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Bob Benner

He-Bird, She-Bird (from left, Terri Hall, Todd Evans and Christine Kellar) will be one of the headliners at the festival this year. Photo by Erin Pelkey
Music tradition continues at Benner’s Farm

By Rita J. Egan

The air will be filled with the sounds of bluegrass, blues and folk music in Setauket on Sept. 10 when Benner’s Farm hosts its sixth annual Fiddle & Folk Festival.

The farm’s owner Bob Benner said last year nearly 300 music lovers attended the festival where they explored the organic, solar-powered working farm and visited the animals while listening to music. “It’s an old-fashioned festival,” Benner said. “It’s pretty much held all over the farm.”

Miles to Dayton performs for a large crowd at Benner’s Farm during a previous Fiddle & Folk Festival. Photo by Bob Benner

Charlie Backfish, host of the long-running, weekly WUSB radio program “Sunday Street,” said the festival’s location sets it apart from others. “There aren’t too many [festivals] that actually take place on a working farm,” Backfish said. “The locale is terrific, and the performers we have are top-notch performers; so it’s a nice combination.”

Emceed by Long Island guitarist and singer Bob Westcott, the festival will feature headliners Daisycutter, The End of America and He-Bird, She-Bird.

Backfish said he’s familiar with the groups and looks forward to their performances. He said the group Daisycutter, from upstate New York, features fiddler Sara Milonovich. The End of America comes from Philadelphia and consists of three singers with incredible harmonies, and they’ve been compared to the early days of Crosby, Stills and Nash, according to the radio disc jockey. He-Bird, She-Bird, a trio from Long Island who sing both originals and covers, Backfish said, perform a roots music type of sound.

“I think we have three interesting acts there,” Backfish said. “They’ll all be on the main stage, and then there’s a second stage at the festival — a meet-the-performers stage. That’s the one that I’ll be hosting, where the audience has a chance to ask questions of the musicians and hear them do some songs that they’re not doing on the main stage.”

A scene from last year’s Fiddle & Folk Festival. Photo from Bob Benner

Benner said the stage to meet the performers is the solar-powered Shady Grove Stage close to the woods. There will also be a Fiddle Workshop in Jam Hollow where attendees can bring their own instruments to join in on the musical fun.

Amy Tuttle, program director of Greater Port Jefferson-North Brookhaven Arts Council, said the Stony Brook Roots Ensemble will be on hand for a special performance. The local music group is comprised of classically trained musicians who share a love of American roots music.

“They are terrific,” Tuttle said. “I’ve found that many outstanding young bluegrass musicians across the country are classically trained, and I’m delighted that we have such a talented homegrown group to present at the Fiddle & Folk Festival.”

For those who aren’t musically inclined, they can participate in contra dancing with a live band led by Rusty Ford, and children can enjoy stories and create artwork in the Kids Corner.

Children can get creative at the Kids Corner. Photo by Bob Benner

Backfish said for WUSB there is a personal connection to the festival. The station’s radio programmer Gerry Reimer, who died in 2012, was in talks with Benner to bring back the Fiddle & Folk Festival, which was formerly held on the property of The Long Island Museum. “I think she would very much like what has happened and how this festival continues,” Backfish said

Tuttle said the members of the Greater Port Jefferson-Northern Brookhaven Arts Council enjoy a variety of musical genres and have enjoyed the performers at past festivals at Benner’s. “They are also very supportive of independent artists,” she said. “The same audience that loves the artistry, lovely surroundings and feeling of community at the Sunset Concerts in Port Jeff also enjoys those same aspects at the Fiddle & Folk Festival.”

Benner said he is looking forward to the event and music lovers coming together as they have the last few years on the farm. “It’s a day to come out and leave the world’s problems behind for a few hours and enjoy some music and community,” he said.

Presented by Homestead Arts, Benner’s Farm, the Greater Port Jefferson-Northern Brookhaven Arts Council, TBR News Media and WUSB Radio, the music festival will be held from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m., rain or shine. Benner’s Farm is located at 56 Gnarled Hollow Road in East Setauket. Admission to the festival is $18 for adults, and $13 for children and seniors at the door. Please bring seating. For more information, call 631-689-8172 or visit www.fiddleandfolk.com.

