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Sheep

The pony Snowball once kept at Sherwood-Jayne Farm. Photo courtesy Mallie Jane Kim
Preservation Long Island is exploring other ways to run a working farm

By Mallie Jane Kim

The bucolic farm scene on East Setauket’s historic Sherwood-Jayne Farm no longer includes grazing animals, as the elderly pony and four sheep who lived there were recently moved to new homes. According to farm owner Preservation Long Island, they are settling in well, and the organization is looking forward to the future of the farm. 

“It’s a new beginning, and it’s a nice place,” said PLI executive director Alexandra Wolfe.

The pony Snowball. Photo courtesy Mallie Jane Kim

According to Wolfe, the sheep have gone to Berkshire Farm Sanctuary in Massachusetts, and the pony, Snowball, has moved to a private family property on Long Island, with people who are familiar with caring for elderly ponies. Wolfe said PLI moved Snowball first so she wouldn’t be left alone on the farm, after a vet deemed her safe for transport and “very sound” for a pony her age — some 40 years old.

Wolfe said her contact at the farm sanctuary told her this week that the sheep are adapting well and getting ready to join a new flock. “It looks like heaven up there, as far as I’m concerned,” Wolfe said of Berkshire. “If I was an animal, I’d want to go retire there.”

It was a calm end to a contentious chapter on the farm. After hearing of plans to rehome the animals last summer, some area residents protested in an attempt to get PLI to change its plans — people were attached to the animals and enjoyed having that picture of historic farm life on Old Post Road. A petition to that effect garnered more than 3,500 signatures.

Surprised by the community response, PLI paused plans for a time but ultimately arrived on a November morning to move the animals, with short notice to the animals’ longtime caretaker Susanna Gatz. Friends of Gatz and other concerned neighbors formed an impromptu protest. Tensions ran high, but in the end the organization tasked with transportation decided the animals were too spooked to force into a vehicle.

Despite the protests, PLI maintained that animal care was not central to their mission, which is to celebrate and preserve the cultural and architectural heritage of the region. Also, Wolfe explained, the organization’s board didn’t feel it could meet best practices related to maintaining livestock at historic sites, pointing to a document that lays out details to consider, including fencing type, feed storage, security measures and many other factors. 

“Preservation Long Island doesn’t have the capacity or resources to implement a viable interpretation of 19th-century livestock farming.” Wolfe explained. “The primary motivator for Preservation Long Island is best practices.”

So PLI opted to give Gatz official notice to move out of her on-site apartment, and they waited until she had moved and the freezing weather passed before rehoming the animals.

Still, some residents are sad to see the farm quiet, without its grazers. The school bus that drives by every afternoon will no longer slow down for the kids to wave at Snowball and the small flock of sheep. 

“It’s a bit lifeless now,” said Tony Lopez of East Setauket. “It was always nice when you drove by and saw someone stopped there looking at the animals — it was a gem.”

Lopez says he wishes the community and PLI could’ve worked something out to allow the animals to stay but he maintains the historic house itself is a gift to the community, and said he hopes PLI can bring back some of the festivals Sherwood-Jayne used to host.

Festivals may be a long way off, though, because of county regulations on the property that prohibit use of the pasture as a parking lot and require PLI to obtain county permission before hosting big events that include the farmland.

Those regulations came to light last fall as part of a letter from Suffolk County informing PLI the property was out of compliance with its Farmland Preservation Development Rights program. The county and the Town of Brookhaven jointly purchased development rights to the farm parcel in 2003, requiring Sherwood-Jayne to maintain a working commercial farm.

According to Wolfe, PLI is in the process of seeking out local partners, like the Peconic Land Trust, to help sort out the most fitting way to bring the property back into compliance. 

PLI’s board does not want to jump into a relationship with a farmer who would bring in large, commercial equipment, Wolfe said, so they will take their time researching and deciding. 

“It has to be in alignment with the historic character of the farm,” she said, adding that whatever they do should match PLI’s interpretive goals and the natural setting. “Our goal is also to find something that contributes to the community in some way.”

The Sherwood-Jayne Farm House in East Setauket where animals currently graze in the roadside fields. Photo by Mallie Kim

By Mallie Jane Kim

East Setauket’s historic Sherwood-Jayne Farm will bid farewell to its grazing animals this summer as nonprofit Preservation Long Island seeks to focus its programming to align closer with its mission.

