Community Connection Conversation

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Sylvester Manor's Windmill Field manager Jocelyn Craig and Acabonac Farms founder Stephen Skrenta covered a lot of ground when they met in the Manor House on a blustery-yet-bright March morning. We invite you to dig into their conversation about the meaning of sustainability, being environmentally conscious and how farming feeds a sense of wonder, connectedness and intentional living. 

Jocelyn: So it’s March, and I’ve got seedlings started in the greenhouse, and I haven’t broken ground in the field yet, but that’s in the imminent future. I feel like I have so much going on just to grow vegetables on 3 acres of land - and yes, and chickens and pigs. I think one of the reasons Sylvester Manor initially looked into the option of leasing the 60 acres in the backfield is that what I’m doing right now is already a big job for one person, and to actually fold  a whole other enterprise into our operation , it just seemed like it was too much. So I think part of the reason for doing that it was sort of dialing back, but I don’t know how it became you so . . .  (laughter)maybe you could tell me about that.

Stephen: When we started, we were looking for big pieces of property. The reason for that is it takes as much effort to move six animals as 60 animals. There's no incremental effort. We started dialoguing with Peconic Land Trust because they have insights and access to a lot of the parcels that could potentially present an opportunity for us, and thankfully they mentioned that Sylvester Manor was considering alternatives for the back acreage.

I then had the opportunity to take Peter and Glen through our approach to grass farming because that's what we like to think we do at Acabonac Farms, and the conversation really went from there. They were excellent in terms of chaperoning me through the process of dialoguing with the board, the lease structures and different views about what we do and why we do it within Sylvester Manor. It actually was a fairly efficient process.

Jocelyn: So I’m growing annuals and have to start seeds every season . . . and you’re  a grass farmer (chuckles). Yes, the end product is the beef and that's what everyone is excited about, but I understand that what the cattle eat is really important because that’s what helps to produce that product . . . so how your grass farm.

Stephen: We think that the byproduct is really the beef, so if we do the first two pieces of our production equation well, the third which is healthy and delicious beef, sort of comes naturally. What we try to do is manage our production for soil health first and foremost . . . growing soil. There are a lot of big things, and there are some little things. A big thing would be, for instance, that we try to keep roots in the ground 365 days of the year. A little thing would be that we do everything we can to keep tractors off of our fields because that promotes compaction and that causes issues.

So if we're promoting soil health, and we are growing healthy and diverse forage which is the second focus of what we try to do, and our forage backbone is perennial so we don't have to go through the effort every year of reseeding is as you do.

Jocelyn: Yes, you’re lucky! (laughs)

Stephen: We do use some annual forages. We intercede with a no-till drill annual forages to help with the times of the summer that the grass stops growing, because the cows don’t stop eating, but the grass does stop growing.

Jocelyn: So you do have to get a tractor in to do that.

Stephen We do, but our hope is that over time we will have to do less and less of that because we’ll have a diverse mix of cool and warm season perennial grasses. Clover, which depending on the type of clover does grow in late July and August. And so hopefully, we'll have to do less and less of that, but we do to some extent intercede annual forages like a sorghum sudangrass into the pastures. We did that this past year at Sylvester Manor, and it worked out really well.

Jocelyn: Sorghum sudangrass grows really tall.

Stephen:  It grows really tall unless you're grazing it. (laughter)

Jocelyn: We tried a little bit of that as cover crop.

Stephen: It worked well, right.

Jocelyn:  It was really tall, and part of the challenge of using it as a cover crop is that you needed to have the equipment to cut it down. Usually, that's some heavy duty mowing implements that we don't have.

Stephen: Yes.

Jocelyn: Cows probably love it.

Stephen: They love it.

Jocelyn: So, no machine needed.

