Around the Island

A familiar face brings new life to Sylvester Manor farm

When Cristina Cosentino finished her farm apprenticeship at Sylvestor Manor in 2015, she “didn’t want to leave.”

Fast forward five years and she’s come full-circle as the Manor’s first-ever director of farm operations.

“The apprenticeship was really foundational and springboarded me into my farming career. I learned the day-to-day practical skills involved in vegetable production. I made some life-long friends and mentors both in our community here and abroad,” Ms. Cosentino said. “I am especially excited to pass this knowledge on to new farmers. It’s amazing to see how proper agricultural management can have a positive impact on air, land and water. Stewarding this land here at Sylvester Manor is a real honor and privilege.”

And she didn’t leave, not immediately, that is. Ms. Cosentino’s farm roots grew deeper that winter while she worked as a tractor and machinery maintenance apprentice. She then put her tractor skills to use at the H.O.G. Farm, an 18-acre CSA and vegetable farm in Brookhaven. In 2018, she managed production, operations and sales for Acabonac Farms, a pasture-finishing beef producer that leased 60 acres from the Manor. Most recently, she managed a vegetable market garden in Rhode Island providing fresh produce for Fidelity Investments’ cafeteria. 

“The apprenticeships at the Manor really solidified that this was the field I wanted to work in,” she recalls.

On Jan. 6, Ms. Cosentino began the newly-created position where she’s tasked with supervising all aspects of operations on over 4 acres of farmland and the 125-member community supported agriculture (CSA) program.

“I’ll be doing everything agriculture-related including managing the production of fruits, vegetables and livestock; teaching our farm apprentices and volunteers; planning and implementing our farm expansion; contributing to our master plan; singing worksongs and so much more,” Ms. Cosentino said. 

“Singing worksongs” is second nature to Ms. Cosentino because she’s also an accomplished musician who plays piano, cello and accordion. She plans to help the Manor further its goal to ensure that food and art remain connected to community and the land.

“Part of what drew me to Sylvester Manor as an apprentice was the ever-present ethos of music and art. After long days of farming I used to practice my cello in a Manor House room that was acoustically designed for string instruments,” Ms. Cosentino said. “Our founder, Bennett, is an expert on worksongs and his echoing voice would just rumble across the Windmill Field while we worked. One day our crew was entranced by the sound of pulling garlic scapes, the garlic flowers picked in June to encourage bulb growth. We put on some opera and actually recorded the sounds of birds, garlic and music. It’s an early summer moment I’ll never forget.” 

This new year, Ms. Cosentino said, the goal is to increase the quality and quantity of what the Manor is growing, which follows on the heels of doubling the farm’s tillable acreage in fall of 2019. Of course, the list goes on.

“We’d love to start rotating the chickens and pigs around the property to better utilize their ecological benefits and produce more eggs for the community. Folks can expect to see blades on the windmill within the year, which also means growing and milling grains in the not-so-distant future,” she said. “Can you imagine? Shelter Island-grown and milled flours? We’re analyzing the possibility of goats and sheep too and making plans to grow more and different kinds of berries, such as raspberries, blueberries and strawberries.”

Tending to the farm in season. (Courtesy Photo)

Islanders can expect to see new things on the CSA menu as well, Ms. Cosentino said. She plans to grow Jimmy Nardello, aji dulce and habanada peppers and dreams of growing chicories like escarole and radicchio. Cover crops such as grasses and legumes will also be planted to improve soil and allow livestock to graze. 2020, she said, will hopefully be the year that the asparagus and rhubarb start producing. 

Although the apprenticeship prepared Ms. Cosentino for her field (pun intended), farming is also in her blood. 

“I’m sort of one generation removed from farming. My family has been farming hazelnuts, walnuts, olives and grapes in Avellino, Italy for generations. I went to graduate school in Italy where I researched Slow Food and Cittàslow and farming felt like the best way to share that philosophy here at home,” she said. “I’m Italian, so naturally I love feeding people.”

Ms. Cosentino’s evolution to farm director included working at a farmers market, exploring Long Island agriculture through writing, volunteering with Teddy Bolkas at Thera Farms and Jennifer Murray of Turtleback Farms and apprenticing with beekeeper Craig Byer. After a 2015 move to New York City to work in the wine industry she continued to “devour farming books, wondering how to make it happen.”

“One day, sort of on a whim, I quit my job and applied for the apprenticeship at Sylvester Manor,” she said. “If you told me then I’d be the future director of farm operations I would have said, ‘you’re crazy!’”

With CSA registration for new members beginning Feb. 1, it won’t be long before Islanders can reap what Ms. Cosentino sows. 

“This CSA is a great way to engage with Sylvester Manor and learn more about how your food is grown,” she said. “You can expect your share to change with the seasons and each week is different, which forces us to diversify the flavors and nutrients of our food.”

This year, members can expect staples like tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, eggplant, lettuce and potatoes along with new things such as escarole, arugula or chicory. They’ll also be able to pick their own blackberries, snap peas, string beans and cherry tomatoes. 

What else is on the horizon for the Manor and its new farm director? Well, she says, her duties change with the seasons. 

“It definitely depends on the time of year,” she said. 

While winter is a time of chicken chores, planning and budgeting, April to June is spent seeding, preparing the ground for planting, transplanting and cultivating. Harvest begins around May-June depending on weather and the crew continues to plant and weed. Harvest increases through fall when the weeds start to slow down and they prepare for cover crops. 

“Things always come up and there is a constant sense of urgency to farming. The ebb and flow of the work definitely helps balance the challenges. The weather makes things even more interesting,” she said. “Some years we can do everything in our power right, but we’re still beholden to the surprises of Mother Nature.”