Gimme Shelter and a Song

Think global, act local. Bennett Konesni knows Mongolian sheep calming songs.

Think global, act local. Bennett Konesni knows Mongolian sheep calming songs.

Bennett Konesni has a greenhouse full of garlic and wants to talk about it.

The fact that the fragrant bulbs are planted on Sylvester Manor, his family’s three-and-a-half-century-old Shelter Island estate, provides an historical twist to what might seem like simple backyard boasting.

But, Konesni’s agricultural vision goes far beyond his garden beds. A skilled organic farmer, Konesni longs to reestablish a working farm on Shelter Island—one that would offer residents a year-round, reliable source of “fresh and inexpensive, high-quality, local produce.”

“What better way is there to preserve the land and put it to use,” he asks with a grin, “than interfacing with the earth and growing delicious food?”

With his gardening experience in his home state of Maine, Konesni is not daunted by frost. “I see winter as a big opportunity,” he says, noting the absence of island-grown produce during off-season months. His current greenhouse of garlic, which he hopes will result in the first crop brought to market, demonstrates his innovative, cool-climate technique.

Though a few farm stands are scattered along Shelter Island’s main road, availability and operating hours are limited. Most produce arrives by ferry from the North Fork and quickly sells out. Increasing demand for housing on this popular vacation spot has made protecting open spaces more important than ever, but restricts the possibility of affordable arable soil.

Konesni’s island roots go deep. Moving into the family estate’s 18th-century Georgian manor house last September made him the 15th-generation descendent of Nathaniel Sylvester, Shelter Island’s original English settler, to live on the land. His great-aunt, Alice Fiske, was the property’s previous resident.

John Halsey, president of the Peconic Land Trust, is encouraged by Konesni’s plans. “It is nice to see a person with such long ties to this property and Shelter Island be excited about all the possibilities,” he says. “I can thoroughly identify with Konesni’s hopes and ideas,” he adds, “because 25 years ago I came back to this place and similarly wanted to do something to protect the land we know and love on the East End.”

Sylvester Manor offers a grower an incredible 243 fertile acres. Konesni sees the land as particularly fit for a return to farming, since the history of the estate is built upon overlapping eras of an agrarian past.

Originally a hunting ground for the native Manhanset tribe, Nathaniel Sylvester purchased the entire island in 1651 to construct a provisioning farm for his sugar plantations in Barbados. Shelter Island supplied food and timber to the historical triangular trade routes between the New World, Africa and Europe.

While completing his degree in Environmental Studies and Music at Vermont’s Middlebury College, Konesni spent a summer working at Amagansett’s Quail Hill Farm. During this period, while living at the Manor, he had ample time to dig deeper into its history. Literally.

An archeological research center, endowed by his great-aunt at the University of Massachusetts in Boston, initiated an excavation project in 1999. Ongoing research has confirmed that hired American Indians worked alongside African slaves as they farmed the 17th-century Sylvester family farmland. The theory that these Europeans, Africans and Native Americans influenced each other is especially important to Bennett who sees his work as “a sort of new creolization…mixing old and new culture from around the world in the fields.”

Until recently, the Manor’s walk-in vault was home to 10,000 documents cataloging the property’s use from its time as a plantation through its days as a country estate. Lately donated to NYU, the papers illuminate family ties to Eben Norton Horsford, the inventor of baking powder, widely considered to be the father of American food chemistry. “Imagine,” urges Konesni, “if you were to stack the papers on top of each other, they would make a pile 72 feet tall.”

Though his farm dream is still in the planning stage, Bennett is sowing seeds for the future. He currently commutes once a month to New Hampshire as a student of Antioch University’s Green MBA program. Classes are assisting him to create a strategic business plan for sustainable farming that he will eventually propose to his family and the town.

But, wait! Have I mentioned the fiddle? I certainly should.

Konesni also hopes to revive lost musical farming traditions with the lettuces, raspberries and basil. An accomplished banjo and fiddle player, he was awarded a postgraduate Watson Fellowship in 2005 that funded a year of travel, collecting the work songs of agricultural and maritime communities across the globe. His workaday repertoire includes “Put Your Hand on the Plough and Hold On,” “The Chickens and the Tomatoes,” and the soulful urging of “Help Out”:

If you can eat my cornbread pudding and put down my apple pie, Then you sure as hell can help out on this line.

“Music is so special to me that I can’t leave that behind,” he shares. “But I’m happiest when I’m in the field.” He longs to create a place “where there is singing again on the farm, in the kitchen and at the table.” Plans for a kick-off celebration after Thanksgiving, mixing live music with the garlic harvest, are already in the works.

Local chef, Sebastian Bliss, of Planet Bliss on North Ferry Road, greeted the possibility of an island farm with enthusiasm. “This is still a very country-like place,” he said of the island, “but that’s slowly changing. It would be great to support a Shelter Island farm instead of sending the money back across on the ferry.”

Warren Moore, a Shelter Island resident of West Neck Bay, is particularly struck at the prospect of buying “food picked when it’s ripe” that tastes like it used to. “When I was young,” he mused, “you would bite into a Long Island peach and it would drip all over your chin. It’s been years since I had a drippy peach.”

By ushering in a new era at Sylvester Manor, Bennett Konesni just may help Warren and other islanders find the tastes they’ve been missing and, perhaps, even sing for their supper.

Editor’s note: Planet Bliss has closed.

By Allison Radecki