Stephen: Right. And the reason why they love it is because it has sugar. It’s very, very high in energy. Much like children, if you give them a choice between vegetables or starch or candy, they're going to go for the candy first, and that really is like candy for the animals. They'll always go for it first and gain a lot of weight Which is why corn is so popular in terms of a feed for beef. It's just very high in sugar. But yes, if we get the forages right and the soil right, then the animals just grow. We obviously focus a lot of time and attention on the animals, but we like to think it is a byproduct of the first two parts of the equation.

Jocelyn: I do a soil test once a year typically in order to determine what amendments I might need to put on the fields. I know I've heard you talk about how you actually send send grass samples to the lab. Can we talk about that?

Stephen: We do soil test as well. Oftentimes what exists in the soil is not coming up through the forage, so not all the nutrients in the soil present themselves in what is growing. What’s important for the animals in terms of soil performance is that they're getting what they need from what they're eating, which is the forage, so before we move our herd, we’re testing ahead of the moves to sample what they will be eating. If there any deficiencies, let's say there's a selenium deficiency in the forage, what we will do is put that mineral out free choice for the animals. They’ll know they're not getting certain elements from the forage, and they will go and pick at the minerals.

Jocelyn: Is that like a salt lick type thing?

Stephen: Yes, it’s similar. You’ll see us trying to move these heavy bins in the morning. They're just round bins, and they have a few compartments. Depending on what the forage ahead of them has or doesn’t have, we’ll load up those compartments with sort of a buffet-style of minerals. It works well because not only does the animal get what it needs, it also redeposits that mineral back into the soil which is deficient in that so it helps accelerate the cycles. So, we do test the forage ahead of the animals because they need to be gaining weight everyday.

Jocelyn: In our vegetables, we can see different colorations sometimes that tell us that they’re short in supply of a certain nutrient. And you're right, sometimes it tells us that it's in the soil, but not available in the soil. I've been hearing a lot more about the fungal communities in the soil community. Have you tried to do anything with fungal inoculants or anything like that?

Stephen: We do put down a foliar spray once a year on all of our pastures. They are sea minerals from Australia that promote the biological activity of the soil. We do run tests, actually. The soil tests that we run are used to measure the biological activity of the soil as opposed to just the nutrient levels, so it's something that we definitely do look at. You do, too?

Jocelyn: Yes, we have participated in a comprehensive soil test, and we did that in 2016. Because it had so many different criteria and involved Cornell coming to the property and that sort of thing, we’re not going to do that every single year, but it created a baseline for us. We can assume a little bit based on the amount of organic we get in a basic test, but I'm more and more intrigued. 

There are filamentous fungus running throughout the soil, and every time you till, you disrupt them but those fungi are really important in the nutrient uptake of the plants. They work in conjunction with the roots to get that up there, so that is a big challenge as a vegetable grower who is almost required to disturb the soil in order to prepare the beds for the next crop. There's a lot going on out there about no-till and how to make that work and using the least amount of soil disturbance possible.

Stephen: In a vegetable operation . . .

Jocelyn: In a vegetable operation, yes. We’re always trying to do a little bit better. I feel like I don't know that we'll ever get there, but it's really cool the different things that people are trying -- coating seed with fungal inoculant or putting it in a granular form I think, too, or just spreading it on the bed, that sort of thing. I was just curious if you tried any of it.

Stephen: We don't use any pesticides, herbicides or fungicides. We don't even use any synthetic fertilizers. We use duck manure the first year and maybe the second year if we need it, but then the animals are really doing the rest. The one thing we have found is that most of the soils on Eastern Long Island do have a deficiency in calcium. That's why people lime as much as they do. If you test the soil, the calcium is present. It's just bound. In Sylvester Manor’s case, it's bound because of an abundance of magnesium, actually. What we try to do with this foliar spray, is to balance out the nutrients so that more of the calcium presents itself to the forage so we don't need to be bombarding the properties with lime.

Our hope is that over a fairly short period of time, the animals grazing in the nutrient cycles promotes further balances of the mismatch of nutrients that are in the soil. This foliar spray from Australia is organic certified. It really does well in terms of promoting that fungi activity among other things, and it's not very expensive which is another reason why we use it.

