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Get Back to the Land and Set the Soil Free

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There was a time, not so long ago, when some folks worried about the future of Sylvester Manor.

And for good reason. The 243 acre manor property on Shelter Island was founded as a northern plantation in 1651 and has been in the same family ever since. Archaeologically sensitive (there have been several digs on the property) and historically significant, when the irascible Alice Fiske, the lady of the manor, died in 2006 at the age of 88, many wondered what was next. Would Sylvester Manor and all its acreage be sub-divided for houses — a victim of the inevitable development that has taken so many other pastoral properties on the East End — or would there be someone to step in to usher forth new life, both figuratively and literally, at Sylvester Manor?

Meet Bennett Konesni, a family descendent and the new face of Sylvester Manor. A farmer, a fiddler and soon to be possessor of a post-graduate degree, Konesni is a busy young man. Between many hours of hard hands-on work at the manor where he is gearing up for his first official season farming the property, Bennett commutes regularly up to Keene, N.H. where he is finishing his MBA studies at Antioch, New England. He also makes music — fiddle, banjo and guitar are his preferred instruments — and is part of not one, but two bands made up of friends from his home state of Maine.

The curriculum at Antioch, which focuses on social and environmental sustainability, is coming in handy as Bennett figures out the details of setting up a viable model for Sylvester Manor. He envisions an educational farm that will provide high quality produce to the local community. As a musician, Bennett also wants to make sure that music is an integral part of life at the manor — complete with dances, concerts and workshops.

“I want to see a working farm, at least on part of it,” says Konesni who grew up in Maine, but visited Sylvester Manor as a child and spent a summer working on the archeological dig there as well as at Quail Hill Farm and the Green Thumb, where he cut his teeth as an organic farmer.

“There are about 30 acres of fields as we speak and another 30 to 40 where the brush has grown up into old field,” explains Bennett. “Another 40 to 50 acres is covered in invasive species. I’m starting next summer with two acres of the four acres in windmill field.”

The community will get its first taste of what Bennett has in mind over the Thanksgiving holiday with “Plant & Sing” a weekend celebration of Sylvester Manor. The three-day event includes a Friday folk concert at a Shelter Island gallery, community planting of cover crops on Saturday followed by a potluck supper and music at the manor house and a shape note singing session at the manor on Sunday morning.

Just last week, for the first time in years, windmill field at Sylvester Manor was ploughed and is ready to be planted. Community members are invited to come to Windmill field on Manwaring Road this Saturday at noon to help plant rye seed.

“We’ll line everyone up along one side of the field. We’re asking people to bring a mixing bowl to hold the rye seed,” explains Bennett. “We’ll all walk in a big line straight across the field and distribute the seed.”

Bennett explains that a cover crop like rye is the first step in building up the soil in advance of the planting season. In early spring and summer, crops will go in and Sylvester Manor’s first official growing season of the 21st century will begin.

“Lettuce greens is one of my favorite things to grow,” he says. “It looks good, grows easily and has high value, I also love tomatoes because people love tomatoes and are happy when you give them one. I love growing cold hardy greens for fall. I also love growing peppers and cabbage and heirloom vegetables that are different from the stuff you find in the supermarket.”

Bennett is starting small this year and will bring in a few neighbors to help establish the farm in its inaugural season next summer. He hopes to be able to supply vegetables to local restaurants and shops. By the following year, if all goes well, he will be ready to expand that vision.

“I’ll have a sort of alpha version of the CSA [community supported agriculture] this year with a team of neighbors who want to help in year one,” says Bennett. “It’s a super trial version and not really open to the public per se, this summer. I want to get it up and running smoothly. Next year there will be a sort of application process to get a share in the CSA.”

Bennett explains that with a field that needed planting and faraway friends who were curious about Sylvester Manor, he felt Thanksgiving weekend would be a good time to host “Plant & Sing.” Several of Bennett’s musical friends will be coming down from Maine to lend a hand and you can bet they’ll be bringing along their instruments.

