Tag Archive | "Sylvester Manor"

Family’s Past in Slave Trade To Be Explored in Shelter Island Film Screening

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Dain, Jim and James Perry at James DeWolf’s family cemetery in Bristol, Rhode Island.   Allie Humenuk photo

Dain, Jim and James Perry at James DeWolf’s family cemetery in Bristol, Rhode Island. Allie Humenuk photo

 

By Stephen J. Kotz

Katrina Browne was working on a master’s degree in theology at the Pacific School of Religion in Berkley in 1999 when she stumbled upon a dark chapter in her own family’s history.

A descendent of the DeWolf family who were pillars of society in Bristol, Rhode Island, in the late 1700s and early 1800s, Ms. Browne learned by reading a booklet compiled for family members by grandmother that her wealthy ancestors, who she knew as seafaring merchants with a bit of a dodgy past,  had actually made their fortune off the slave trade and, in fact, were among the biggest slave traders in the country.

That uncomfortable knowledge set her off on an eight-year journey that resulted in the making of the film, “Tracing the Trade: A Story from the Deep North,” which followed a trip Ms. Browne and nine other family members made to West Africa and Cuba to learn more about the slave trade and come to terms with their family history.

“No one realized they brought over 10,000 Africans to the country in chains,” she says in the film. “A half million of their descendants could be alive today.”

On Friday, in a joint program commemorating Black History Month, Sylvester Manor and the Shelter Island Public Library will sponsor a screening of the film at the library at 7 p.m. Following the 51-minute documentary, Ms. Browne, her brother Whitney Browne, who helped with pre-production work, and Georgette Grier-Key, the director of the Eastville Community Historic Society will lead what is being called a “facilitated dialogue” in which audience members will be encouraged to discuss slavery and its far reaching and continuing impact on race relations in this country.

On Saturday, at 10 a.m., there will be a community remembrance in the “Burying Ground of the Colored People of Sylvester Manor,”  where slaves, indentured servants, and other African-Americans were buried. Taking part in the event at the graveyard will be Sandra Arnold, the founding director of the Burial Data Base Project of Enslaved African-Americans, which is attempting to locate and identify those buried in slave cemeteries across the country.

Ms. Browne’s film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2008 and later that year reached a national audience of 1.5 million viewers when it was broadcast on PBS’s Point of View series. From there, Ms. Browne said, it took on a life of its own, with frequent requests for screenings from museums, historical societies, and libraries.

It even led family members to found the Tracing Center, a nonprofit organization that Ms. Browne served as executive director of until earlier this year when she turned those duties over to one of her cousins, James Perry, who also took part in the family trip to Africa and Cuba.

According to its website, the Tracing Center sponsors programs to “foster awareness, dialogue, and engagement by inviting people to explore race today through the lens of forgotten history.

Ms. Browne’s film recounts how Bristol, which is well known for its long-running Fourth of July parade, seemed blissfully unaware of the DeWolfs’ role, over three generations, in the slave trade. Linden Place, the three-story family mansion, which the viewer learns was paid for from a single year’s earnings, is now a museum and catering hall. On a visit to St. Michael’s Episcopal Church in the town, Ms. Browne, who was raised in Philadelphia, says in the movie, “It seems the DeWolfs were the founding fathers. They were everywhere. They even paid for the stained glass.”

The DeWolfs were no different than many other Northern businessmen who were drawn to the lucrative slave trade, although they clearly went all in, selling shares in their ships to townspeople, founding their own insurance company to cover the risk, and even starting their own bank.

Taking part in the “Triangle Trade,” the DeWolfs shipped rum to West Africa, where it was traded  for slaves. The slaves, in turn, were shipped to Cuba, where they were sold at auction or put to work on one of the family’s five plantations, where sugar cane was grown to make molasses, which, in turn, was used make more rum.

One of the DeWolfs in a journal entry dated September 11, 1806, reported selling 121 slaves at auction in Havana for a total of $36,300, more than $550,000 in today’s dollars.

