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Benner’s Farm

The seed starter kit, above, is a wonderful educational tool (plants in photo not included). Photo by Sam Benner

By Melissa Arnold

There’s nothing quite like spring in full bloom — the weather’s finally breaking, flowers are popping up everywhere, and it’s easy to get the kids outside for some fresh air and sunshine, even in the middle of a pandemic.

Unfortunately, most of the area’s most beloved spring locales are closed, their events canceled indefinitely until cases of COVID-19 have declined to safer levels. Without their usual income, many small businesses are struggling to pay the bills and must find creative new ways to keep the lights on.

Among them are Benner’s Farm in Setauket, well known in the community for its seasonal festivals and educational opportunities for both children and adults. With in-person field trips and large gatherings impossible, they’re trying to reinvent the wheel.

“Normally this time of year would have class after class coming in to see the farm and our new animals,” said owner Bob Benner. “We’ve had births of lambs, goat kids, chicks and bunnies, but no one can visit them — there are no workshops or Mommy and Me events, no birthday parties …. there’s literally nothing. So we’ve had to ask ourselves, ‘What can we do?’”

At Easter time, with 20,000 candy-filled eggs ready to go, Bob awoke in the middle of the night with an idea: What if they sold 50-egg boxes for families to have their own hunts at home? By the time the holiday arrived, they’d sold 100 boxes. Encouraged, the Benners sought to continue the momentum.

Next came an online store, with t-shirts and maple products for sale at www.bennersfarm.com, and a GoFundMe campaign which raised more than $6,000 to keep staff paid and animals fed.

Now they’ve created a “My First Garden Learning Kit” geared toward children containing everything you need to grow a dozen different flowers and plants. The kits include planters, potting soil, a template to sort and examine seeds, plant markers, and an instruction booklet with pictures and information about each plant at various stages of growth.

Both Bob and his wife Jean have spent decades working as teachers in addition to running the farm. Jean said that they work hard to approach every project with an educational focus, trying to see each aspect as a child would.

“We purposely chose seeds that are all different sizes and shapes, mature at different times, and are not too tiny so that kids can handle them,” she explained. “The seeds we’ve chosen are all meant to be interesting and recognizable. Marigold seeds look like tiny paintbrushes; calendula seeds resemble tiny worms.” 

The seed starter kits went on sale at the end of April. Within two days, they’d sold 70 kits and were ordering more boxes to fill. So far, so good. 

“It’s been successful especially because people are telling their friends and family. We’ve had orders come in from other places around the country, too,” said Jean.

The Benner family moved to Setauket from Northport in the late 1970s. Their eldest son, Ben, said that his earliest memories involved being dressed in overalls and driven to see the badly overgrown property. The area was first farmed in the 1750s, and the Benners revitalized it using books on homesteading as a guide. What was originally meant to be a hobby for Bob and Jean slowly evolved into something much more.

“This is our life here, and it’s so strange to see the farm empty,” Ben said. “We miss the energy of the kids, getting to see people every day, hosting our programs. This is all we want to do.”

While the Benners have no idea what the future holds or what events they’ll be able to host next, they know that the success of the farm rests in continuing local support and encouraging a love for nature in children.

“As a society, we’ve lost a certain amount of knowledge and appreciation for nature. Kids that grew up in previous generations would be out working in farms and gardens, and that doesn’t happen much around here anymore,” Ben said. “I think it’s such an important thing to learn about the process of how plants grow, and it’s a lot of fun to go out and pick your food, knowing where it comes from and knowing you did it yourself. We want to spark that interest in as many kids as possible.

Seeds included in the garden kit:

Calendulas

Sunflowers

Zinnias

Marigolds

Green squash (zucchini)

Purple bush beans

Peas

Corn

Beets

Swiss chard

Radishes

Tomatoes

Each kit costs $25. They can be picked up from Benner’s Farm at 56 Gnarled Hollow Road, Setauket. Call ahead to arrange an in-person, contactless pickup. Prepayments using a credit or debit card are preferred, but arrangements can be made for cash payment. Online orders placed at www.bennersfarm.com are $35 each and will be sent out within 24 hours. For the latest information about the farm, to make purchases or donations, call 631-689-8172 or visit their website.