Jocelyn: We have a foliar spray that’s a fish emulsion and has a lot of beneficial biological things going on.

Stephen: In some of the magazines that I read, while I don't focus too much on the vegetable side, but I do see that they are they are no-till veggie farming now.

Jocelyn: Yes, there is, and it's an interesting term because it means something different from one person to the next. Because to me, no-till would mean not disturbing the soil at all, right? But some people say they're no-till, but actually may be tilling the top three or four inches of the soil

Stephen: That's what we're doing when we say no-till. We have a no-till drill so more accurate would be light-till . . . .

Jocelyn: Which is certainly better than a deep turning over of everything (laughter) and the disruption of everything. And a lot of the biological activity is happening in the upper a couple of feet of the soil, so if you're only disturbing the very top, then it's better than disturbing all of it.

Stephen: I’ve always thought we have an unfair advantage which is we that we disturb the soil a lot less than a vegetable operation, and more than 90% of what we take we're putting back in, right? The net that we're taking off the land is very little, so when you factor no disturbance or very little disturbance plus positive disturbance from the animals, arguably we're leaving for the most part the vast majority of what we're taking. It produces a very healthy cycle that benefits of soil.

Jocelyn: The people who are actually doing what I call no-till, they're using a lot of compost, and most likely they're going to have to buy that in so that's not a closed loop system like what you can do when your grazing animals. I think it's cool that there's people trying a lot of different things, and I feel like you can glean information from everybody. Every single farming operation is different and every single farmer is a different person who kind of gravitates toward different methods. It’s all part of learning.

Stephen: How then do you define sustainable in your operation? Everybody asks me Everybody ask me about sustainability all the time.

Jocelyn: That’s a great question because I feel like the word sustainable has been misused so many times that it kind of has lost its importance or significance even. When I first started farming, I worked for a farmer who had a problem with that term, and she said for her sustainability meant that you can do it again the next year, so being sustainable means that you can keep doing it .

Stephen: Whatever “it” may be . . .  selling or producing.

Jocelyn: Yes, and I think sustainability includes financial sustainability as well as environmental sustainability. I mean, there maybe even a social sustainability. You  don't have to work yourself so hard that you don't want to do it anymore. So that's what I see when I hear the word, but I don't think the majority of people really understand it that way.

Stephen: I think about that a lot in our operation, too. I think about the models that we need to adapt on the eastern end of Long Island in order to be sustainable farming. If it's vegetables or if it's livestock, I think a sustainable model would be to adapt the realities of labor on the East End, the price of land, the weather, but all Farmers have to do that, and the list goes on and on and on. So when we try to overlay what I think people traditionally see as the way to farm, that may change a bit out here.

Jocelyn: What do you mean by that?

Stephen: So for instance, we finish cattle. We don't cow-calf, and we don't grow stockers. We take heavy stockers, and we put finishing weight on them out here on eastern Long Island. The the other elements are done elsewhere.

Jocelyn: And was that decision a financial one?

Stephen: Yes, (laughs) because we couldn’t be sustainable if we did that.The reality of farming on eastern Long Island pushed us to that point. It's one of the points that people bring up very very often with me -- why aren't you cow-calving on on your farms? It’s because we couldn't make this work if we did.

Jocelyn: So I will give you a counter question of why eastern Long Island?

Stephen: Well, I think if we could pick our spot, we probably would have picked a part of the United States where grass grows year-round. That would be ideal, but there aren’t many of them, perhaps in California and places like that, so the reality of the seasonal nature of grass growing in the cattle industry is similar on eastern Long Island as it is throughout much of the United States.

The benefit of being here and what is very attractive, and I assume it is attractive to you, too, since I’ve been to your farmstand and bought some of your harvest, is that we’re a few miles away from the biggest food market in the United States, arguably one of the biggest in the world. That's a really unique position to be in. And for that reason, as well as for some personal reasons like for instance . . . this is where my wife wanted to live (laughter) which does matter as well, so we are here.

