Finding his place on the Sylvester Manor Farm

Andrew Porzio started growing food in his backyard when he was a kid. He’s scaled up a bit.

CHARITY ROBEY PHOTO Andrew Porzio started growing food in his backyard when he was a kid. He’s scaled up a bit.

When Andrew Porzio came to Sylvester Manor Educational Farm in the spring of 2016 as a farm apprentice, he’d already been growing food for a decade.

At 13, he walked into the backyard of his family’s home near Buffalo, picked a spot and started fencing it in with sticks. He was undeterred when his dad said his garden site was, “a little shady.”

“My dad had raised beds, but I wanted to do my own thing,” Andrew said.

By his fifth season of backyard farming he had a 3,000-square foot garden, was feeding his family as well as the neighbors, and the rest of his crop was out on the street next to a tip jar, earning hundreds of dollars a season.

Andrew is the oldest of four siblings — Katrina, Daniel, Meghan, and Makayla — in a house, “on the edge of urban sprawl,” he said. He gravitated away from the sprawl, spending as much time as possible fishing and exploring outdoors.

When it came time to pick a college, he headed for Paul Smith’s College in the Adirondacks, despite never having been to that part of New York State. Paul Smith’s has a policy of allowing students to bring a boat to school, and soon Andrew was exploring the Adirondack waterways in his skiff, The General. “Small but mighty,” the skipper said.

The summer before college graduation, Andrew was a commercial salmon fisherman in Alaska on a remote island off Kodiak. He worked with a crew that used set nets, lower risk than “Deadliest Catch,” but more hazardous than the Snapper Derby.

The salmon migrate along the shoreline and get stuck in nets that extend from the shore out into deeper water.  “We stayed in a cabin at night and went out three times a day for a few hours to bring in the fish,” Andrew said. “At one point, a humpback whale got caught in our nets, but we rescued it.”

Anticipating graduation made 2015 a time of  self-appraisal. Three years earlier, Andrew had started an annual list of goals as a way of planning and tracking his progress. His first list had owning a pickup truck as a goal and by the year he graduated, the top of his list was to write a book.

“I wanted that first step to be in the right direction and not have to take a step back,” he said. “I had all the pieces but wasn’t sure I had them in the right place.”

His journey downstate to check out the position at Sylvester Manor was also his first trip through New York City, followed by his arrival on the Island on a January day so quiet that STARs Cafe was the only sign of life.

On April 4, he started as a farm apprentice, growing vegetables in a place where the growing season extends much longer into the fall months than he was used to. “Broccoli, collards and carrots taste much sweeter when they are exposed to all that cold in the ground,” he said.

He also found a much different kind of customer base, coming from a place with little tourism. “The mix of summer and year-round people, I’d never experienced that before,” he said.

When two key members of the Sylvester Manor farm team left in the middle of his first full growing season, Andrew and colleague Jocelyn Craig had to step up and fill the gap.

“It was a super smooth transition. I was ready to grow things,” Andrew said. “I changed all the landscaping, redid our cover crop and our soil fertility plan.”

This year, Andrew and Jocelyn share the farm management, with Jocelyn in charge of vegetable growing in the Windmill Field and Andrew doing livestock and resource management.

“I’m comfortable working with manure,” Andrew said, and in his new role it seems every resource decision takes manure into account, from the siting of the chickens at the Windmill Field to managing the transition of the crew from use of sanitary and water facilities in the Manor House to use of the new, nitrate-reducing sanitation facility.

Andrew said he’s met a lot of young people with romantic ideas about farming, ideas that usually come from never having done it before. “I don’t want to be on the end of a hoe forever,” he noted. “Making goals is part of that. Going forward, I want my own business, under my control. My Eden.”

He said that working at Sylvester Manor has helped him move forward with his plan.

“Living in a place like this makes me think differently. It makes me relax, focus on free time, read, take walks,” he said. “It was a perfect fit, and I stumbled upon it.”

Lightning Round with Andrew Porzio

What do you always have with you?  I always have a notebook with a postage stamp on it. Right now, it’s the international stamp, The Moon.

Favorite place on Shelter Island?  I really like the beach at Section 9. Great spot for watching the full moon rise at sunset.

Favorite place not on the Island?  My grandparent’s house in Erie, Pennsylvania. The basement was finished, and my grandpa had a bar built down there. It was a magical place.

Last time you were elated?  Sundays, waking up at the Manor, walking out on the back lawn.

What exasperates you?  When people don’t collaborate and work together.

Last time you were afraid?  In Alaska, standing in a stream watching grizzly bears eat salmon. I was on my guard.

Best day of the year on the Island?  Memorial Day, the parade and reading the names at the Legion.

Favorite book?  “A Sand County Almanac,” by Aldo Leopold.

Favorite person, living or dead, who is not a member of the family?  Curt Stager. He taught an evolution and geology course at Paul Smith’s that changed my life.