Two colleges bring crew of laborers to Sylvester Manor

JULIE LANE PHOTO | Cameroon native and Skidmore exchange student Angela Botiba hard at work at the Sylvester Manor farmstand.

Picture this: You’re a 21-year-old college student and you’re told you can spend a week not in the classroom, but a few hours away working on a farm. The work is hands-on and physical, and the days are long.

You’d hate it right?

“I’ve been loving it,” said Romeo Makore, a 21-year-old freshman from Skidmore College in Saratoga of his experience working the land at Sylvester Manor.

He was one of a group of students from Skidmore and the New School in Manhattan who descended on Sylvester Manor last week for some hands-on farming experience.

“It was hard work, but good and rewarding,” Mr. Makore said. Despite the physical labor, the international student from Zimbabwe called the effort “relaxing” compared with the “stress environment” of college classes.

“It’s nothing too bad; it’s just exhausting, but it’s so rewarding, you don’t really care,” said Jordan Chang, 19, a Skidmore student originally from Dallas, Texas.

Another international student — Juliet Lefort, 27, from Paris — has her own garden back home, but admitted, “I was not a good gardener at all.” She hopes the lessons she learned at Sylvester Manor will make her more adept.

“I’m actually amazed,” said Bennett Konesni, the man charged by his family with helping to figure out what to do with the 17th century family homestead on Shelter Island. “This is exactly what we’re trying to do here,” he said of his efforts to create a self-sustaining organic farm through creation of the non-profit Sylvester Manor Educational Farm, Inc.

“We feel enriched by the experience,” Mr. Konesni said of the students’ visit.

It was an opportunity for the students to see first hand where food comes from and how it’s grown he said.

“One thing making the farm a vibrant place to be is working with people of all kinds of skills and interests,” said farm manager Creek Iversen. Sylvester Manor isn’t just looking for volunteers with previous farming experience, but for energetic people willing to learn and to give back to the land, he said.

For the students, many of whom are enrolled in environmental studies programs, they’ve had a lot of book learning, but this was their first practical experience and they declared it a positive one.

Oisin O’Brien, a 28-year-old New School master’s degree environmental policy student, said he welcomed the chance to see what small-scale farming is like, beyond the pictures that have been painted in his textbooks. There are a lot of problems and a lot of work to overcome them, he said.

“I’m a little achy,” he said of the toll the manual labor was taking on him. “But it’s a good kind of achy.”

The students were tilling soil, planting seeds, helping to get the greenhouse and various sheds in order and shoring up the farmstand that is Sylvester Manor’s most visible face to the community. They started every day at 7 a.m.

“It’s a good learning experience,” said 19-year-old Tera Johnson, a Skidmore sophomore from Claremont, CA. “It’s definitely hard work and you break a sweat, but it’s not impossible.”

Darren Drabek, a Skidmore staff member who helped to organize the trip said such time spent away from school is a more meaningful alternative to Spring Break in Cancun or Fort Lauderdale.

So why would a student give up the beach vacation to spend a week at hard labor on a farm?

“A lot of people take and take and I thought it would just be good to give back,” said Randy Castillo, an 18-year-old Skidmore freshman from Queens. “I’m not a morning person, but its worth it.”

Tianming Song, 18, a Skidmore international student from China wanted to participate to make some American friends and to challenge himself. He lives in a big city in China, but has visited rural areas. What impressed him most about farming in the United States is the many large machines being used. In his home country, farming is more labor intensive, he said.

Nick Krebs, one of the New School trip organizers, pointed out that the Sylvester Manor staff put a lot of effort into preparing for the students’ visit, including preparing snacks and meals for the workers and organizing the schedule to assure each day’s experiences would be meaningful.

“It’s not easy,” said Angela Botiba, 20, a Skidmore international student from Cameroon. “But seeing people so motivated, I’m changing myself with every single task. This is a great experience and there’s nothing comparable.”

When she returns to campus, she’ll be able to tell her friends, “I did something interesting, I did something exciting.”

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