“She pulled off the Band-Aid and exposed this history,” said Whitney Browne, who will also take part in the Friday’s post-film discussion. “Over three generations, it was the family business. Learning about it is not something that is always easy to talk about.”

“I’m hoping it creates a dialogue that goes beyond the film,” said Ms. Grier-Key of the Eastville Community Historical Society. “This conversation needs to continue. Let’s peel back the layers and see what’s there. A lot of the problems today have very deep roots.”

Sylvester Manor and the Shelter Island Public Library will host a screening of “Tracing the Trade: A Story from the Deep North” at 7 p.m. on Friday, February 21 at the library on North Ferry Road on Shelter Island, followed by a group discussion with the filmmakers, and Georgette Grier-Key of the Eastville Community Historic Society. On Saturday, February 22, a community remembrance in the “Burying Ground of the Colored People of Sylvester Manor” will take place at 10 a.m. For more information, call 749-0042.

 

Shelter Island Farmland Preserved

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More than 57 acres of farmland was donated to the not-for-profit Sylvester Manor Educational Farm last week, a gift from Sylvester Manor owner Eben Fiske Ostby. As soon as the land was transferred to the Sylvester Manor Educational Farm, both Suffolk County and the Town of Shelter Island protected it as farmland through conservation support.

The gift brings total farmland owned by the locally governed nonprofit to over 83 acres and the total land preserved at Sylvester Manor to over 105 acres.

“Protecting a second parcel of the historic Sylvester Manor property is a remarkable achievement, both for the local and county governments and for the Sylvester Manor Educational Farm,” said Fiske-Ostby, the tenth generation proprietor of Sylvester Manor. “We now have a significant landholding preserved for future generations, and with it a crucial foundation for the Educational Farm and its mission. So many people contributed to making this effort a success, and I am both indebted to them and proud of the community that supported it.”

“We are truly thankful for the generosity of Eben Ostby and the commitment of the town and county in supporting a sustainable future for Sylvester Manor,” said the organization’s executive director, Cara Loriz. “With the help of Peconic Land Trust and our many supporters, we can now celebrate the realization of our initial preservation goals for this remarkable property.”

Sylvester Manor Educational Farm now operates on the 243 acre property, and as part of its mission is working to cultivate, preserve and explore the manor’s lands, buildings and stories, inviting new thought about the history and culture of food, both on Shelter Island and across the country.

The newly designated preserved farmland extends south along Manhanset Road from the historic farm field along the northern boundary of Sylvester Manor which was preserved in August. The new acreage is gradually being cleared of succession old field vegetation and supported cover crop and livestock this past season. The farm’s plans for the protected acreage include expanding livestock and row crop production, establishing orchards and making acreage available to lease farmers and community gardeners.

Finding Culture at Plant & Sing

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By Emily J. Weitz

In the five years since Sylvester Manor’s Plant & Sing was first conceived, it has evolved from a harvest festival to an all-inclusive celebration of food on the East End.

“The culture of food is really the big thing at Sylvester Manor,” says Bennett Konesni, executive director of the Shelter Island farm and 15th generation descendent of Sylvester Manor’s original family. “We’re looking at what a food system really looks like – the music, the poetry, the plays, the dishes and restaurants, the farm work and the yoga. We are saying that food doesn’t have to be just a thing on your plate.”

And it’s through celebrating the many facets of food that Konesni believes people can get back in touch with their environment.

“We’ve lost something really major – that deep connection to the land and the things that live on the land,” he says. “It used to be that people knew what things were blooming at which time and which trees had good wood for different uses. That has been lost with industrialization.”

Plant & Sing started out as a way to bring people back into that realm of knowledge. By inviting their neighbors onto the farm and teaching them how to plant garlic or pick a banjo, the Sylvester Manor crew found that they could help people develop that connection, not just to the land, but to life itself.