Serena the sheep takes a much needed break with her new lambs, Walnut and Catalpa. Photo from Benner's Farm

Benner’s Farm, 56 Gnarled Hollow in Setauket had quite a busy week as many of their sheep and goats gave birth, with the help of Jean Benner. All of the babies on the farm will be named after trees this year. Campers on Monday morning had the chance to see Oak and Maple being born. Stop by during Easter weekend and say hello. Visitors can hold the baby ducks, rabbits and chickens and feed and pet the farm’s other residents. The farm will be open on weekends from noon to 4 p.m. through May 21. For more information, call 631-689-8172.

Minnie the cow. File photo

An East Setauket farm’s way of life has been under attack, and its owners are fighting back.

An online petition with more than 2,000 digital signatures spurred protestors to take to Benner’s Farm in East Setauket this week with hopes of convincing its ownership to save 2-year-old Minnie the cow from slaughter to feed the Benner family, which has lived there for 40 years. But Bob Benner said the outcry was misled and not in-step with the sentiments of those actually living in the Three Village community.

“There have been literally thousands of people who have supported us and a majority of them live right here in the community,” he said. “The people that are trying to impose their values on us do not live here. We’re talking about a national group of people who have a direction — they’re trying to tell us how to live.”

The group Benner mentioned included names from all over the United States that made up the online petition calling for Benner’s to keep Minnie as a pet. A private Facebook page, “Save Minnie from Slaughter,” was also launched and collected more than 700 followers within days.

The entire debate started on April 2, when Jean Benner was taking a birthday party group on a common educational tour around Benner’s Farm, answering questions about what it is like to live on a farm. One mother, Kimberly Sherriton of Commack, asked about the fate of the cow, and was told it would be used to feed the Benner family. Sherriton offered to help Minnie find sanctuary where she can live out her life.

“Jean tried to explain the difference between an animal on a farm and a pet, explaining that our farm was a homestead where we raise animals for meat, as it has been since 1751,” Bob Benner said. “We grow and produce food for our family on our property.”

The next day, Sherriton and Bob Benner continued the conversation via telephone, ending in disagreement, the farmer said. Since then, the Benner family has been “inundated and harassed with phone calls, Facebook posts, bad reviews and threats all aiming to change our mind,” Bob Benner said.

“She is used as the face of the farm for all their educational programs, birthday parties and festivals…the events are too numerous to name,” the Change.org petition said. “She is quite personable and has been a wonderful animal ambassador for the ‘farm.’ The public was led to believe that this was a resident cow.”

Protestors with signs setup at the farm over the weekend, drawing attention to the East Setauket spot more commonly known for its peaceful landscape. But the Benner family said that while it was saddened by the public outcry, it was also touched by the support coming from Three Village natives.

“They understand that we care for the animals we raise, and also understand that some of them are being raised for meat,” Bob Benner said. “In part because of our farm, the families who spend time with us are able to have this connection to where food comes from. We are sympathetic that many people today do not have a direct connection to their food source. We get it. There is a disconnect for people, and that is hard. But we are farmers, and we do have that connection to our food.”

The community roamed around Benner’s Farm in Setauket in search of sweets on Saturday, Feb. 20, during its annual Maple Sugaring Day. Families learned the history of maple sugaring, how to tap trees, turn sap into syrup and how to make sugar candies. Participants also enjoyed freshly made pancakes with farm-made syrup. Maple syrup, sugar candies and jams were also sold during the event.

In between eating pancakes, learning about maple sugaring and sampling sap from a tree, families roamed the farm to visit the animals and treat some to a leftover pancake. Children played on the Big Swing up in the woods and visited with the resident barn cats, Lightning, Thunder and Storm. A sweet time was had by all!

Camp counselors and young campers yank on a rope in a tug-of-war exhibition at Benner’s Farm. Photo by Michaela Pawluk

By Susan Risoli

Benner’s Farm doesn’t slow down for the summer.