“I knew I needed cover crops and knew I had friends and neighbors who wanted to see Sylvester Manor and I knew I wanted to have an opening celebration,” says Bennett. “I thought to do it all at once. If I have everyone here for the celebration and we could also do some work — put seed down.”

For Bennett, the combination of work and song has become a major passion and one he first contemplated seriously during his summer at Quail Hill.

“Four or five of us out there would be picking beans — talking sports, philosophy, literature,” says Bennett. “But eventually that died down and people wanted to sing. ‘Bye, Bye Miss American Pie,’ is good because it’s long, but that gets old quick.”

“So I started thinking of songs people used to sing in the fields and I thought about what people were singing back in the 1700s — people of all walks,” he adds. “Also the work songs aboard ships. I was a deck hand on schooners in Maine for five summers in high school and we’d sing while raising sails and bringing up the anchor. The first song I sang at a farm was at Quail Hill. I was using a wheel hoe, a friend said, ‘Bennett we have to sing. We need a song, let’s have one.’ So I sang a whaling song.”

After college, Bennett received a Watson Fellowship and expanded on the notion of worker songs. He spent a full year traveling through Europe, Asia and Africa documenting the work songs of farmers, fishermen and herders.

“What I saw was a real connection between movement and music,” explains Bennett. “The noise drives the workers. The work itself also drives the music being created. They continually inform each other. The most striking thing for me was the way you take a situation that is one of the most boring and difficult situations you can think of — like killing three acres of cassava with hoes — and totally transform that mundane experience almost into a recreation.”

“It’s not exactly a party, but it’s not blood, sweat and tears either,” he adds. “That’s a very fertile place. It means you’re enjoying yourself and getting stuff done. It explores the traditional dichotomy between work and play. When you’re having fun while working, it’s almost like not working.”

Bennett is keen to find a way to incorporate music into farming life at Sylvester Manor as well, as evidenced by this weekend’s “Plant & Sing.” He sees music as being integral to the fabric of the place.

“It’s putting the culture back in agriculture,” he says. “I’d like to see that be a big part of what happens at Sylvester manor which is the story of food and culture in America.”

There have been several eras at Sylvester Manor, including the first which began long before there was a manor — when Native Americans farmed and fished on Shelter Island’s land and along its shore. Many Native American techniques were put to use when Sylvester Manor was founded during the global feudal era — African, Native Americans and Europeans working side by side to supply food and materials to sugar plantations in Barbados. Sylvester Manor’s third era was from 1735 to the mid-1800s when it was a regional farm providing food up and down the East Coast. Bennett notes the manor’s fourth era can be traced to his great-great-great-grandfather, Eben Norton Horsford, chair of the chemistry department at Harvard and the inventor of baking powder who helped launch the industrial food era. He hopes that Sylvester Manor’s next era will incorporate the most positive aspects of its previous incarnations.

“The new model will keep the best of what was in the past — the best of creative and cultural interaction, the best of environmentally friendly food production and natural systems, the best of the robust regional food web.

“The sustainable food era will be the fifth era,” he says. “Delicious food that is fair to the people growing and buying it, healthy for consumers, the environment and finances, and a joy to be a part of. On the cultural side, it will be community oriented with song and art, dance and craft all in the process.

“Sylvester Manor has so many interesting legacies — from slavery to industrial food, it’s an amazing story,” he adds. “The fact I get to create this fifth era is exciting. This ‘Plant & Sing’ is the kick-off to that era.”

On Friday, November 28 at 7:30 p.m. “Plant & Sing” begins with folk music at Mosquito Hawk Gallery (24 North Ferry Road) by Lissa Schneckenburger and Bennett’s band “Fireside” which specializes in Appalachian songs and Scandinavian fiddle tunes. Saturday’s community planting of cover crops begins at noon and all are welcome. The Thanksgiving leftover potluck dinner and music follows at Sylvester Manor at 5 p.m. (this event is sold out) and on Sunday, Shape note singing begins at 10 a.m. For more information or to check on availability for events, call Sylvester Manor at 749-0626.

Above: Farmer Bennett Konesni in the freshly ploughed windmill field at Sylvester Manor