Back to the future at Sylvester Manor Farm

CHARITY ROBEY PHOTO | Sylvester Farm Manager Julia Trunzo thinning a row of beets. Ms. Trunzo and her staff are creating an entire farm system.

Seven months ago Julia Trunzo and her partner, Alan “Fox” June, loaded their possessions, including two chest freezers, into a pickup truck on a farm in the Hudson Valley and drove to Shelter Island. They lugged the freezers, containing the frozen bounty of the last growing season, up to the second floor of their new home at Sylvester Manor Farm. Since that importation, the produce at Sylvester Manor has been grown and consumed locally, and Ms. Trunzo, as farm manager, has been the steady hand on the plow.

Established as a farm three centuries ago, Sylvester Manor has had a market garden and Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program for about six years. But the goal now is to move the farm from a market garden to a whole farm system, coordinating pasture, livestock, crops and equipment.

The Reporter spent a long day recently with Farm Manager Trunzo to get a clearer picture of the work being done improving one of the Island’s major resources.

7 a.m. A rainy Tuesday morning, and Ms. Trunzo is climbing into a blue Dodge pickup, with an interior reminiscent of a manger. The first chore of the day: If it’s Tuesday, it’s moving-the-chickens day. The Sylvester Manor birds are egg-laying hens; Silver Laced Wyandotte, Buff Orpington, Rhode Island Red and Red Star. These are pastured chickens, whose primary food is the plants, insects and larvae in the field. Over the course of a week they peck the pasture down to something that looks like the surface of Mars. Ms. Trunzo and farm interns Lev Darkhovsky and Megan Swenson move the hens and their coop — a converted horse trailer — to a fresh section of pasture every Tuesday morning.

7:30 a.m. Working with the farmhands, Ms. Trunzo goes over the day’s tasks with Lev and Megan. First priority is weeding Windmill Field, an overdue chore. Second, some of the tomatoes need staking, but not if it continues to rain. “Don’t touch tomatoes if they are wet,” is a rule of thumb she imparts to the novices. Training the interns is fundamental to the educational mission of the farm, and next to producing the best possible produce, it’s Ms. Trunzo’s highest priority. “For everything you raise there is a 45 minute discussion,” she says. “For example, knowing when to pick a bean depends on the size of the bean but also on the type of bean. There is not one thing I ask an intern to do that I have not done a thousand times myself, either here, or at other farms I have worked on.”

8 a.m. Checking in with the sheep, which are Katahdins, a Maine breed, and Dorper. These stout, sturdy animals are grown for meat. Their manure generates larvae, which the chickens happily eat. The chickens follow the sheep around the 30-acre “Big Field” like a caravan.

This spring was a very good one for lambs, Ms. Trunzo proudly reports. The first were born on May 22, which is the “first eligible day,” meaning the earliest possible day based on the sheep gestation period and when Darwin, the ram, was introduced to the ladies. Suffice it to say, Darwin was prompt and effective. On a weekend when many of us were firing up the grill for a Memorial Day barbeque, Ms. Trunzo was up to her elbows in newborn lambs.

8:30 a.m. As the Dodge bumps from the pasture to the Windmill Field, Julia points out 45 acres of land east of the Manor House that was cleared earlier this year by William “Punch” Johnston III. “When you clear an area for a house, you don’t have to worry about scraping off the topsoil, but with a field intended for cultivation, you need to clear the trees, shrubs and large rocks without removing the great soil with it,” she says, admiring Mr. Johnston’s work. “This land was forest 60 years ago, then scrub, now cleared and mowed. When the heat of summer is past, we’ll disc it up and pasture-seed it until we can put more infrastructure in place.”

The soil on the farm is Montauk silt loam and Bridgehampton sandy loam. How would Ms. Trunzo rate it? “All you could hope for in a soil,” she says.

Charged with developing and executing a master plan going 3, 5 and 10 years out, Ms. Trunzo sees the need for a diversified farm, since if disease sweeps through one crop, there are other crops to rely on. “It’s also important to fulfill our goal of marketing all of our produce locally,” she adds. “The field where the chickens and sheep are pastured was planted in potatoes until the early 90s. We could raise another field of potatoes, but that’s more potatoes than we can eat on the Island.”

9 a.m. Eight new piglets are more than ready for breakfast. After weighing the attributes of many breeds, Ms.Trunzo decides on black Dura Tamworth pigs — black pigs because pink pigs sunburn. Anyone who has observed a greased pig competition knows that applying sunscreen to a pig is not a good idea. Like all pigs, these don’t sweat, so in hot weather they spend much of their time staying cool by wallowing in mud.

These pigs are being grown for meat and will be slaughtered in the fall.

“There is an art to slaughtering,” Ms. Trunzo says. “We may take these to a USDA slaughterhouse or sell them to individuals and then help them arrange private slaughtering nearby.”

9:30 a.m. – 12 noon “Field maintenance” is a sophisticated term for the plain, simple and very hard work of farming. Ms. Trunzo spends the bulk of every day in the fields. Today that means weeding and trellising in Windmill Field and operating one of the three tractors used for mowing and ploughing. The interns don’t drive the tractor for safety reasons. “It’s a potentially dangerous piece of equipment and only those with extensive experience can operate it,” Ms. Trunzo says.

12 noon – 2 p.m. The farm crew takes a lunch break, usually eating communally.

2 p.m. – 3 p.m. On most days, there’s an hour of classroom time, with Ms. Trunzo teaching the interns such subjects as irrigation and pest management. Today’s class is on farm safety, including ear and eye protection. This is one of the most important classes budding farmers can take. According to the U.S. Labor Department’s Bureau of Labor Statistics, farming is in the top ten most dangerous professions.

3 p.m. – 5 p.m. More field maintenance. On her hands and knees in Windmill Field, Ms. Trunzo is thinning a row of beets, pulling out the beet greens that will be part of the CSA share for this week. Thinning the beets also encourages the remaining plants to produce bigger beets over the next few weeks. Meanwhile, Susan Paykin, a farm intern, works on a row nearby as another intern washes the beet greens.

5 p.m. –  7 p.m. Tuesdays and Saturdays are the CSA share pick-up days. All hands are helping when 125 local families come to pick up their shares.
“A high priority for us is beautiful, delicious produce for our CSA members,” Ms. Trunzo says. “These families have paid up front for a share of the farm’s production, and we want to feed them the best possible produce.”
Every family enjoying the bounty of this farm is completing a journey Ms. Trunzo and Mr. June began seven months ago.

Good food, raised on the good earth of Shelter Island for the people who call this place home.