 

Photo courtesy of WMHO

Here are some fun and educational ways for your kids to enjoy winter break:

Benner’s Farm

Ever wonder what it’s like to be on a real working farm in the winter? Kids ages 7 to 14 can enjoy winter break at Benner’s Farm, 56 Gnarled Hollow Road, E. Setauket on Feb. 17 and 18 from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Learn how to make maple syrup, help care for the animals and more. Snacks provided. Bring lunch. $60 per day, $100 for both days. To register, call 631-689-8172 or visit www.bennersfarm.com.

Cold Spring Harbor Fish Hatchery

Cold Spring Harbor Fish Hatchery, 1660 Route 25A, Cold Spring Harbor will hold several winter break events from Feb. 17 to 21 from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Make snow that won’t melt, make homemade ice cream and create slippery, sticky slime. Admission is $7 adults, $6 seniors, $5 kids ages 3 to 12. Call 516-692-6768.

Huntington Historical Society

Kids in grades 1 to 6 can join the Huntington Historical Society at the Conklin Barn, 2 High St., Huntington for a variety of hands-on history activities, including learning traditional weaving techniques and Presidents Day-themed crafts, games and activities on Feb. 17 and 18 from 9:30 a.m. to noon. Campers will go home with a piece of their very own hand-woven fabric. Fee is $35 per day. Call 631-427-7045.

Smithtown Historical Society 

Enjoy February break with the Smithtown Historical Society,  239 E. Main St., Smithtown from Feb. 18 to 21 from 9:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Enjoy a different theme each day including Kaleidoscope Fun, Mid Week Mardi Gras, Snow Day and National Biscuit Day. Fee is $30 per day. To register, call 631-265-6768.

Suffolk County Vanderbilt Museum

From Feb. 17 to 20 from 10 a.m. to noon children in grades K through 3 can take part in several workshops at the Suffolk County Vanderbilt Museum’s Learning Center, 180 Little Neck Road, Centerport. Participants will take tours of the museum’s collections and then create a related craft including an owl diorama, animal portrait and a mixed-media deep-sea collage. $20 per child. To register, call 631-843-5539.

Ward Melville Heritage Organization

On Feb. 18 to 20 from 10 to 11:30 a.m., the WMHO’s Educational & Cultural Center, 97P Main St., Stony Brook hosts a Puppet Making workshop for ages 6 to 11 with acclaimed artist Liz Joyce ($100 for all three days) and Music Mornings with Johnny Cuomo for ages 3 to 5 ($85 for all three days, $30 per day). To register, call 631-751-2244.

The Slambovian Circus of Dreams. Photo by Tom Moore

By Melissa Arnold

At Benner’s Farm in East Setauket, there’s a sense of going back in time. The 15 acres that make up the private family farm have been cared for by local families since the 1700s, and current owners Bob and Jean Benner have worked hard to maintain that historic atmosphere. Along with growing organic produce and hosting a variety of educational events, the farm is also well-known for its seasonal festivals held throughout the year.

Quarter Horse

This weekend, Benner’s Farm will tune up for the 8th annual Fiddle & Folk Festival, offering guests a chance to experience traditional folk and bluegrass tunes along with modern spins on the genre. Emceed by Bob Westcott, the program includes performances by the Slambovian Circus of Dreams, Quarter Horse, Eastbound Freight Bluegrass Band, Taylor Ackley and the Deep Roots Ensemble.

The festival is a revival of a similar event held for many years at The Long Island Museum in Stony Brook, said farm owner Bob Benner.

“I used to play violin when I was a kid, and my wife and I were involved with the Long Island Traditional Music Association for a long time,” said Benner. “The farm has been around since 1751, and back then, people made their own music and danced in barns for socialization and entertainment. We try to keep that same ambiance today by offering opportunities to come out and hear live music of all kinds.”

Taylor Ackley and the Deep Roots Ensemble

The event barn’s Backporch Stage will serve as the main stage for the festival, while the Shady Grove Stage will offer workshops and Q&A opportunities with headlining musicians, allowing audiences to get to know them on a deeper level. In addition, the Jam Junction Stage will play host to musicians of any skill level who want to take a turn on the platform alone or with friends.

“The Fiddle & Folk Festival is one of the nicest ways you can spend a Sunday on Long Island, and you get to hear an entire day of music you might not otherwise experience,” said Amy Tuttle, program director of the Greater Port Jefferson-Northern Brookhaven Arts Council, which sponsors the event along with Homestead Arts, WUSB and Times Beacon Record News Media. “We have a broad reach, and use our contacts to bring in nationally-known performers and people in the community to entertain,” she added.