Jocelyn: Yes, sustainability of your family . . .  (laughter)

Stephen: You brought it up . . . so maybe it's better to farm to raise cattle in Kentucky, but that's just not the reality.

Jocelyn: I want to get back to the duck manure, just for a second . . .

Stephen: I'm so excited . . . (laughter)

Jocelyn: If I'm putting manure on the field, I need to make sure that there's a window of time before I harvest and eat that crop. I was just curious if you're very concerned about that, and do you have a window for waiting until the cattle graze?

Stephen: I don't think we have the same requirements from the USDA and the UFSA.

Jocelyn: I’m sure you don’t, but I’m curious.

Stephen: We do compost that manure for several months, and if we don't return it into the soil. We may do a little bit of that on half of the south field this very early spring, but we don't have the same restrictions.

Jocelyn: I think that it’s sort of an organic standard, but it also is food safety issue obviously for veggies, and I actually want to talk a little to you about organic.

Stephen: Just as an aside there's no shortage of her own manure on any of our pastors just by definition, but the cows have figured out not to eat the grass.

Jocelyn: They're selective.

Stephen: Yes, there's a bit of a different dynamic.  

Jocelyn: It totally is.

Stephen: We like it . . . the more the better. (laughter)

Jocelyn: What would it take for you to be organic? What are the challenges that you face in transitioning to or becoming certified

Stephen: We don't have the luxury of owning our properties, and we cannot be sustainable if we are buying several hundred acres of property on the North and South Forks and Shelter Island.

Jocelyn: Do you have to own your property to be organic or have organic certification?

Stephen: No, but you do have to put a fair amount of investment into the land, and the economics break down like . . . if I owned 500 acres, I don't think I'd hesitate to invest the amount I would need to invest to get to organic. An example would be the debate we had around fence posts. Our base case is to use treated fence posts. From an economic perspective, it helps make the operation viable. You wouldn't be able to use treated fence posts on an organic operation. Now you  say, well it's a one-time hit from a financial perspective and then just get on with it, but it's really not because the longevity of the fence is significantly limited if you're not using treated posts. So we’re making that investment fairly routinely. That doesn’t mean that there won’t be instances where we won’t act according to organic practices And I can’t think of another practice that we do other than the fence posts that is not in accordance with being organic.

Jocelyn: Does the hay that the cattle eat have to be organic? Do you know?

Stephen: I don't know because we don't focus on that.

Jocelyn: I was just curious because I've been looking into it on the property. Currently, Sylvester Manor is not certified organic. However, we try to follow organic practices. My thought is . . . can we get there or do we want to get there?

The reason that we’re not there, the way I understand it, is that we’re serving people who can walk onto our farm and buy our product right then and there. So they can see our operation, ask questions of myself or any of the farmers on the property, and there's a transparency that is kind of assumed.

So the way I see it, is that getting the term organic becomes more important when there is a middle man or you're not able to make face-to-face contact with your customer and at least the customer has a third-party who signed off on your operation. But, we also are an educational farm so I always have been pushing toward . . can we get certified? How would we do it? What would it take, I guess, to get there?

And really, t's record-keeping for us. And yes, there is a fee involved. It's a percentage of your gross sales, I think.

And so for educational purposes, I'm looking at how I want to be able to show my apprentices, the young farmers who are coming up they know that becoming certified isn’t a scary thing or overwhelming endeavor, I guess, to become certified because I think there’s somewhat of a stigma there, but I also think there's a lot of assistance to help get you there.

Stephen: What if for instance, you could double your prices if you had that label.

Jocelyn: Well, that would be an incentive, yes, but I don't think we could, though.

Stephen: Could you move them at all?

Jocelyn: Probably not.

