Farming at the Manor: Shelter Island life

CHARITY ROBEY PHOTO | Maggie Higby in Sylvester Manor’s Windmill Field doing what she loves, being outside and farming.

CHARITY ROBEY PHOTO | Maggie Higby in Sylvester Manor’s Windmill Field doing what she loves, being outside and farming.

Maggie Higby, a farm apprentice at Sylvester Manor Educational Farm, was a high school student when she had an experience with a cow that shaped her future.

She milked it.

Her school in rural Vermont had a small farm attached and every student had to help with chores. Her job required her to crawl out of bed, bundle up against the pre-dawn cold and walk to the barn at a time of day when only a cow in need of milking would be glad to see her.

The first time, “It felt like an intimate moment,” she said, “Plus I had the satisfaction of having a glass of fresh milk later in the day.”

Maggie moved to Shelter Island ten months ago with Kurt Eriksen, a vegetable grower at the Manor’s Farm, along with a gentlemanly dog named Desmond. In her first growing season, she helped raise dozens of varieties of fruit and vegetables for the 135 Island families who signed on with the Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program and scores more who shop at the Shelter Island Farmer’s Market and the Manor farmstand.

If you’re reluctant to try a vegetable you’ve never eaten before, don’t expect Maggie to approve. “I hesitate to believe people when they say they don’t like something,” said Maggie. “There is always more to learn.”

Maggie grew up in Salem, New York, a town with about the same number of residents as Shelter Island. Her mother, Nancy Hand Higby, is a landscape architect. Her father, David, recently retired from the Nature Conservancy where he was director of federal government relations. Maggie’s older brother, James, is a snowmaker at Sugarbush Mountain, Vermont.

After careful deliberation — she visited three times before deciding — Maggie attended Kenyon University in Ohio, majoring in American Studies.

She became interested in using narrative techniques at Kenyon to inform and engage people in issues. She wrote and produced a radio show, an aural project that told three stories, describing the lives of three survivors of adversity or trauma, stories that illuminated larger societal issues. “I think stories are powerful in terms of getting people engaged and interested,” Maggie said.

“You can talk about issues and policy, but when there are stories, there is a mental shift and people start to talk about it.”
After graduating from Kenyon in 2012, Maggie worked for a community garden in Salem and a few months later decided to get involved in the campaign to re-elect President Obama at what she considered a watershed moment in American history.

“A lot could have been undone if we had lost that election,” she said.

Starting as a volunteer in Colorado Springs, Colorado, an area with some of the most conservative precincts in the state, the campaign soon hired her as an organizer. “It was exhausting,” she said. “ Any minute you spent not working on the campaign was a minute lost. There was a deadline.”

The president carried Colorado in 2012 by a margin of 5.4 percent.

For three years during college summer vacations, Maggie had worked on the field crew at Clear Brook Farm in Shaftsbury, Vermont, and had even taken a semester off to work there while still at Kenyon. Ever since those early mornings in the milking parlor she knew she had a connection to the land and a belief in the importance of being able to feed herself.

Still, she wasn’t sure she wanted farming as a career. “It’s a little scary to have a job that is really dependent on your body,” she said. “Sometimes you are not in control, accidents happen.”

Maggie moved to New York and in March 2013 began working for publisher Simon & Schuster as a publicity assistant, organizing book tours and media events for authors such as Jane Pauley and Mary Higgins Clark.

After a couple of months, Maggie’s boss, a senior manager who had hired Maggie from among a pool of 2,000 applicants, was summarily fired. For Maggie, and everyone else in the department, it seemed to be a premonition of their own termination when the new department head came aboard.

Fortunately, the new guy decided not to fire anybody, but Maggie had already absorbed the fact that a huge company was not for her. She stayed a little more than a year, long enough to take away two lessons: “It’s always better to be able to shake the hand of the person who signs your paycheck,” and, “Taking that elevator up 14 floors and working in a fluorescent light cubicle is harder than farming.”

After her taste of fast-lane publishing, Maggie was ready for slow food, and that’s what she got during the summer of 2014. She was an intern at Spannocchi, a diversified organic farm in Tuscany, with olive trees, vegetables and a herd of Cinta Senese, a native breed of brown- and white-belted pigs that are made into prosciutto and other salami.

Maggie and Kurt first met shortly after she returned from Italy. She went to lend a hand during harvest at Clear Brook Farm where she had worked summers during college. Kurt happened to be the field manager and after a few days of harvesting together, a mutual respect and interest developed.

Last March, when Maggie and Kurt moved to the Island from Vermont, she expected a charming place that was more New England than the Hamptons. She anticipated a mix of small-town year-round people and city folk and she found what she expected with one major exception — “I was surprised that there was not a bridge.”

Though she and Kurt both grew up in small towns, she learned that living on an Island reached only by ferry is a new kind of small. “The ferry provides a little buffer,” she said, “but it also makes the residents think more about their spatial relations.”

They learned this after leaving a lecture in Westchester at 9:30 p.m. Maggie and Kurt’s failure to consider their spatial relations nearly resulted in them missing the last boat from Greenport.

Maggie had also been warned that the cold and quiet of the winter months would give way to the beach-going hordes of summer, but to her relief, it wasn’t that bad. “We never really lost our heads, which is easy to do when all of your revenue is coming in during one season,” she said.

Still, she’s found the pace of life on Shelter Island is in sync with the life of a farmer. “You work really intensely 50-to-60 hour weeks for at least 3-5 months out of the year,” Maggie said. “And then the payoff is to relax and rejuvenate in the winter.”