By Nancy Arsenault
A little over three years ago, Stow’s Frank Gesualdi was slaving in the kitchen of his North End restaurant, Davide, a family operation that consumed his time and nearly every waking minute of his life. The daily travails were documented on Fox Television’s “Kitchen Nightmares,” showing the personal sacrifices facing restaurant owners during tough economic times.
Fast forward to today and Frank Gesualdi rarely leaves Stow, something that suits him just fine. Having sold the restaurant in the spring, he and his family have turned their small acreage on Red Acre Road into Three Boys Farm, named for his sons, and hosting a special group of farmhands working alongside the family.
This past week, Three Boys Farm hosted an open house where Italian specialties were served hot and fresh, but the culinary experiences were just a side dish to the main course. The Open House was aimed at educators and service providers to showcase a program developed there that allows people with special needs to learn and work on the farm. The program is part of TILL – Toward Independent Living and Learning – a group of about 20 adults of all ages who have found a new daytime home at Three Boys Farm and a new mentor in “Farmer Frank.”
TILL oversees 55 group homes and 5 day programs for people with developmental challenges and autism. Their Dedham location has adopted Three Boys Farm as their focus, according to John Stevens, TILL’s Director of Special Projects for 22 years.
A Brooklyn transplant, Stevens met Gesualdi, the North End native, in an 8-week course for beginning farmers. “I had been trying to find a farm to partner with us, but I had been looking for years and just hadn’t found the right fit,” said Stevens, who thought he may have to take on the endeavor himself.
The two men, for whom farming was as foreign as any occupation they could chose, bonded over Gesualdi’s business presentation to the class; one that offered his vision of an educational component alongside the basic farming routine. “I couldn’t believe what I was hearing,” said Stevens, who knew it was a perfect fit when he learned the location was Stow, close enough to bring his clients for daily field trips and work on the farm. Upon learning that Gesualdi’s wife, Kim, worked with children with special needs, Stevens said the match was meant to be.
Despite not getting started with Gesualdi until mid-summer, after the crops were planted, the two men found plenty for the adults to do. There was weeding and harvesting, cleaning of vegetables, collecting eggs and caring for the animals on the property.
Gesualdi has developed a penchant for raising fowl – turkeys, chickens, ducks, pheasants, peacocks and even pigeons. He and his sons discovered the farm animal auction circuit, coming back with sheep, pigs and rabbits. While the rabbits are pets for his boys, the sheep and pigs are being groomed for the table, as are the 20 heritage breed turkeys, soon to appear at the Thanksgiving feasts of Stow friends and the family’s relatives. “My wife was on my case because I built all the pens before I did any work on the house. Now, I still need to work on the house,” said Gesualdi, laughing.
Stevens said that Three Boys Farm has had a major impact on many of the people in the program, most coming from an urban environment. One young man, Mark, beams with pride as he carefully collects eggs, showing off the delicate bounty to state officials at the event. He follows Farmer Frank, as the group refers to Gesualdi, offering help with anything from coiling up a garden hose to rinsing off butternut squash.
While Gesualdi could clearly accomplish some tasks faster on his own, he patiently takes the time to explain and show the adults from TILL how to do the job, even if the instruction must be given multiple times. They laugh with him and continue to try, as he jokes and pats them on the back. “They are discovering skills they never thought they had,” said Stevens. “Someone may not be great working in the field, but they love washing vegetables and sorting them into baskets.”
Eggs were for sale alongside baskets bursting with peppers of more than a dozen varieties. “I’m growing all Italian vegetables,” said Gesualdi.
Next to his outdoor food prep table, sits a makeshift pizza oven formed from cement blocks – an experiment he threw together this summer that worked so well, he is ready to build a permanent oven next year. That’s after he builds an outdoor greenhouse. “Then these people have a place to come all year and still be working,” said Gesualdi, who is hoping a farmer somewhere may wish to donate a greenhouse in order to get it off his property, or some other option that may not require too many funds. “It will be hard for all of them to leave this place when the season ends,” commented Stevens.
If you ask Gesualdi, he is busier now than ever before, but happier. In the makeshift outdoor kitchen, Gesualdi is still wearing the chef hat, albeit now with a John Deere logo.
“Sometimes I realize I haven’t left here for days and I get so excited just to go out and fill the car with gas,” he said. But don’t be fooled, Farmer Frank is already envisioning Three Boys Farm plans for the next growing season – with an accompanying cooking season alongside.