“People are starting to come to taste our tomatoes and sweet peppers,” says Konesni, “to embrace this place in its new form… It’s really gratifying. To have this place where people can come and nourish themselves with food and fun, and start living the life they want to live by taking music lessons or having a fresh pie. This is a place where it is not unusual to have a positive attitude and enjoy life and music and the fruits of human culture.”

One person for whom this message resonated deeply was Béla Fleck, the Grammy Award-winning banjo player who will be headlining Plant & Sing this year. Fleck has been nominated in more categories than any other musician in Grammy history, and has taken home 13 Grammy Awards.

“He thinks what we’re doing is a great idea,” says Konesni, “so he is donating this performance. The festival will be held on the lawn by the water, looking out over Gardiner’s Creek behind the manor house.”

Because of the historical significance of this setting, Konesni believes Fleck’s performance will be especially powerful.

“In the 1600s, ships used to sail in here to empty their cargo of sugar and molasses and rum, and also slaves. This was a slave plantation. And slaves brought the banjo to this country,” he adds. “So to have Béla playing the banjo, in this place where Europeans and Africans and Native Americans were exchanging culture and technology in a real way… The banjo is symbolic.”

He believes the music is also a way to put the realities of perhaps the most difficult chapter of this country’s history into perspective.

“How do you begin to understand what slavery has meant for American history and what it’s meant to this site?” he asks. “You call attention to it and start to think about what the Africans brought here, and the ways our cultures are intertwined just by having this music around.”

In addition to the profundity of having a master banjo player on these grounds, Konesni is excited because, as a musician himself, Fleck is a personal hero.

“He’s driven a lot of my own musical direction,” says Konesni. “He’s been to Africa and traveled all over hunting down the origins of the banjo. He’s a musical polymath, and so humble and kind and fun. We are really lucky.”

And it’s the connections that ultimately form the essence of Plant & Sing — connections to the land, connections to the music and connections to the history.

“It’s about those cultural things that come straight from the soil and the land itself,” says Konesni. “Our pigs are heritage pigs. The music is heritage music. The furniture is heritage furniture, and the ideas are heritage ideas. They need to be updated, of course, but they are old ideas that resonate. I feel so lucky to be living on an island with neighbors that support that alignment and these ideas.”

What’s Happening at Plant & Sing

Saturday will be jam-packed at Sylvester Manor with a Literary Lounge running from noon to 6 p.m. Featured writers, poets and playwrights include Quail Hill farm’s director and poet Scott Chaskey reading from his new book “Seedtime” at 1:30 p.m., Megan Chaskey and the Green Theater Collective at 3 p.m., Kathy Lynch and Christian McLean reading at 4:30 p.m., and Tom Leopold and Bill Persky sharing Food Stories and Songs at 5:15 p.m.

There will be a film screening of “Greenhorns: 50 Dispatches from the New Farmers’ Movement,” at 7 p.m.

Music will start at 1 p.m. Saturday with the Who Dat Loungers, followed by 10 other acts ranging from bluegrass to Gothic Americana. Headliners Béla Fleck and Abigail Washburn take the stage at 6 p.m.

Farm events will also take place throughout the day, including sunrise yoga with Heidi Folkine at 6 a.m., the sweet potato harvest from 9 a.m. to 12 p.m., a nature hike at 10 a.m. and a tour of the historic grounds at 2 p.m. A traditional contra barn dance will start at 9 p.m., followed by late night garlic shucking from 10 p.m. to midnight.

Sunday will be a simple day of yoga at 6 a.m., followed by garlic planting from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.

Community Supporting Small Farms

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By Emily J. Weitz

When Quail Hill Farms started as Full Circle Farm in 1988, it was the first Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) initiative in New York State. With ten families harvesting fruit from trees in Bridgehampton, the idea of sharing the labor and sharing the fruits of that labor was born.

Now there are dozens of CSAs across the state, and as many as 12,000 across the country. Quail Hill, which found its current home in Amagansett in the early 90s, has grown from the original ten families to 250. Even the term CSA has become commonplace, and is being touted by senators like Kristin Gillibrand as a way to support local economies and increase healthy living.