Stephen: I don't think so. I think you're already getting the benefit of that label. And maybe the very biggest reason why I like working with Sylvester Manor is because it does push education, so if that is the angle, if that's the reason and I get that . . . I understand that,. Then I think it’s important. But then it's back to sustainability. If you're going to be giving a percentage of your gross revenues to I don't know who, you're going to have to bulk up in terms of resources to do the record keeping and . . .

Jocelyn: The certifier gets that money, which is NOFA in our case, NOFA New York.

Stephen: How tangible that benefit is of having that label, you know . . .

Jocelyn: Exactly, and that’s part of why it hasn’t been done. So, it’s an ongoing conversation.

Stephen: From our perspective, to have certain certifications I think would be great. But we are pretty happy with our production protocols, and we have a policy, too,  that we're kind of open for business 24/7. So, we love when people come and see what we do. We love when people come and ask lots of questions, even the tough questions, especially the tough questions. And, we’re comfortable in the decisions that we make, including by the way, a decision that would be very offensive to some, is using treated wood posts.We did debate this heavily we did say this is a way we can make it work we may not be perfect but without doing this I'm not sure we could exist.    

 Creekside at The Manor House (left to right): Lily Dougherty-Johnson and Cristina Cosentino (Acabonac Farms), Tracy McCarthy and Jocelyn Craig (Sylvester Manor)and Stephen Skrenta (Acabonac Farms).

Creekside at The Manor House (left to right): Lily Dougherty-Johnson and Cristina Cosentino (Acabonac Farms), Tracy McCarthy and Jocelyn Craig (Sylvester Manor)and Stephen Skrenta (Acabonac Farms).

Jocelyn: That's the other thing that is such a big challenge. We are working with producing food because I feel with any other commodity good that's not food, the cost of production is reflected the cost to the consumer, and you can mark that up however you want. But with food, we have a long history and culture -- especially in the United States --  of cheap food, and the cost to the consumer ends up being more controlled by the market and then what it costs to produce it. For those of us who are trying to grow things more responsibly and raise  animals more responsibly, it does have to be reflected in the cost to the consumer, and I think you get people balking at that cost because of the culture that industrial agriculture has developed.

Stephen: We struggle with that, we do. In terms of people's perceptions, and I think it is a perception, of the cost of our beef compared to industrial beef at the supermarket . . . I think that the popularity of CSAs is helping in that regard because people are reconnecting with agriculture and restoring trust in the food system. And I think at a very, very small scale, which would be the CSA scale, it’s important that there are operations that are doing it. I think it helps us all we benefit. We benefit from the work that you've done in previous years in terms of better educating not only your team and future farmers, but consumers about what it means to eat something that they can entirely trust.

Jocelyn: I know you do online sales. How far have your beef products traveled so far? Is it mostly Long Island residents?

Stephen: So New York City, Long Island, northern New Jersey, some parts of Connecticut . . . any area where an individual considers eastern Long Island local, and that's different for different people.

Jocelyn: Sure.

Stephen: I have a family member who lives in New Jersey, and she considers eastern Long Island very local.

Jocelyn: Well, certainly more local than Colorado.

Stephen: Exactly. So I think that's fundamental to driving sales. We have sent our product as far as California, but it's rare. It doesn’t really happen. 

Jocelyn: Medium rare, or . . .? (laughter)

Stephen: You know what people love, the bones . . . the marrow bones. People from all over the United States want them. Bone broth seems to be a very popular item, and grass-fed local bones are in high demand. In fact, we sold out of them. I can also tell you that my dog also loves the bones. He goes bonkers for them, and he's very skilled at getting all that marrow out. 

I think our beef is very good. There's always room for improvement, and that's what we’ll work on for years to come.

Jocelyn: There's always something to work on or learn about, and I've learned a lot today.  Thanks, Stephen.

Stephen: Thank you, Jocelyn. I'm looking forward to our collaboration and ongoing conversations as the season unfolds.