Taylor Ackley and the Deep Roots Ensemble from Stony Brook bring together classical musicians from the area to play old-time mountain music with unique instrumentation, Tuttle said. Ever heard bluegrass played on a French horn? Now’s your chance.

Eastbound Freight Bluegrass Band

The Eastbound Freight Bluegrass Band is the longest-running bluegrass ensemble on Long Island with all of its founding members still performing. The close-knit group has played together for more than 20 years, and it’s evident in their sound, Tuttle said. “They have a tightness in their music that can only come from being together for such a long time.”

Eastbound Freight will offer a fiddle workshop during the afternoon for anyone interested in learning more about the instrument and playing in the folk genre.

Quarter Horse, a local six-man ensemble, blends traditional folk sounds with elements of rock, alternative, blues, jazz and country music. The band, which formed five years ago, offers a younger take on folk music, Benner said.

The Slambovian Circus of Dreams

Known as pioneers of Americana, the Slambovian Circus of Dreams has been recognized in publications around the globe for its unique sound and showmanship. The whimsical group from Sleepy Hollow is known for its classic rock influences and varied instrumentation, from mandolin to cello and theremin. Benner said that they’ll be working Eastern European music and yodeling into their set this year. “They’re a fantastic group and so much fun to watch,” he said.

Children will enjoy the event as well as the festival offers a Kids Corner with storytelling and music, a chance to feed the farm animals and a ride on the Big Swing.

As the day draws to a close, stick around for a traditional barn dance with live music and a caller and bring home some organic produce.

“People don’t want to leave because it’s such a peaceful and fun atmosphere. You can forget about the rest of the world for a day, get out in nature and let your stress go,” said Tuttle.

The 8th annual Fiddle & Folk Festival will be held at Benner’s Farm, 56 Gnarled Hollow Road, E. Setauket on Sept. 15 from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Tickets in advance are $15 adults, $13 seniors and children; tickets at the door are $18 adults, $15 seniors and children. There is no rain date. Bring seating. For more information, call 631-689-8172 or visit www.fiddleandfolk.com.

File photo by Heidi Sutton

THIS EVENT HAS BEEN CANCELED DUE TO THE WEATHER.

May Day Festival

Join the Benner family for their annual May Day Festival at Benner’s Farm, 56 Gnarled Hollow Road, East Setauket on Sunday, May 5 from noon to 4 p.m. Bring the family and dance around the maypole, enjoy live music, feed and cuddle the baby animals and enjoy traditional crafts, vendors and food. Admission is $8 adults, $6 seniors and children. Proceeds benefit Homestead Arts. Call 689-8172.

The rain this past weekend didn’t stop a certain rabbit from dropping off goodies at Benner’s Farm for Three Village and neighboring children.

The farm hosted egg hunt events April 20 and 21, where children found plastic eggs filled with treats and stuffed animals.

Families also were able to visit with the farm’s baby animals, check out crafts from vendors, play on the big swing, walk the trails and take pictures with the Easter Bunny!

St. James R. C. Church in Setauket also hosted its egg hunt April 21 after Easter Sunday morning service.

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Red Delicious, Granny Smith, Ginger Gold, no matter which apple catches your fancy, all were available to bite on as the nonprofit group Preservation Long Island, Homestead Arts and Benner’s Farm hosted the 29th annual Long Island Apple Festival Sunday, Sept. 30, at Sherwood-Jayne Farm in East Setauket.

Throughout the day, volunteers showcased how apples were used in colonial times for making applesauce, pies or cider, stuff that a man dressed as Johnny Appleseed said was “so good it will make your tongue slap your eyeballs.”

The event also included live folk music, hayrides, pony rides, games for kids, tours of the historical Sherwood-Jayne House and an apple pie baking contest.

Funds from the event went to Preservation Long Island to continue its efforts to maintain historical places like the Sherwood-Jayne property, among others.

Pete Mancini & the Hillside Airmen

By Heidi Sutton

Featuring the best in traditional and contemporary folk music, the seventh annual Fiddle & Folk Festival returns to Benner’s Farm in East Setauket this Sunday, Sept. 16 from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. 

