, is still the warm center of the farm, where workers live and cook and sing. But it presents a problem, too, to live in this creaky aging house that needs to be preserved.

“We’re trying to figure out the right balance between use and preservation,” says Konesni. “To my mind, this is preservation through cultivation. Whether you’re talking about the landscape or the structures, we’re trying to help keep this place alive, not turn it into a dusty museum.”

That’s one reason that the farm has made Plant and Sing an annual event to get the wider community involved, to keep it vibrant. Everyone is invited to help with the garlic harvest, to join in the work songs, and to take part in the music.

“People really should be cooking together again and learning to grow food together again,” says Konesni. “There are those connections that used to be a part of our food system in our communities. This has been disappearing over the years. It’s an old way of doing things that we’re trying to get people back into by modeling in our staff the relationships and attitudes that will hopefully spread to the community and the world.”

Plant and Sing is a weekend-long celebration that features thirty performers. On Friday night, there will be an old-fashioned contra barn dance at the Historical Society on Shelter Island to kick off the festivities.

“There used to be a robust barn dance scene on farms all over the East End,” says Konesni. “These sorts of connections are the way it’s always been, but we’ve lost touch with it in the last fifty years.”

On Saturday, the day will start bright and early with a 7 a.m. yoga class, and then the sweet potato harvest begins. At 10 a.m., there will be a guided tree walk around the property, and the literary events start at 11 a.m. with a creative writing workshop with Brad Davis. At noon, music begins on the main stage, and will continue through the day.

Other happenings include a puppet show and face painting for kids, poetry readings and food talks. Sunday morning will feature another yoga class, followed by garlic planting at 8 a.m. The music resumes at 3 p.m. and continues through the night.

Through work and food and music, the people at Sylvester Manor have created a strong community that extends from the workers themselves to the 91 families involved in the CSA to the businesses and individuals that support Plant and Sing and the neighboring farms that have ongoing dialogues.

But why does it matter? Why should we create these opportunities to bring the community closer?

“There are three things I think about [when it comes to the benefits of communal activities],” says Konesni. “First, it’s a way to develop social capital: the connections that help a small community get through hard times. Second, the economic capital of a town: In the case of the farm, a dance brings in money and creates a connection between the community and the foods producer. And economically for the town, the farm will be here if the ferry stops running.”

In the case of Shelter Island, the argument for local gets a whole lot stronger when you think of the dependence on the ferries to get any products over. But the third reason Konesni lists for the purpose of these activities might be the most compelling.

“They are direct access to joyful living,” he says. “A goal in life is to experience life in its full color. When you’re at a barn dance, you see the community in its full color. Or when you see a poet reading of harvesting pumpkins. There’s a richness that connects you directly to the joy of life.”

Plant and Sing will take place this weekend from Friday evening through Sunday, and will feature events across the spectrum from hard work to hard play. Hopefully, it will strike a balance between the two. Learn more and see a full schedule at

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