Dave Benner gives some of the farm guests a ride across the property. Photo by Susan Risoli
Dave Benner gives some of the farm guests a ride across the property. Photo by Susan Risoli

Since 1751, this working farm in Setauket has been an oasis for anyone who cares about a way of life that surprises as much as it teaches. Bob and Jean Benner bought the 15-acre property in 1977. They still run the place, but now their sons Dave, Sam and Ben handle much of the outdoor work, while daughter Kirsten, who used to teach in the farm’s community education program, now lives in New England.

The Benners host a summer camp for children, toddlers to teens, including a full-day showing of how to care for the animals and the gardens. Times Beacon Record Newspapers spent a day at the farm for a firsthand look at life as a Benner.

7:50 a.m. The Benners and their staff of counselors are getting ready for the campers. Some of the children have seen farm animals up close.

“They have backyard chickens and such,” Bob Benner says.

Most, however, have never been at a place like this, and Benner calls it “amazing, to see how quickly they warm up to it.” Today, the children will do farm chores and help feed the animals.

Pancake the chicken and her baby, Waffle, go by. This chicken has flown the coop, preferring to hang out with the cow. She’s actively raising her chick.

This is unusual behavior, Benner says, as modern chickens have been bred to spend more time laying eggs for profit and less time nurturing babies.

Pancake walks briskly, clucking constantly to Waffle, who runs on teeny legs to keep up.

“She’s showing the chick how to eat and how to be,” Benner says.

There are always some chickens that forsake the safety of the coop for an independent life in the open, says Benner. And when they do, “they have to live by their wits.”

8:30 a.m. The lambs are getting antsy.

“Their stomachs are talkin’,” says Sam Benner.

Camp counselors and young campers yank on a rope in a tug-of-war exhibition at Benner’s Farm. Photo by Michaela Pawluk
Camp counselors and young campers yank on a rope in a tug-of-war exhibition at Benner’s Farm. Photo by Michaela Pawluk

One runs to the fence and makes a tentative baa. Soon, three others follow. Now the group is singing a loud, indignant chorus of appeal for their breakfast. Benner tells them they have to wait until the campers get there.

Farm life is satisfying, says Dave Benner, but the hours are long. When it’s time for “spring baby-watch,” he says, “any time the animals go into labor, we have to be there to help ‘em, for as long as it takes.”

Each animal has a distinct personality. Take Shrek, the little pig born in April. “Shrek is a handful,” Benner says, looking over at the piglet that, in the span of about a minute, has pushed his nose through the fence, run around his pen, rooted in the dirt and enthusiastically munched a snack.

10 a.m. The campers are here. Some are gathering hay from the barn. The littlest ones sit on counselor Michaela Pawluk’s lap, as she teaches them how to milk Zoe the goat. The milk is used to feed baby animals, Pawluk says, or is made into cheese.

Other kids wield rakes and shovels. Counselor Nick Mancuso is helping them make a feng shui-themed rock garden.

All the children have a multitude of questions. Nine-year-old Teppei says the animals “are funny sometimes. The chickens look like they’re playing running bases, because they’re running back and forth.” Teppei says he was surprised “at how big cows can get, at a really small human age.” He drew that conclusion after meeting Minnie, the Benners’ massive two-year-old cow.

2:30 p.m. Afternoon on the farm is a time for noticing — the feel of the strong sun, the sound of water rushing out of a garden hose into the goats’ drinking basin, the fragrance of oregano as a breeze blows across the herb garden.

Grown goats and sheep are out of the barn, grazing on the grass. Their babies rest in the shade, leaning on each other with their eyes closed. Minnie the cow is like a big puppy, licking the arms of any human she can reach, her soulful brown eyes trusting and calm.

7 p.m. Campers are long gone, and grown-ups are gathering on the farm for an outdoor bluegrass concert in the pasture. The sheep are starting to hunker down in groups.

Minnie and Shrek are beside themselves with joy as people gather to admire them. But soon, even they will settle down for the night. Tomorrow will be another busy day.

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