Tag Archive | "Sylvester Manor"

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