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Eating What You Grow: A Farm Works to Preserve the Culture of Food

Posted on 02 March 2011

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Emily J. Weitz

For 15 generations, the decisions made at and about Sylvester Manor, which comprises 243 acres on Shelter Island, were in the hands of one person. As a family-owned and operated estate since 1652, the fate of the place was always at the mercy of the head of the family. But that is about to change.

Eben Ostby, who now owns the property, along with his nephew Bennett Konesni, who manages the land, are working towards either selling or leasing the property to the non-profit they’ve set up. Sylvester Manor Educational Farm is a non-profit responsible for “creating educational programs, operating the farm, and maintaining and preserving the property,” says Konesni.

“We want the non-profit to be the mechanism we need to preserve the amazing things about this place,” he said.

Since Konesni moved onto the farm and took over the day-to-day workings at the manor, the gates have been opened wide to the public. He estimates that they’ve had about 15,000 visitors in that time for events ranging from Plant and Sing, a festival that happened in the fall, to the weekly CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) gatherings.

As a CSA, Sylvester Manor has over 60 members who get all the organic local produce the farm has to offer in the growing season. So these outreach efforts are not going to change as a result of the movement towards non-profit status.

What will change is that “We will be subject to more oversight and rules,” says Konesni, “and it’s helping us be more clear with ourselves and each other, in the organization and with our neighbors, about what our purpose and mission is.”

That mission is still in the drafting stages, and Konesni explains that “it’s historical and cultural, dealing with food and farming and the culture of food – Food culture over time.”

This transition stands to benefit the community “hugely,” says Konesni.

“As Eben donates parts of the land to the non-profit, those decisions about the land use will be made by the Board of Directors and not just Eben.”

That means that that one person who was making the decisions about a major chunk of land on Shelter Island — which includes estuaries, wetlands, and a lot of open space — won’t be able to call all the shots.

“The Board of Directors is answerable to donors and the community,” says Konesni, “and that will be a huge change in the way the property is run.”

So why, after 15 generations, is this family choosing to give up a lot of its future rights in regards to the land they inherited?

“It’s an amazing story here and the story should be told,” Konesni says simply. “For us the best way to protect this place is to start shielding it from a history that has seen it divided and sold off. Originally our family owned the entire island. Over the generations they keep chopping it off and selling it off. We can look towards the future and see less and less open space on Shelter Island. We can preserve the character of the place by making this transition. And we get to tell this amazing story of the history of food culture in America.”

Twenty-two acres of the manor are already protected from ever being developed for residential, commercial, or industrial purposes. Eighty more acres are being looked at for similar measures. And with the land safe from development, the people at Sylvester manor can continue to utilize it in ways they already do, and to look at how else they can harness the richness of this resource. Already, there’s an organic farm growing potatoes, leeks, tomatoes, lettuce, eggplants, and much more.

“We’re a diversified small farm,” Konesni says. This year, they hope to focus more on products like pesto made fresh from the garlic and basil grown on the farm.

“We want to create food we enjoy eating,” he says.

Changes are happening on the farm as we speak, since they just purchased five dairy cows. Konesni says they haven’t decided how best to use them, but he’s thinking maybe they’ll start making yogurt. In the future, the possibilities are limitless, and Konesni is open to what may come.

“We might get into growing oysters and other intensive aquaponics,” he says. But for now, “We support shellfishing by keeping the bays clean. We don’t put toxic sprays in shellfish grounds, and we are working to make sure our type of farming increases water cleanliness and quality… There’s a traditional food culture on Shelter Island, including deer hunting, and we support that.”

As the CSA membership grows and the public becomes more and more a part of Sylvester Manor, Konesni’s arms are wide open.

“We’re not an exclusive club. We want to give everyone access to this land, this story, and this place that belong to the entire island and the whole East End,” he said.

The staff at Sylvester Manor is just gearing up for another bustling season on Shelter Island. The dates and times of public events will be posted on their web site (www.sylvestermanor.org). But some things the public has to look forward to include concerts both outdoors and in the manor house, workshops on cooking and other activities related to food and growing, and a summer camp for kids. In addition, the annual Plant and Sing Festival, which features music, dancing, and harvesting, among other activities, is slated to take place during the harvest season.

As for joining the CSA at Sylvester Manor, Livestock Manager Andrew Raymond explains that “We are currently at our maximum capacity of 80 subscribers. We’ve grown from 25 in the first year to 60 last year, and now we’ve added 20 more.” But to get on the waiting list, go to their web site and click on “Contact Us”, and you can submit your request. Each year the CSA intends to grow, and new people will be chosen by a lottery system.


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