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A Day in the Life: Shelter Island’s Sylvester Manor Farm

Another chapter in our continuing series looking at the daily lives of Island institutions.

The Sylvester Manor Educational Farm consists of eight acres of animals and vegetables, three high tunnels, two compost piles and eight pigs, 300 hens, and 40 ducks.

In the 350 years or so that people have farmed at Sylvester Manor, there have been many farmers, but the all-female team that is seeding, weeding, feeding, and harvesting this year is dialed in to produce the best food possible using responsible agricultural practices.

Led by Farm Manager Arielle Gardner, and joined by another five or so farmers as the season progresses, they will produce enough food to keep their CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) families fed, the farmstand fully stocked  — currently open weekends, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. — and sell at a weekly farmers’ market in Montauk.

And they do it by avoiding harmful fertilizers and pesticides, using techniques such as no-till and cover crops, deploying chickens and ducks to fertilize fields, and pigs to clear woodlands of invasives.

The farm takes its educational mission seriously, and is one of the few working farms where visitors are welcome inside the gates and in the farm field, whether they are CSA members or not.

Here is what a day on the farm was like on Monday, May 6.

6 a.m.

The first one through the farm gates every morning is Arielle. She describes her role as more of a lifestyle than a job, meaning although she does not live on the farm, she’s there most of the time, and rarely takes a day off.

7 a.m. Morning Chores

The farmhand assigned that day to morning chores was Arielle, so she watered the chickens and ducks, and fed the pigs.

8 a.m. Stretch

The team, consisting of Arielle and the apprentice farmers, arrive, are fed, with hands empty, and ready to work. They start by stretching in a shelter behind the farmstand where a boom box is set up, the first music in a day that will span musical genres from traditional work songs to Taylor Swift to 80’s disco. “Music is a big part of it,” said Arielle. 

As a slow love song floats over the field, Grace Petraglia, Hannah Kleinman, Romy Neuman and part-time farm employee Bella Springer prepare their bodies for what promises to be a very athletic day. Farm apprentices Carleen Brandon and Raquel Saenz are not in this day.

8:45 a.m. Field Walk

On most days, the farmers fan out across the fields to their assigned jobs, but after two days off, Monday is a good day for a semi-weekly field walk. “To get our heads in the game. To see what has changed,” Arielle said.

Farm Manager and farmhands on an early-morning walk to assess the work ahead. (Credit: Charity Robey)

She points out the strawberry patch, which needs weeding, and a row of tiny spring brassica flowers, in a similar state of weediness.

A roost fell off in the chicken coop. “We need to drill it back on with longer screws,” Arielle said. 

The farm walk pauses by a row where a new crop called “Grace’s Favas” is going in, so named because they were Grace’s idea. “Favas we have not done here,” Arielle said. “I asked the farmers when we got here what we weren’t growing, and they said favas and loofah.”

9:15 a.m. Artichokes

A new crop inter-planted with Swiss chard to make optimum use of the space, the artichokes are being eaten by caterpillars, and need to be netted. Arielle sees the damage but also the possibilities. “The whole plant is not decimated, some are, but that’s farming.”

She harvests some asparagus from a nearby row and shares a spear. Your reporter contemplates the jaw power of a caterpillar that can eat an artichoke.

10:30 a.m. Cake Break

After hours of pushing tractors, weeding, and seeding, it’s time for cake break, a quick snack in the field involving carbohydrates. It’s an adaptation of a practice Arielle took away from her time farming in Italy when someone’s grandma would come out to the field with an espresso machine. Here, it’s more likely to be a chocolate cake, such as the one Hannah made for Arielle’s birthday.

10:45 a.m. Weeding Beets

Arielle pointed out a row of beets in urgent need of weeding, eliciting an objection from one farmer, “Didn’t we just weed that bed?”

“You did rows 1,2,3 but you didn’t do 4,5,6,” Arielle said. “I want to put in five more.”

Noon Lunch

The farmers don’t have to go far. They live in housing across the street, or another house near the Manor house, and they eat what they grow on the farm.

1:15 p.m. High Tunnels

The farmers are seeding and potting in the high tunnels, where a farming tragedy has befallen the beet crop. Something ate all the seeds planted a week ago. One farmer wondered if it could have been a bird or some other small mammal.

“It was a rat.  I saw the poop,” said another.

Case closed.

There’s an unusual and attractive arrangement in one high tunnel, the rows of lettuce, zucchini, bunching onions, Swiss chard, fennel, and kale are horizontal. “I wanted it to look like a mini garden,” Arielle said. “I just like the idea of quick crops in small quantities. This house has 21 beds, and it’s easy to tell the farmer, go to the 5th row, eastside and harvest.”

2:45 p.m. Throwing Tomatoes

Arielle checks on the new tomato plants in a high tunnel with a mirrored disco ball hanging over her from a ceiling strut. Customers at the farmstand are already looking for tomatoes, and they are profitable.

Sylvester Manor Farm Manager Arielle Gardner at work in the fields. (Courtesy photo)

This high tunnel is called “Hot Stuff,” and the one next to it is called “Night Fever.” Both feature large, mirrored balls which may ward off some agricultural evildoers, but don’t work against the heat of the sun. “We had one warm day, and the side didn’t roll up and we lost 80% of the crop,” Arielle said.

3 p.m. Compost

The team works on building an aerated compost pile. Creating compost from scraps and brush is time-consuming, and building a new aerated pile will speed up the process. Manure, wood shavings from the chickens and ducks, and seaweed from the beach will be aerated by pipes facing up through the layers of compost, with a blower inside.

If they can get it built in May, they’ll spread the compost in October.

3:45 p.m. Crimping

Several fields were sown with rye last fall as a cover crop. Now that the graceful grain is as tall as the farm manager, it’s time to return it to the soil to improve the nutrients. Crimping, or folding the rye stalks into the earth, is a technique for doing this. It requires a couple of farmers to flatten the grass against the earth with a board and cover it so that it biodegrades and becomes part of the soil.

4:30 p.m. Evening chores

Each farmer takes responsibility for the daily maintenance of something on the farm, be it pigs or chickens or ducks, and after general farm work ends at 4:30 p.m., everyone goes on to do those evening chores, which include observing the animals to ensure that they are doing well.

On this day, Romy has the ducks. Hannah has the pigs, and after a month of responsibility, they will rotate to a new set of responsibilities, but not before training whoever is taking over their tasks. 

Farmers try not to get attached to their animals, but clearly Arielle has a special place in her heart for the new flock of 40 ducks, all female and all named Gary.

“I worked on another farm with ducks, and every one of them was eaten by a raccoon except for a single survivor named Gary. So these ducks are named Gary, in honor of Gary.” 

Like the chickens, the duck enclosure gets moved periodically so the Garys can add duck manure to the soil. They will begin laying eggs in June.

‘We are just growing lettuce.’

Arielle believes the key to success in farming is to be positive. Her mantra is, “We are just growing lettuce,” a reminder not to take things too hard. On this day, the farmers dealt with rodents eating newly sown crops, and tomatoes ruined by a blast of unexpected heat. There were caterpillars on the artichokes, and weeds threatened to choke a row of beet sprouts.

“To get upset, in this line of work you are not going to make it,”the farmer said. “Failure after failure happens in farming. Positivity is the only way through. Here is where we grow and learn together.”