As more and more people learn about CSAs and join them, there are some expected growing pains that occur. The whole concept has had to evolve, as has the practice.

“Serving 250 families is very different than serving ten,” says Scott Chaskey, Director of Quail Hill. “Serving more people, you use more acreage, grow more food, sponsor more events… We’ve grown in all directions.”

Steven Eaton, who got his start in organic farming with Quail Hill six years ago, has seen different angles of the CSA. After two years with Quail Hill, he became an independent farmer on Springs Fireplace Road, farming one plot of land and selling his produce to friends and neighbors, and at the local farmers’ market once a week. Last March he was hired by Sylvester Manor on Shelter Island as the crew leader, which means he’s out in the fields managing the work.

“From my perspective,” says Eaton, “the idea of CSA has changed from what the name suggests. Community Supported Agriculture implies a community around the farm, supporting farmers in their work to ensure their food security. These people are saying ‘We want our produce to come from farms in our area and we don’t want those farms to struggle.’ It was a way for the community to make sure these farms that they value survive.”

In recent years, though, Eaton has noticed a change in the reasons people are joining CSAs, and he fears that it’s sometimes more of a trend than a real connection to the land that attracts them. Of course, there are still the people who genuinely feel it’s important to be connected to a farm, Eaton says. They want to know where their food is coming from and have a relationship with that food.

“This is more than a farmer exchanging with the community through a retail space,” he says. “At Sylvester Manor we have our regular harvest days, where we get feedback and have conversations. That’s very supportive to the farmer.”

Eaton believes that the name CSA is growing outdated, and it no longer reflects the trends happening on the East End. When the physical connection to the farm and the farming practices is not there, there is a disconnect between the people and the farm, so that they lose the very understanding of the farm that a CSA is supposed to create.

“If someone is expecting vegetables delivered to their doorstep, what happens if the basket doesn’t come or something isn’t in it,” he asked. “If you’re actually engaging in all the dimensions of a farm, you can understand the delicate nature of food and farming and how rich and joyous and difficult it can be… The trend of CSAs moving away from multi-dimensional participation is a huge disadvantage. That understanding, that dialogue, between farmer and community becomes lost.”

At the same time, as CSAs become more popular, more small, local farms are able to flourish. Balsam Farms, which has been around for a decade, began its CSA just two years ago.

“The CSA is only a small part of our farm,” says Ian Calder-Piedmonte, co-founder and farmer at Balsam Farms, who also is the outreach director for EECO Farm in East Hampton. “We prepare a box with items that are in season, and members come to pick it up at the farm. For us, it’s all about growing food and seeing people. We want as many people eating our food as possible.”

At Quail Hill, Chaskey has no problem calling the farm a CSA in the truest sense of the word.

“It’s who we are,” he says. “We started as a CSA, and we’ve influenced the beginning of lots of other CSAs, not only on the East End. Besides people around here, I’ve traveled all over the country speaking about community agriculture, running workshops and presentations about how you do it.”

The difference between Quail Hill and all the other farms on the East End is, at Quail Hill, the members do all the farming and harvesting. They get an intimate understanding of what is growing and how because they are involved in the whole process. At Sylvester Manor and other farms, like Amber Waves in Amagansett, members do some of the harvesting. For example, Eaton says, if members get a pint of string beans that week, they might be sent to the fields to pick their own.

“Being at the farm when the CSA shows up,” he says, “they’ll get out in the fields and pick basil, they’ll start talking, and they start to see those dimensions of farming. That, to me, is the biggest asset to upholding and encouraging that nature of the CSA. It educates like no other. If you sign up for twenty weeks and you come and see the ups and downs on the farm for twenty weeks, that’s a good education. That’s a huge chunk of the community that understands the nature of food, and how real food is. The value of food and farms goes way up the more people are educated. The value of food goes down otherwise.”

