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Shelter Island Reporter Profile: Kurt Ericksen

CHARITY ROBEY PHOTO Kurt Ericksen at the Sylvester Manor farmstand where the first spring crops are already on offer.

Kurt Ericksen at the Sylvester Manor farmstand where the first spring crops are already on offer.

After college and a tour of service in the United States Coast Guard, Kurt Ericksen turned to a profession that drew upon his unusual skill set: experience with environmental regulations and policy, a willingness to get extremely dirty and sangfroid. He became a farmer.

It’s not that managing hazardous situations enticed Kurt to Sylvester Manor, although statistically, farming is among the most dangerous professions. But his Coast Guard experience with exploding cargo and oil spills has come in handy. “When things on the farm happen that people think are dramatic, I’m O.K.,” he said.

Kurt grew up “on the skiing and snowboarding slopes” in Arlington, Vermont, a town of 2,500. His parents still live in Arlington, where his mother is a social worker and his father a facilities engineer.

Kurt enlisted in the Coast Guard in 2007. Trained as a marine science technician, he was stationed in New York City doing pollution prevention and response, when he was called to a distressed cargo ship in New York Harbor.

The Sichem Defiance, a 443-foot tanker loaded with extremely explosive compressed gas, blew a tank, causing the cargo to shift and the ship to list. Kurt and a co-worker were first responders and spent 14 hours on the vessel, monitoring tank and pressure levels until the situation was stabilized and barges brought in to offload the cargo safely.

In 2010, Kurt deployed to the Gulf of Mexico as part of the Coast Guard response to the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill catastrophe. His team monitored a section of the huge spill area, taking samples and assessing the source of oil sheens that appeared in the water.

The government regulators, BP officials, environmental groups and university researchers on the spill site had diverse and potentially conflicting agendas, but Kurt was impressed at the high level of cooperation.

“There was a common goal,” he said. “Trying to determine what the best resources were, how they were best utilized. Definitely an eye opener.”

After leaving the Coast Guard in 2011, Kurt went back to school at Brooklyn College, where he studied environmental science. There he learned that “it’s hard to be interested in environmental policy and not be interested in agricultural policy.”

In his early 30s, Kurt began to think about farming. “I started late,” he said. “I had enough experiences and enough conviction that I knew this is what I wanted to do.”

In 2013, Kurt was accepted at the Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture for an apprenticeship program. The Center is an educational farm famous in the progressive food world, largely due to Stone Barns and Blue Hill restaurants and Chef Dan Barber.

“That was funny, because I was not into the food industry at all,” Kurt said. “I wasn’t familiar with it. I had friends who, when they found out I was going to start farming at this place, said, ‘Oh, my God, that’s the most magical place’ but I had not heard of it until a month before.”

In 2014, Kurt went to Clear Brook, a large, successful farm near his hometown in Vermont, running a crew doing organic vegetable production on cultivated acreage 10 times the size of the Sylvester Manor farm. “Sort of takes pace to a whole new level when you are working on that scale,” he said.

Kurt also worked at Four Season Farm in Maine with farming legend Eliot Coleman, the man whose 1989 book, “The New Organic Grower,” is still considered a Bible of farming. Kurt worked on Coleman’s farm during the 2014 winter growing season, a period of record lows and the most snowfall in 50 years. Coleman told Kurt: “It’s safe to say that you farmed in Maine in worse weather than I ever did.”

Kurt and his girlfriend, Maggie Higby, met at Clear Brook Farm. When he came to Sylvester Manor to assume the title “vegetable grower,” Maggie, who also had a substantial farming résumé, came to Sylvester Manor as a “farm apprentice.”

In early March, Kurt, Maggie and their dog, Desmond, made the move from Vermont. Kurt figured since he came from a town the same size with a similar tendency to grow in population dramatically in the high season (skiers), Shelter Island would seem like home.

So far, so good, he said. He’s looking forward to doing some fishing and in the fall, hunting. Maggie, Desmond and Kurt have a small apartment near the school and Desmond established his good manners on the farm. “He knows to stay out of the vegetables,” Kurt said. “When I bring him out he just goes under the truck and falls asleep.”

A few changes in the vegetable offerings at Sylvester Manor Farm this year reflect Kurt’s influence, most importantly, the addition of salad mixes and increase in lettuces. Then there’s a new carrot variety — Mokum — that Kurt is excited about. “I grew this variety at Stone Barns,” he said. “It is a super sweet orange carrot. It’s all about taste.”

He hopes to engage more Islanders in the farm. Even if they’re visiting the chickens and goats and don’t shop at the farmstand or eat the food, his hope is that they’ll learn how their food is produced and what’s in it. The slogan is, “The goal is to put the culture back in agriculture.”

The desire to teach, to learn and be part of a community brought Kurt to farming at the Sylvester Manor Educational Farm. His measures of success? “Fertile land, dirty hands, sweat and smiles.”