Stephen Searl takes over at Sylvester Manor on Shelter Island

01/30/2018 6:00 AM |

As the staff at Sylvester Manor Educational Farm on Shelter Island looks ahead to 2018 and the upcoming summer season, they will do so alongside two new key players who recently joined the team. 

Stephen Searl will be Sylvester Manor’s new executive director. He came on board in November to work alongside Jo-Ann Robotti, who retired Dec. 31 after two and a half years at the helm.

Also joining the staff, as director of operations, is Tracy McCarthy, who assumed her newly created post last month.

During a recent interview at the Manor House, the two shared a bit about their backgrounds, their new jobs and their vision for Sylvester Manor.

Mr. Searl brings a lifetime of agricultural experience to his new job. A Cutchogue native, he is a descendant of the Wickham family that has farmed in that hamlet since 1699.

“I grew up on Wickham’s Fruit Farm in Cutchogue, which is not unlike this farm,” he said. “We have over 300 acres and the farm has been in our family since the 1600s. Even the house I grew up in is of the same vintage as this house. There are remarkable similarities.”

Mr. Searl worked on the family farm during summers in high school and college. Back in the 1970s, his grandfather, John Wickham, was among the first farmers to participate in Suffolk County’s development rights program to preserve agricultural lands.

“He saw that farmland was being used for development and was concerned about the trajectory, and did not want it to turn into Levittown,” said Mr. Searl.

With a bachelor’s degree from the agriculture school at Cornell University and a master’s degree in natural resources from the University of Vermont, Mr. Searl has acquired extensive knowledge of farming and land use issues in his professional life.

He comes to Sylvester Manor having worked in land conservation for both the North Shore Land Alliance and the Peconic Land Trust. As a project manager at PLT, he worked directly with Sylvester Manor’s owners, Bennett Konesni and Eben Ostby, during the property’s transition from a private entity to a nonprofit educational farm. Also on the project was PLT’s Sara Gordon, who is now the planning and conservation consultant at Sylvester Manor.

“We could see this was going to be a really big project, so Sara and I worked together. She took the lead,” explained Mr. Searl. “We sold the development rights on the back fields, which is where the cows were last summer. We developed a conservation plan for the property, noting which areas were for agriculture, which areas were open space, and had another area preserved through a conservation easement.

“I was involved really early on, never thinking I would come back some day,” he added.

Tracy McCarthy is a lifelong summer resident who has lived on Shelter Island full-time for the last six years. With a bachelor’s degree from the University of Vermont and an MBA in marketing from the University of Connecticut, she comes to Sylvester Manor after running a family publishing business in Connecticut for 20 years. As director of operations, she explains that her job will be to oversee day-to-day activities of the organization and be a key part of the leadership team.

“It’s a small staff. Everyone gets overloaded and wants to do more,” she said. “By bringing one more person on to grab those bits, it’s a big step forward.”

Though the scope of Ms. McCarthy’s duties is still being refined, they will likely include communication and marketing efforts, which have previously been handled on a largely ad hoc basis, depending on who had time to do the work.

“The way I see it, I’m really there to help the rest of the staff do their jobs efficiently and effectively,” said Ms. McCarthy, who will also oversee the educational aspects of the farm.

“We’re doing a lot of this work already,” added Mr. Searl. “We’re just integrating it and taking it to another level. We are an educational farm, so we’re taking that ball and really running with it. Many of the things we’re thinking about have been done, but now we want to enhance and increase them.”

That means increasing food production on the farm and perhaps expanding the amount of livestock kept on the property. Down the road, Mr. Searl would also like to raise funds to renovate the manor house and restore the windmill to working order. But the primary goal for the near term is the continued mission of making Sylvester Manor a welcoming and open place for visitors.

“We want to make it so it’s easier to come here and understand how the farm and manor house fit together,” explained Ms. McCarthy. “The whole property is open to everybody. We’re not just a private farm.”

“Jo-Ann left a fantastic staff in place for us and I think she really helped turn the organization in the direction we’re ultimately going to go,” added Mr. Searl. “Thanks to her, we have all these great people we’re working with.”

Photo caption: Stephen Searl, Sylvester Manor’s new executive director, and Tracy McCarthy, the organization’s new director of operations, in front of the Manor House. (Credit: Annette Hinkle)

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