Island profile: Julia Trunzo makes farming pay the bills

PETER BOODY PHOTO | Jersey girl Julia Trunzo brings enthusiasm, talent and an impressive resume to her post as farm manager of Sylvester Manor.

It was quite the caravan when Julia Trunzo and her partner Alan June, known as Fox, and their two dogs Amos and Able arrived at Sylvester Manor in January in two Dodge diesel pickups hauling a trailer full of hay with her parents right behind in a van carrying six ewes and a ram.

Julia, a fresh-faced and bright-eyed 30, studied sustainable agriculture at the University of Maine and has been working ever since she graduated in 2004 at farms in Maine, Vermont, California and — for the past four years — up the Hudson, reinventing the non-orchard side of Fishkill Farm, retired New York District Attorney Robert Morgenthau’s big family operation.

As farm manager, it’s her job to reinvent Sylvester Manor in its mission to promote non-industrial agriculture. To do that, Julia has to find the way to make the best use of all its 243 acres, including former pastures and fields now covered in invasive shrubs and vines.

“I think that I’m being brought in to get the farm to the next level,” she said. She will develop one-, three- and five-year plans to make the best use of the entire property, “from maybe managing a timber lot to possibly making hay to planting more row crops in the back acreage” and, “instead of looking at a microcosm, stepping back and seeing what the whole farm picture looks like.”

The manor, which has been in the same family’s hands since it was founded in the 17th century, is now operated by the non-profit Sylvester Manor Educational Farm. Bennett Konesni and his uncle Eben Ostby, the latest Sylvester descendants to own the property, set up the organization to preserve the property as an economically viable organic farm. So far, it’s done well with one three-acre field but to survive it has to expand the operation far beyond that.

The property, said Julia, “has an amazing history. It’s also a really fun location. But it’s also a small mixed veggie operation inside this larger farm that is really yet to be discovered or completely rediscovered. That’s the part of the project that really excited me.”

Julia and Fox are renting an apartment over the boathouse at Town Attorney Laury Dowd’s place on Congdon Creek. They last lived in the old farmhouse at the Morganthau place, alone during the winter and with four interns Julia hired for the rest of the year.

They were in charge of taking 20 acres not already devoted to apple orchards at the 120-acre property and turning it into an efficient, productive and profitable organic fruit and vegetable farm.

Within four years they had “built the systems up so everything was exactly where we would want” at Fishkill Farms. “We really had amazing markets” in place in Westchester and Brooklyn, as well as new procedures and infrastructure in place that made the most of the acreage: that included “a great setup of tractors” and other equipment, Julia said, including “perfect cultivators for that soil, which is very heavy clay and rocks.”

They had “worked about 90 hours a week there. Twenty acres of vegetables for two people,” with four interns in season, “is no joke, no joke at all.”

Julia comes from an outdoorsy, can-do, hardworking family. Her mother is an English teacher and her father a mechanical designer who made his four daughters help when he was working around the house bleeding brake lines or fixing a pipe.

“We always had a large garden,” Julia said.

Food was an important part of the story, too. “Being Polish-Italian, everything is about food in my family. Being able to grow good food for people and connect with the people who are buying it — that just seemed to be a really nice meeting up of all the things I was into.”

Julia fixed on a degree in sustainable agriculture after working in her teens for a woman in her hometown who had two-acre garden and sold veggies at her own stand. Julia loved not only growing food but presenting it at a stand and being right there as people bought it. “I couldn’t believe I could actually do that as a job,” she said.

She picked the University of Maine because its sustainable agriculture program included a heavy dose of science and math. The program included two semesters as an exchange student at Humboldt State College north of San Francisco.

“California blew my mind all over again,” she said. “I had thought Maine was the edge of the universe.” After graduation, she went to work at a family farm near the Oregon border, far from any town “so it was just the animals and the vegetables, the figs and the orchard and we just farmed.”

She met Fox over a winter when she went to New Orleans soon after Katrina to take a job painting the ceiling of an old church.

Until she teamed up with him, “It was just me and a backpack.”

Her degree, she said, was valuable but it “in no way, shape or form prepared me to get on a piece of land and farm. You have to be on a farm and see a tractor broken down for a couple of days and have to work with the farmer to fix the tractor; or you have to realize that road’s going to wash out or a sheep’s giving birth to a lamb prematurely or in the middle of the night or in a freezing snowstorm. Its really that hands-on experience that I think makes it so that you can be a whole farmer.”

Julia found the Sylvester Manor job on the internet after she and Fox decided it was time to search for a new challenge. Keep an eye on her over the next few years. If anyone can turn Sylvester Manor into a bustling farm known across the region for its organic produce, she’s the one.