The day-long event will showcase three stages. Emceed by guitarist and singer Bob Westcott, the Main (Back Porch) Stage will feature four acts this year. The Shady Grove Stage, which will be hosted by WUSB’s Charlie Backfish, will allow visitors to meet the performers and attend workshops, and the Jam Hollow Stage will highlight a sing-along and a fiddle workshop. There will also be a roaming fiddler, appropriately named Jack Fyddle, who recently appeared as a reenactor in TBR News Media’s feature film, “One Life to Give.” The evening will end with a family contra dance in the barn. 

Larry Campbell and Theresa Williams

Reached by phone, Amy Tuttle, program director at the Greater Port Jefferson-North Brookhaven Arts Council who’s also on the festival committee, said she’s familiar with the groups and looks forward to their performances, adding that this year’s headliners will have more of “a rock feel, more on the Americana, modern folk spectrum.”

Back by popular demand, The Stony Brook Roots Ensemble will open the festival. Formed in 2015 by Taylor Ackley, the ensemble features grad students from Stony Brook University. Tuttle said the group “takes the mountain music and the western music that [Ackley] grew up with in Montana and Washington State and play it with classical instruments and it’s really cool — everybody loves it.”

The festival will continue with a performance by Brooklyn-based The New Students, who “do a modern twist on traditional folk music,” and will be followed by Pete Mancini & the Hillside Airmen. According to Tuttle, Mancini was the former frontman of Butcher’s Blind. “He just started this band and was recently signed to Diversion Records based in Chicago,” she said.

Larry Campbell and wife Theresa Williams will close out the festival. “They are musicians’ musicians,” explained Tuttle. “Larry was a member of Bob Dylan’s Band, and Theresa is also a songwriter and singer and they have been in Levon Helm’s band and have become the musical director of Levon’s Midnight Ramble. They’re the ones that are carrying on the torch now that Levon has passed.” 

The New Students

She is most excited to introduce the community to this duo, having tried for several years to get them to come. “These folks are known worldwide among people who appreciate great musicianship.”

Tuttle said there will be plenty of activities that children can participate in as well by taking part in the sing-along workshop, enjoying stories and creating artwork in the Kids Corner.

Visitors are also encouraged to stroll around the 15-acre working organic farm, meet the resident farm animals, tour the vegetable gardens, purchase organic produce and feel like a kid again on the Big Swing. For Tuttle, this is one of those special events that she looks forward to every year. “The quality of the music is just top notch, the setting is gorgeous and the vibe of the festival is relaxed and friendly.”

Presented by Benner’s Farm, Homestead Arts, the Greater Port Jefferson-Northern Brookhaven Arts Council, TBR News Media and WUSB Radio, the music festival will be held 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 a full schedule of events, visit www.fiddleandfolk.com. For more info, call 631-689-8172.

All photos courtesy of Amy Tuttle

Above, a battle scene shot at Benner’s Farm in East Setauket last summer.
Film showcased at SBU’s Staller Center for the Arts

By Talia Amorosano

The wait is over. On Sunday, June 24, an integral piece of U.S. and Long Island history will be revisited in the geographic location where much of it actually took place. At 7 p.m., the Stony Brook University’s Staller Center for the Arts, 100 Nicolls Road, Stony Brook, will host the first major public screening of “One Life to Give,” a film about the friendship and lives of young American heroes Benjamin Tallmadge and Nathan Hale, whose actions would lead to the creation of a Revolutionary spy ring based on the North Shore of Long Island.

Presented in the Main Theater, doors will open at 6:45 p.m. After a message from publisher Leah Dunaief, a short behind-the-scenes documentary will be shown followed by the main film screening. After a message from the creators, the evening will conclude with a Q&A with the cast and crew. Admission to the event is free, courtesy of TBR News Media. No reservations are necessary.

Cast and crew gather around a camera to view playback last summer.

The film’s co-producer and writer, Michael Tessler, describes the film as an exploration of historical events with a human focus. “After spending several years researching Benjamin Tallmadge and the other heroes featured in our film, I began to look at them not as detached names in a textbook, but more so as real people, with real stories that deserve to be told,” he said.

 Dave Morrissey, the actor who portrays Tallmadge in the film, describes his character as a “22-year-old kid,” who, despite his relative youth, is “focused” and “grounded,” propelled into action by the death of his brother at the hands of the British. “When something like that happens to you, you turn into a machine … into something else,” said Morrissey. “If you channel the energy and do what’s right, the possibilities are endless.”

