Farming is not what it used to be.
Mary Hillemeier, vegetable grower at Sylvester Manor Farm, is articulate, well-educated and elegant. The very model of a modern farmer, she is trained in, and devoted to small-scale, sustainable and community-based practices.
She leads the workers of Sylvester Manor Farm by example. Picking a row of prickly okra, her smile is bright and her manner friendly, but her hands are powerful, rough and calloused, and they speak volumes about her.
Hired to manage the planning, planting and people who raise Sylvester Manor’s exquisite, sustainably grown produce, Mary came to Shelter Island last February when we were in the tight grip of a nasty winter.
The Island’s climate had been described to her as relatively mild, but in her first months here the warmth she experienced came from the people she met. “Shelter Island is singular … very, very friendly. I don’t have to introduce myself more than once and most people remember me. They are curious about who I am, and where I came from, and how I got into what I’m doing, and that is really lovely.”
She came to farming through her love of food and cooking. While studying Italian and art history at the University of Michigan, Mary spent a year in northern Italy. Experiencing the way food was grown, prepared and eaten there was life changing. “I don’t think at that point I saw myself as a farmer, but I definitely got excited about food.”
After graduating from Michigan in 2006, Mary moved to New York City, determined to keep food at the center of her life. By day she worked in book publishing. But by night she cooked at a restaurant in Brooklyn and worked with Norwich Meadows Farm in partnership with Common Ground and Just Food, to establish a “sliding-scale CSA,” or community supported agriculture, that provided locally-farmed food to New Yorkers of all income levels.
In the fall of 2008, Mary grew from foodie to farmer; going to Argentina to learn farming through the Willing Workers on Organic Farms (WWOOF) program. She stayed through the spring of 2009, working on two subsistence farms and learning how to raise everything from goats to berries.
Mary went on to work at the Urban Roots Youth Development and the Green Gate Community Farms in Austin, Texas, and then to study at the Center for Agroecology & Sustainable Food Systems at the University of California at Santa Cruz — the first and oldest such program in the U.S.
Mary remembers first hearing of Shelter Island when she was living in Brooklyn and read an article in the New York Times. “I read about the farm right around the time I was going to Argentina. Later, when I saw the name, it sounded familiar.”
In winter of 2014, she accepted the job of vegetable grower at Sylvester Manor.
Mary manages three full-season apprentices, two summer apprentices and anywhere from three to four WWOOFers at any given time. Recent Sylvester Manor Farm WWOOFers hail from Brooklyn, Vermont and Switzerland.
The crew lives in the Manor House or in tents on the property and Mary rents a cottage close to the farm.
The whole crew cooks and eats together. “Like a village,” she said. “It’s wonderful. A lot of sharing. We made gumbo on Monday. Our okra was just coming in. I used green peppers and onions and made a nice roux.” Ask around at the farmstand, and you’ll learn that Mary’s gumbo is already the stuff of legend.
An important part of Mary’s job is to help apprentices and WWOOFers who may not have extensive farming experience adapt to a lifestyle that involves hard physical labor. “Your body definitely changes when you are bent over half the day carrying heavy bins … I certainly felt that shock and shift for myself.”
She helps the workers understand the changes in their bodies as nature’s way of making a farmer. “In spring you start out with leafy greens, things that are light and easier to carry, and then you get tomatoes and zucchini and then work up to melons and pumpkins … getting heavier and heavier as you go through the season. You kind of feel your summer body starting to happen … The more cartons of cucumbers you carry, you feel your arms getting stronger, building yourself up to the finale, the October harvest.”
A primary focus of Mary’s work prior to the growing season is to develop a “crop plan,” which she calls, “a blueprint for what I’m going to grow and where I’m going to grow it.” She incorporates crop rotation in her plan, “Part of an organic process is not to grow tomatoes where you grew them the year before.” She also considers vegetables that she has had experience eating, as well as growing, such as the Padron pepper, “the size of your thumb round or oblong. Fry them with oil and salt. The bigger the hotter. They were all the rage in Santa Cruz, but they taste even better grown here.”
Among the many factors Mary has to weigh in choosing what vegetables to include in her crop plan are the tastes and food traditions of the community (light on the collards here, heavy on the tomatoes), the resistance of crops to diseases that can’t be effectively controlled using organic practices (no corn) and the climate of Shelter Island (mild and well-sheltered). Among other sources, she consults local farmers. With her friend and colleague Layton Guenther, the farm manager at Quail Hill in Amagansett, Mary said, “We joke that Shelter Island is ‘Tropicalia’ compared to Amagansett.”
Mary arrived at the farm a few months before Eben Fiske Ostby, 10th generation descendant of the original European settlers to Shelter Island, officially donated his 1737 Manor House and grounds to the nonprofit Sylvester Manor Educational Farm. She experienced the “joy and gratitude toward the family and the sense that this project is getting such support. It is exciting to be part of this organization in that moment.”
Mary has felt the embrace of the community. “It’s really been a nice thing for me as a newcomer to Shelter Island to be in such a central location, to meet local folks … I feel welcomed. I’d love to continue living here.”