Sylvester Manor: Organically Back to the Future

Sylvester Manor, located on Shelter Island at the eastern end of Long Island, New York, has been in the same family for 360 years. Five years ago a member of that family, Bennett Konesni, found himself with the responsibility of carrying on the land and the farm for the next generations. While preserving the historic property, he turned it into a sustainable, organic farm that educates all who visit it, and feeds as many local residents as possible.

Bringing the Past to the Future

“I was raised in Penobscot Bay area of Maine on the island of Islesboro, in a little town called Appleton,” Konesni told Calmful Living. “My parents were not farmers but back-to-the-landers. We built our own house and had a garden, and were music lovers. My mom ran the health center on Islesboro Island. We’ve been part of a small progressive area of the country—a lot of small farms and a lot of tight communities. That was sort of the soil that I was raised in.

“A pretty extraordinary piece of family land came up and needed preservation—and needed a future, really. I was the one who had the time and the energy to put into it. So I tried to take a lot of the things that I learned growing up, along with my passion for farming, food, community and music, and combine them all in a place that needed some of that energy and life.”

Sylvester Manor already had a remarkable history of farming and the raising of food. “I asked myself, what do you do with an old plantation?” Konesni continued. “It’s an old slave plantation—the most intact former slave plantation north of Virginia. But it also is a former Native American hunting and fishing ground and farming area, as well as a Revolutionary War–era farm that was farmed by the contemporaries of Thomas Jefferson. So it’s got this amazing history of food.

“I always like to draw on the best of the past and the best of the present. If you look at the past, there are good things and there are bad things; but if you want to draw the evolution out, it makes sense on an old plantation—a place that has this really interesting evolution of food, culture and community—that this would be the perfect next step for it.”

Today’s Farm

Konesni in fact is bringing the farm full circle—a modern approach to the agrarian life of the past. “Our vision is that we imagine a world where people and communities are connected with the land and with each other,” Konesni said. “Through land and food they’re also connected to their history and their future. Additionally, it’s about creating a world that is more joyful, delicious, healthy and more fair. I feel very strongly that as a former slave plantation we’ve got to contribute something to the world of social justice, and especially food justice.”

On the grounds are grown a variety of organic crops, including lettuce, tomatoes, peppers, onions and garlic. The latter is the subject of a yearly festival at Sylvester Manor. “Garlic is a really big crop for us because each fall we have a festival called Plant and Sing,” Konesni related. “We basically get the whole community together and plant our entire garlic crop in a few hours. Then we celebrate it with music and a contra dance. Béla Fleck was the headliner last year, and we had Rufus Wainwright the year before. So we’ve managed to attract some pretty big names who’ve donated their sets for the organization.”

They are also developing their livestock operation; they’ve raised pigs, had laying hens and currently have sheep.

Produce is sold through their 120-subscriber CSA, to local restaurants, through the local farmers’ market, and through their own farmstand, open daily and visited by residents from all over the island.

Reaching Out through Education

A very special aspect of Sylvester Manor’s current operation is education. “We have youth programs for kids from 4 to 12 years old,” said Konesni. “I take 20 to 50 kids on the property every weekday all summer long. They learn about how food grows, why organic food is important, how animals and soil are the bases of good healthy food, and how it can fit into their lives. They also learn how the history and future of the place can fit into their lives.

“We have a cultural side of food too. They cook lunch for their parents on Fridays, and we do music. We also do some work songs with them from time to time out in the fields.”

Adults are certainly not left out of the fun. “We have a set of workshops, arts and education programs, for adults,” Konesni added. “We’ve had a gourd banjo building workshop, painting workshops, poetry workshops, and hopefully there will be cooking workshops that reach out to people of different ages.”

The connection to education also extends to school food. “We had a breakthrough last year and made a really good connection with the chefs at the school cafeteria,” Konesni said. “We’ve been sending food over pretty regularly to the cafeteria, and they’ve been putting it in lunches. Now all of a sudden the kids are really into carrots and kale, which nobody would have guessed when it started happening.”

Giving It Away to Keep It

To preserve the house and the grounds for posterity, and to keep these many programs up and running, the property has now been turned over to the nonprofit organization Sylvester Manor Educational Farm, which Konesni founded and which he will continue to oversee. “The place has been in my family since 1652, and that’s roughly 360 years last year,” Konesni pointed out. “My goal is to continue it another 360 years. The manor house itself is one of the oldest architectural relics of the early days. I see it as being a thread that goes through time.

“The way the family was able to maintain itself for this long was through exploitation. They exploited people by enslaving them and getting big profits that allowed family members to hold on to their land. They also exploited the land itself by selling off big chunks; they used to own the entire island, which is more than 8,000 acres, and over the years every generation sold off big chunks of it in order to keep them going.

“As a result, you have the town of Shelter Island around Sylvester Manor, but a lot of it is in houses and developments. You lose some of the original integrity of the island that way.

“I think the lesson that the manor can show us all is that while it takes a lot of effort and energy and money to keep things going, let’s try to find a different way to keep it going for the next 360 years,” Konesni concluded. “The only way I’ve really found without exploiting people or land is to reach out to the community and say, ‘All right, this project belongs to all of us now.’ We basically gave it away to this nonprofit. I’m good with that, because I think the end result is going to be way more exciting and interesting than if I had held on to it myself.”

For more information, please visit www.sylvestermanor.org