Island Farmers

A community farm helps usher in the latest era in American food culture.

By Emily J Weitz • photographs by Lindsay Morris

SHELTER ISLAND—Sylvester Manor, which has stood at the center of Shelter Island since long before the birth of this country, is at the precipice of a new era. For 15 generations, the estate (which once encompassed Shelter Island in its entirety) has been owned and operated by the same family. The farm’s recent head has been a tireless and handsome back-to-the-lander, Bennett Konesni, who is apt to sing to help speed the work in the field. But with the recent decision to transfer the property to a nonprofit organization and to implement a board of directors, the descendants of the founding family have chosen to share the future of their land with the island, the region and the world. “We went from 8,000 acres to 243,” says Konesni, whose uncle Eben Ostby currently holds the deed to the property. “If you pass things down through genetics you don’t always get the best managers. I’m not leaving this up to chance that we’ll get the right person to continue stewarding this amazing place and the amazing story that needs to be told.”

With the seemingly radical transfer to nonprofit status, the family will continue to be co-stewards of the land, but it will never again be one person’s decision what happens. “This is the original island homestead,” says Cara Loriz, the new executive director of the Sylvester Manor Educational Farm, which operates the property. “We want to throw the gates wide open so that everyone feels at home here.” This change from private to public “is scary,” admits Konesni. “Fifteen generations of ownership ends. But it gets more exciting to think that now it’s about telling a story instead of controlling and owning.”

The story is long, and in some ways it’s all of our stories. Sylvester Manor has been a part of American food culture since the beginning, and looking at how it’s changed helps trace the history of food’s role in American life and culture.

“I look at it as five distinct eras,” says Konesni. “During the Native American era, hunting, fishing and farming took place here.” He sits back and looks at the blossoming cherry tree casting a shadow across a pond, and for a moment, the history is almost tangible. “We found a clay pot right over there,” he gestures toward a garden erupting with tulips. “It was a Native American design with European-style handles. That discovery is the most intact example of how Creolization was happening, even at the beginning. America is a place where everyone comes to share ideas. This was the birth of American ideals.”

According to family legend, soon after the land was discovered, King Charles “gave” it to an earl, and eventually, a young Dutchman named Nathaniel Sylvester decided to buy it as a provisioning plantation for Barbados. Thus begins the second era: the “Plantation Era.” “The food was grown here,” says Konesni, “and shipped to Barbados to feed the slaves who were growing sugar. Then the sugar was shipped here to then travel across to Europe.” There were also slaves on the property of Sylvester Manor, and the family has the meticulous documentation to prove it. The emotional response to that legacy is “overwhelming,” says Konesni. “It’s a dark era in American history that brought some of the biggest misery. But it also brought the banjo and the blues and jazz and eventually rock and roll.” In addition to being a farmer, Konesni is an accomplished musician and ethnomusicologist. “It brought okra and collards and gumbo.” To address this complicated truth, Sylvester Manor hosts an annual banjo building workshop, where guests stay in the house where slaves were quartered. “There’s something profound about that,” says Konesni. “By making a gourd banjo on this property we can take a different nuanced look at what that era meant.”

With role models like Thomas Jefferson—who sang the praises of the small-scale, independent farmer as the engine of the national economy—Americans began to develop a new connection to the land in the 1700s. During this third era, which Konesni calls the “Enlightenment Era,” the plantation was sold and an era of self-sufficiency was under way.

The family raised horses and hogs and made cheese, candles and cloth. At Sylvester Manor, about 200 different cheeses were produced each year from the cows and sheep that grazed on the thousand acres that still remained in family hands. These cheeses were shipped to cities like Hartford, Providence, Boston, Newport and New York. “As many as 180 cheeses were shipped from the manor one summer in the 1740s,” says Mac Griswold, garden historian at Sylvester Manor. Horses also roamed the property, as Brinley Sylvester raised and broke many horses to be sold throughout New England. “Horses were certainly part of the production and transport system for food even in the age of sail,” explains Griswold.

Also being produced on the land were tallow candles, made from hog fat, and cloth woven right on the property. “Brinley Sylvester employed a live-in weaver who wove linsey-woolsey and other fabrics,” says Griswold. “Selling cloth was part of every New Englander’s domestic economy [at that time].” The spinning wheels are still in the attic at the Manor House.

“It was an era of amazing innovation,” says Konesni, “when people were discovering what it meant to be Americans on the land.” As a young man trying to harness the abundance of the property, Konesni now refers to the documents of this Enlightenment Era as guidance. “There is a great encyclopedia of farming here from 1793,” he says. “Sylvester Dering had recently inherited the property and I suspect he was, like me, trying to figure out how to make this place work operationally and financially. I can just imagine Sylvester Dering poring over this book and walking the land, getting a vision… That’s just the sort of thing I’ve been doing here for the last four years.”

But between the Enlightenment-Era farmers and the visionaries of today there was a long century when food came to mean something entirely different. Konesni calls the fourth era the “Industrial Era.” “My great-great grandfather Eben Norton Horsford believed in better living through chemistry,” says Konesni. Horsford, who helped reformulate baking soda, worked on no fewer than 40 other chemical food products that revolutionized the food industry. “His model of using chemistry to alter and industrialize food,” says Konesni, “then sell it at great profit all over the world, is a pattern that great food industries of today—Kraft, Nabisco, Kellogg’s—have based their success upon.”

This brings us to the present day, which Konesni calls the “Sustainable Era.” As exemplified by the shift toward nonprofit status, today’s generation at Sylvester Manor believes in protecting its future. Decisions are made with a mindfulness of the impact on the land, the community and the surrounding environment. Last year, a timber-frame farm stand was built on the property to provide the island with the freshest produce, and a CSA (community-supported agriculture) was established so that 25 families would be able to live off the land in the growing season.

But Sylvester Manor, as always, fits into a larger tapestry of food culture in this country. “There are three times as many farmers markets [today] as there were 10 years ago,” says Konesni. “We’re a part of a national dialogue about what sustainable food means.” Farmers from the North and South forks and Shelter Island meet weekly to share practices and food. “What I hope to add through Sylvester Manor is to explore food culture…and to inject old cultural technologies back into the food system.”

One of the cultural technologies that impacts the leadership at Sylvester most profoundly is not a tractor or even an organic fertilizer. “I say there are two important things if you want to farm,” says Konesni. “Know how to count and keep track of everything you are doing. And know how to sing.” Creek Iverson, the lead grower at Sylvester Manor, knows and teaches hundreds of songs to field workers, an easy and enjoyable way to increase productivity. “In the 1600s, people were singing in these fields,” says Konesni. “Up until the Industrial Era, music was a part of farming. We’re looking at how we can reintegrate that art back into the food system.” He compares reintroducing music into the fields to organic farmers using heirloom seeds to grow. “We’re looking at heirloom songs.”

By looking back at the meticulous records of Sylvester Manor, the best and worst of our food choices can be seen, and a cumulative wisdom can be gleaned. From this history, Konesni and his colleagues find a guide for sharing information, fair trade and labor practices, connection to the land, innovation and infusing work with a sense of joy. They are lessons that Sylvester Manor hopes to spread as it opens its doors to a shared future.

Emily Weitz is a freelance writer who pursues her idea of robust living from her home in Sag Harbor.