By focusing a metaphorical macro lens on the multidimensional characters of Tallmadge and Hale, the film traverses consequential moments of American history: the Battle of Long Island, the anointing of America’s first spy and the events that would lead to the creation of the Culper Spy Ring, a group of men and women who risked their lives and status to gather British intelligence for the Revolutionary cause. 

Though Tessler notes that the film is, at its heart, a drama, he and the film’s director and co-producer Benji Dunaief stress the cast and crew’s commitment to accuracy in their interpretation of historical events. 

“The history comes second to the narrative in most [other film adaptations of historical events],” says Dunaief. “Our approach with this film was the exact opposite. We wanted to see where we could find narrative within [pre-existing] history.” 

“Many of the lines from the film were plucked directly from the diaries of the heroes themselves,” stated Tessler. “We worked closely with historians and Revolutionary War experts to achieve a level of accuracy usually unseen in such a local production.”

The fact that many scenes from the film were shot in the locations where the events of the real-life narrative took place helped give the visuals a sense of truthfulness and the actors a sense of purpose.

“The location took production to the next level. It’s really crazy how closely related the sets we used were to the actual history,” said Dunaief, who specifically recalls filming at a house that contained wood from Tallmadge’s actual home. “It helped to inspire people in the cast to get into character.” 

Morrissey recalls spending a particularly inspiring Fourth of July on Benner’s Farm in East Setauket. “We were filming the war scenes with all the reenactors … in the cabin that we built for the set … in the town where the battles and espionage had really happened. There were fireworks going on in the background while we sang shanty songs. It was amazing.”

The Continental Army shoots off a cannon at Benner’s Farm.

Though locational and historical accuracy played a large role in making filming a success, ultimately, Dunaief and Tessler credit the resonance of “One Life to Give” to an engaged and participatory community. “This was a community effort on all accounts,” says Dunaief, noting the roles that the Benners, Preservation Long Island, The Ward Melville Heritage Organization, the Three Village Historical Society and others played to bring “One Life to Give” to fruition. 

The fact that the screening will take place at the Staller Center, in the heart of the community that helped bring the film about, represents a full-circle moment for the cast and crew. “We’re calling it a screening but it is so much more,” said Dunaief. “It is a fantastic example of how the community has stood by this film, from beginning to end.”

“We’re beyond honored and humbled to use a screen that has seen some of the greatest independent films in history,” said Tessler. “Stony Brook University has been a wonderful partner and extremely accommodating as we work to bring our local history to life.” 

Tessler projects confidence that viewers will leave the screening with a similar sense of gratitude. “This story shows a part of our history that I think will make the audience very proud of the place they call home.”

The future of ‘One Life to Give’: 

Michael Tessler and Benji Dunaief plan to show the film at festivals around the country, to conduct a series of screenings on Long Island, and to partner with local historical societies that can use it as an educational tool. Additionally, a sequel to “One Life to Give,” titled “Traitor,” is already in the works. Filming will begin this summer.

All photos by Michael Pawluk Photography

Benner’s Farm shared the sweetness of late spring with its annual Strawberry Fair June 9 and 10. Attendees enjoyed old-fashioned games, live music and strawberry treats, including chocolate-covered ones. Children took turns learning how to make ice cream, visited with Benner’s animals and enjoyed the farm’s big swing.

By David Zeitler
Above, Lila Clark-Clonts holds a baby goat at Benner’s Farm; below, her winning entry. Photo by Heidi Sutton
Above, David Zeitler can’t wait to see the show; below, his winning entry. Photo by Heidi Sutton
Happy Spring!

Thanks to all the children who entered our Spring Coloring Contest! We had so many wonderful submissions making for some stiff competition. Congratulations to Lila Clark-Clonts, age 8, of Setauket and David Zeitler, age 5, of Port Jefferson! Both children received a family four pack to Theatre Three’s adorable children’s show, “The Adventures of Peter Rabbit.”

Special thanks to Theatre Three for sponsoring our contest. Be sure to look for our next contest for Mother’s Day in Arts & Lifestyles and check out the other wonderful entries in next week’s issue.

By Lila Clark-Clonts
By David Zeitler