As the staff at Sylvester Manor Educational Farm looks ahead to 2018 and the upcoming summer season, they will do so alongside two new key players who recently joined the team.
Stephen Searl is Sylvester Manor’s new executive director. He came onboard in November to work alongside Jo-Ann Robotti, who retired December 31 after two and a half years in the position.
Also joining the staff is Tracy McCarthy in the newly created position of director of operations. Ms. McCarthy began at Sylvester Manor in December, and during a recent interview at the Manor House, the two shared a bit about their backgrounds, their new jobs and the vision going forward for Sylvester Manor.
Mr. Searl brings to his position a lifetime of agricultural experience. A North Fork native, he is a descendent of the Wickham family that has farmed the East End for more than three centuries.
“I grew up on Wickham’s Fruit Farm in Cutchogue, which is not unlike this farm,” said Mr. Searl. “We have over 300 acres and the farm has been in our family since the 1600s. Even the house I grew up in is of the same vintage as this house. There are remarkable similarities.”
Mr. Searl worked on the family farm during summers in high school and college. Back in the 1970s, his grandfather, John Wickham, was one of the first farmers to participate in Suffolk County’s development rights program to preserve agricultural lands when it was first implemented.
“He saw that farmland was being used for development and was concerned about the trajectory, and did not want it to turn into Levittown,” said Mr. Searl.
With a bachelor’s degree from the agriculture school at Cornell University and a master’s degree in natural resources from the University of Vermont, in his professional life Mr. Searl has developed an extensive knowledge of farming and land use issues.
He comes to Sylvester Manor having worked in land conservation for both the North Shore Land Alliance and the Peconic Land Trust (PLT). Ironically, as a project manager at PLT, he worked directly with Sylvester Manor descendents Bennett Konesni and Eben Ostby during the transfer of the property from private entity to non-profit educational farm.
Also on the project was PLT’s Sara Gordon, who is now the planning and conservation consultant at Sylvester Manor.
“We could see this was going to be a really big project, so Sara and I worked together. She took the lead,” explained Mr. Searl. “We sold the development rights on the back fields, which is where the cows were last summer.
We developed a conservation plan for the property, noting which areas were for agriculture, which areas were open space, and had another area preserved through a conservation easement.
“I was involved really early on, never thinking I would come back some day,” he said.
Tracy McCarthy is a lifelong summer resident who has lived on Shelter Island full-time for the last six years. With a bachelor’s degree from the University of Vermont and an M.B.A. in marketing from the University of Connecticut, she comes to Sylvester Manor after running a family publishing business in Connecticut for 20 years. As director of operations, Ms. McCarthy explains that her job will be to oversee day-to-day activities of the organization and be a key member of the leadership team.
“It’s a small staff. Everyone gets overloaded and wants to do more,” she said. “By bringing one more person on to grab those bits, it’s a big step forward.”
Though the scope of Ms. McCarthy’s duties are still being refined, they will likely include communications and marketing efforts, which in the past have been handled largely on an ad hoc basis depending on which staff member had time to do the work.
“The way I see it, I’m really there to help the rest of the staff do their jobs efficiently and effectively,” said Ms. McCarthy, who will also oversee the educational aspects of the farm.
“We’re doing a lot of this work already,” added Mr. Searl. “We’re just integrating it and taking it to another level. We are an educational farm, so we’re taking that ball and really running with it. Many of the things we’re thinking about have been done, but now we want to enhance and increase them.”
That means increasing food production on the farm and perhaps expanding the amount of livestock kept on the property. Down the road, Mr. Searl would also like to raise funds to renovate the Manor House and restore the windmill to working order. But the primary goal for the near term is the continued mission of making Sylvester Manor a welcoming and open place for visitors.
“We want to make it so it’s easier to come here and understand how the farm and Manor House fit together,” explained Ms. McCarthy. “The whole property is open to everybody. We’re not just a private farm.”
“Jo-Ann left a fantastic staff in place for us and I think she really helped turn the organization in the direction we’re ultimately going to go,” added Mr. Searl. “Thanks to her, we have all these great people we’re working with.”