Reflections on a farm’s first year feeding its neighbors.
SHELTER ISLAND-When last we saw Bennett Konesni, he was singing a lullaby to a large sheep nestled in his arms (Edible East End, Low Summer 2008). Since then, he has been able to feed other lambs: Shelter Islanders who agreed to pay an annual fee in exchange for the sustenance provided by Bennett’s family’s 243-acre Shelter Island estate, Sylvester Manor.
Bennett’s plan to grow CSA (or community-supported agriculture) quantities of vegetables and flowers came to fruition in the summer of 2009, when 25 beta families, including my husband, Jonathan, and me, signed up to take on the risks and rewards of a first year’s crop. We were warned in advance that the results would be the farmers’ best effort. Nothing was guaranteed for us shareholders, but providence shone on the fields, and we were treated to a healthy harvest. In ripening order we ate everything from garlic scapes and bok choy to soybeans and delectable baby lettuces to Brussels sprouts and Kennebec potatoes, a crop so flavorful that it forced us to reevaluate the lowly potato. From June through November, our locally sewn, complimentary CSA tote bags were filled with a rotating assortment of produce.
There were additional subscription add-ons-flowers, bread baked on the island incorporating produce from the farm, and eggs from rare-breed chickens.
This was the first time in 100 years that Sylvester Manor produced a cash crop and it wasn’t easy to do. In an ongoing process, the farmers are bringing the neglected and misused land back to life with compost, lime and cover crops.
While the flavor revelation of the hakurai turnips was enough for me, Bennett (yes, we call our young farmer by his first name) has loftier goals than just growing tasty and unique produce. His short-term one of engaging the community is a stepping-stone to his long-term goal of saving Sylvester Manor from development.
“I really like the concept of a CSA, because you’re building a team and getting people on board along the way,” he says. “They feel like they have ownership in the Manor…which increases the chances of selling the development rights, preserving the land and restoring the house and windmill.” He’s already made progress toward this goal by preserving 22 important waterfront acres and is currently working on a second 26-acre parcel.
Bennett’s ecological ideology is tempered by the realities of running a start-up operation. For instance, when produce is divided into equal portions for the members, rather than weighed and sold per pound as a conventional farm would do, questions of yield or labor required per crop are seen in a different light. So, for now, the question of whether to plant garlic again will be decided by its crowd appeal rather than the hours of labor to transform last year’s clove into this year’s scape.
In 2009, the weekly pickup was Saturday mornings, at the edge of the field where the produce was grown. While some members lobbied for more pickup times, Bennett was adamant about keeping to one two-hour window because he wanted the members to see each other and the farmers. He succeeded so thoroughly that it wasn’t long before a member brought the makings for weekly coffee klatches and people responded by hanging around and chatting, their full CSA bags at their side. “I think I met more people since I joined the CSA than in the 10 years I’ve lived here,” says member Melanie Stiassny. Her sentiment was mirrored by another member, Jackie Black. “My favorite part of the CSA was meeting people who lived just around the corner but who I never knew.”
Bennett, who is as interested in music as he is in farming, and his friends often played for us in what appeared to be an impromptu, joyous outpouring of traditional folk music. We even had our own paparazzi, a member of the CSA who took copious images of our gatherings and the crops and e-mailed them to all members. (I used them as my screensaver, changing it each week so that my computer reflected the advancing season.)
Only while speaking with Bennett for this article did I learn of the frustrations he and his group were experiencing. There was the plentiful rain that washed out crops on many local farms, not to mention the sneak attacks on the chickens in moveable pens. And then, ironically, there was us, the CSA members. It turns out that all the “constructive comments” I’d been giving were hard to take at the end of an overlong workweek. “The members were both a joy and a pain,” says Bennett, because we really put our heart and soul into the work and sometimes the criticism felt glib and not thorough in the way we try to be.”
But Bennett isn’t the sort of person who is easily deterred. He takes setbacks as part of the inevitable learning experience that is farming. Over the winter his group built a greenhouse (to be heated eventually by the warmth coming off compost piles) so that they could grow seedlings, a job formerly done for them by Quail Hill. Additionally, a new batch of more carefully guarded chickens, mushroom logs and honeybees are on the wish list for 2010, with pigs and goats in the planning stages. “We have so many invasive species that are choking our forests, and goats love that stuff,” Bennett explains. “After they clear out Sylvester Manor, we can rent them to other people with similar problems. I’ll call it Rent-a-Goat.”
But the master plan is never far from his thoughts. “The heart of what I love about food is that it’s so simple. It’s about feeding 25 families. Watering a seed and watching it grow brings people together in nonpolitical ways. When I show up at the CSA on Saturday mornings, I don’t make long-winded speeches about how important it is to save the environment. Instead I say, Welcome to the table.’ “
Deborah Grayson is a hospice nutritionist with master’s degrees in public health and nutrition. She has a long interest in sustainability and lives part-time on Shelter Island.