Newsday real estate reporter Arielle Dollinger visited Benner's Farm in East Setauket to learn about maple sugar. Credit: Gary Licker

In the late 1970s, Bob Benner and his wife, Jean, were living in what was once a ship builder's house in Northport. He was teaching art at Northport High School, and considering opening a canoe livery and ski business in Minnesota.

Then, Bob introduced a new prospect. He told Jean of a farm for sale on eastern Long Island and they decided to visit when they got home.

It was "Sleeping Beauty's farm," per Bob's description. Second-growth forest covered the 15-acre property, concealing all but the peak of the barn. But the pair imagined raising children there.

"We're crazy," said Bob of the decision he and Jean made so many years ago. "We thought, 'Well, this would be a good place to raise kids.' "

"We bought the farm, and immediately became dirt poor," he said. "We knew nothing about farming, really, except for the stuff we had read."

Jean and Bob Benner host private tours and public events at their farm in East Setauket.

Four decades later, the Benners are farmers living on the East Setauket property. Three of their four adult children, and three of five grandchildren, live in adjacent houses. There are dozens of chickens, a few goats, an onyx-colored cow, several sheep and a stealthy black cat. Their grandson Hank, 7, splits wood to fuel the fireplaces.

The Benners moved into a house Bob described as an 1820s Colonial that, in the '70s, had not been updated since 1929. He compared it to a museum, complete with a stove fueled by equal parts gas and kerosene. There were three bedrooms, two parlors, one bathroom and a tub, but no shower.

Both teachers, by nature and profession, Bob and Jean took the opportunity to learn to live off the land. One year, a tax auditor was shocked to learn the family of five — soon to be six — was living on $4,000-$5,000 a year after mortgage, tax and insurance payments.

"We made our own heat, we made our own enjoyment, we learned how to spin, we learned how to do things that you would do on a farm, we started getting animals," Bob said. "We had no money, but we were happy and enjoying it," Bob said.

Sam Benner, one of Bob and Jean's four children, checks in with Peaches at his parents' farm, which is also home to chickens and sheep. Credit: Elizabeth Sagarin

The four children — Ben, Kirsten, David and Sam — shared a room for a time.  

Today, the Benners share their knowledge and enjoyment with their community. Through a non-profit called Homestead Arts, the farm runs educational programs, including winter and summer camps, and various workshops. At this time of year, the family invites scout groups and the public to participate in maple sugaring workshops.

"We have all kinds of things to show people what it's like to be on a farm," Bob said. 

The Benners also host private tours, as well as public events like Easter egg hunts, and sell commodities like farm-fresh eggs, pure maple candy and spice blends.    

At this time of year, the family invites Scout groups and the public to participate in maple sugaring workshops. Scout workshops start with a talk given by Bob, who explains why the trees make sap and how the syrup-making process works. The groups visit stations run by Bob's sons to learn how to tap a tree and how to turn sap to syrup. In the event barn, groups learn from historic cook Diane Schwindt explains how to turn syrup to maple-leaf shaped candy.

"We can't provide enough syrup for all of the Long Islanders that want to buy it; but we do combine it with upstate syrup — about 10 percent of it is ours — and we call it 'A Taste of Long Island,' " Jean said. "It does change the taste. It's a smokier taste than the regular syrup because we burn over a fire with wood."

Diane Schwindt, top, works with freshly made maple candy at Benner's Farm. Sap is collected and boiled down, left, and some is saved for candy. Credit: Elizabeth Sagarin

Open Maple Day at Benner's Farm

WHEN | WHERE March 2, 11 a.m.-3 p.m., rain or shine

COST $12 for adults 18 and over, $10 for seniors and children.

INFO; open to the public and no registration required.

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