Photography by Michael Heller

Hitting the Rock with Blue Highway

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By Emily J. Weitz


When Blue Highway takes the stage at the Shelter Island School this weekend, they will not be the first Grammy-nominated bluegrass band to do so. Rather, Blue Highway is entering into an elite group of bluegrass greats to make the trek to the island in the dead of winter. Why? Because the bluegrass scene on the rock is as alive as it is in the hills of West Virginia.

Bluegrass music, which usually consists of stringed instruments including banjos, mandolins, fiddles, basses, and guitars, is quintessential American music. And while its roots are in the South and it has flourished in the West, it is not so common to find good ol’ fashioned hoedowns in the Northeast. But Shelter Island begs to differ.

“Bluegrass has taken hold here because we’re an island,” says Bennett Konesni, Executive Director of Sylvester Manor and member of the Free Seedlings, the band opening for Blue Highway on Saturday. “Most people here are aware of the isolation from the mainland, and they like it. They are very independent-minded and at the same time care about community, family, landscape and the culture of their place. Bluegrass music is independent minded music that talks about those things and helps you feel good even when times are tough. It matches the mindset and ways of life of an island community.”

These annual bluegrass shows began in 1994 when  Shelter Island School put in a beautiful 300-person auditorium. Back then, Tom Hashagen and his acoustic band Homespun thought it would be a good idea to get some talent from off the island to take advantage of the space.

“We started with sponsorship from the Shelter Island Historical Society,” says Hashagen, “and had our first show, Phil Rosenthal and the Stockwell Brothers, in the spring of that year. The response was so good that we started doing annual shows, and as the reputation for the venue grew, it became easier to book quality acts.”

Some of bluegrass music’s most prominent names, including Tim and Mollie O’Brien, Nickle Creek, and The Steep Canyon Rangers have since graced the stage.

This year’s act, Blue Highway, has been nominated for two Grammy awards and has been laden with numerous IBMAs (International Bluegrass Music Awards) since they first took the stage on New Year’s Eve of 1994. The group — which consists of Jason Burleson (banjo, guitar, mandolin), Rob Ickes (dobro), Shawn Lane (mandolin, fiddle, vocals), Tim Stafford (guitar, vocals), and Wayne Taylor (bass, vocals) — is still completely intact, producing original music and garnering fresh accolades. This year, they came out with their tenth album, Sounds of Home, and Rob Ickes won IBMA’s Dobro Player of the Year for the 13th time.

For Burleson, bluegrass music is about “playing from the heart. There’s so much commercial music driven by money,” he says, “and I think when people hear bluegrass music they hear people singing for the sake of music. Not many people get rich playing bluegrass. Most people just do it because they love it.”

This love, he promises, translates into a rollicking good time for the audience.

“There’s such an intimacy between the audience and the musicians,” he says. “We always have lots of fun. It’s really family oriented and fan oriented.”

Burleson grew up in the mountains of North Carolina, and bluegrass music spoke to him.

“A lot of early bluegrass was about mountains and cabins,” he says. “I got into it at a young age. I was 11 when I started playing the banjo, and I grew to love it. It’s a part of my heritage.”

But as the community on Shelter Island is proving, you don’t have to have a southern drawl to be moved by bluegrass music.

“A very dedicated group of people has cultivated this music on Shelter Island for decades now,” says Konesni. “I’m lucky to have found these friends because I’ve been a lover of bluegrass and islands for my entire life. It’s a wonderful match!”

Tom Hashagen points to Konesni for his role in growing the bluegrass culture on the Island.

“Sylvester Manor is sponsoring this show in large part,” he says. “Bennett has brought to the Island a tremendous musical component, which has people coming in from all over the place playing banjos, making banjos, and doing workshops. He’s really helped out with the Island waking up to this type of music. He loves it like we all do.”

Hashagen believes that between the Shelter Island Town Rec Department and Sylvester Manor, “It looks like we’ll be providing quality musical entertainment for years to come.”


Harvesting the Joy of Life

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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 www.plantandsing.com.


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

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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.


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