“The animals serve as a visual respite for people on the road, but they don’t really connect the property to what we do,” said Alexandra Wolfe, executive director of PLI, an organization that works to preserve the cultural heritage of the region by preserving historic buildings and using them to engage and inform the public. “We have to think about how we use the Sherwood-Jayne property in ways that are more education-based and talk about history in ways that are more focused on Setauket and Long Island.”

Snowball the horse and four sheep currently live on the grounds of the Sherwood-Jayne Farm. Photo by Nancy Trump

Going forward, Wolfe said, the organization wants to engage the community with history — more than just maintaining small museums or a beautiful farm tableau. “We want to think about interpretation as a very interactive experience,” she said. “Try not to just tell the public about history, but get them to interact with the property.”

But the property’s caretaker and some community members are upset about the change. 

“What they’re doing is ruthless and insensitive,” said caretaker Susanna Gatz, a doula who coaches and supports women through childbirth, and who has lived in the farm’s carriage house apartment for eight years, managing the property and the animals. 

Gatz said she is sad both to say goodbye to the animals and to lose her home. PLI hopes to install an employee in the carriage house, according to Wolfe, someone who can represent the society and the house’s history while keeping an eye on the property.

The farm hosts an aging white pony Snowball — some 40 years old — and four sheep in the fields on Old Post Road next to the 18th century farmhouse, all managed by Gatz, whose goats and chickens also live on the property.

The current flock of sheep was established in 1933 by Howard Sherwood, founder of the organization that later became PLI, according to information in a virtual tour of the property available on the nonprofit’s website. The tour text explains the organization has been maintaining the flock “as a tribute to Sherwood and to preserve the working nature of the farmstead.”

PLI asked Gatz to discontinue the breeding program about three years ago. 

Gatz, who mows, mends fences and liaises with the community, calls the work “heart led” for the amount of time, energy and care she puts into it. Gatz is currently nursing a sheep back to health from injuries it sustained on an unsanctioned romp in the woods, and she looks out for the nearly deaf-and-blind Snowball, giving her the extra care she needs, like approaching upwind so she can smell Gatz is coming.

Snowball may not survive a move, according to Gatz, and the sheep were born on the farm. “My wish would be for the animals to live out their lives in the place they know best,” she said.

Longtime neighbor of the farm, Nancy Trump, believes getting rid of the animals is a loss to the community. “It’s heartbreaking,” she said. “They represent a part of society that’s just dwindling away.”

Trump passes the farm at least twice a day, and she brings her grandchildren to greet the animals and take pictures of them as the seasons change. “I don’t know how you have a farm without the animals,” she said.

Gatz agreed. People stop by often to watch the animals graze, she said. A bus full of children passes by daily during the school year, honking while the children wave out the window. “I could set my watch to it,” Gatz said. “It was really cute.”

Other passersby have expressed concern about the animals, in particular the ancient — in pony years — Snowball, who has lost most of her teeth, causing her to drool and her tongue to loll out. According to Wolfe, PLI hears from citizens upset about the pony’s condition. 

“It’s not that she’s sick or neglected,” Wolfe said, noting that Gatz takes excellent care of the pony. “Things like that become problematic. People who don’t understand call, and you have to explain.”

Wolfe added that the animals bring in extra liability, as well, especially with people who may not stay on the outside of the fence.

She said she hopes to finalize the animals’ new homes by the end of the month, and she is dedicated to finding good placements for Snowball and the sheep. “I want to make sure they are cared for,” she said, adding that she’s careful to vet good Samaritans who aren’t prepared for the undertaking of farm animals. “I want to make sure that whatever life they have left, there is quality of life.”

The Sherwood-Jayne House is open for public visits on Saturdays this summer, and the grounds, including nature trails around the property, are open to visitors year round from dawn until dusk.

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The Smithtown Historical Society hosted a Spring Farm Festival in celebration of the season May 4. The family event included children’s games and crafts, pony rides and a petting zoo. 

Artisans demonstrated traditional farm skills, such as sheep shearing, yarn spinning and weaving, wood-working and ironworking. The barn and carriage house were also open for the public to view. 

All photos by David Ackerman.