Once a farm, always a farm, suggests Betty Cesario

Once a farm, always a farm, suggests Betty Cesario

Former businesswoman looks to have North Smithfield land preserved for agriculture

NORTH SMITHFIELD - The land was bought from one of Rhode Island's first families and was once used to grow apples that would be carted off to early bakeries in Federal Hill via horse-drawn wagon.

Now, the owner of the 16-acre property on Pond House Road hopes to ensure that the storied land will remain a farm with the help of a state preservation program.

Betty Cesario has applied to have her property accepted into the Rhode Island Agricultural Land Preservation Commission program, a land acquisition project run by the Department of Environmental Management. If accepted, the Cesario Farm would join two others in town where land use and development are governed with a mind for protecting agriculture and open space.

"It's recognizing the importance of farmland and the value of farmland in the state of Rhode Island," explained Lisa Primiano, deputy chief of DEM's Division of Planning and Development.

Betty's grandfather Giovanni Cesario purchased the land in 1902 for $1,300 from August Field, a member of one of the first families to settle the state. At the time, the Cesario plot ran the entire length of Pond House Road. Cesario still has original documentation of the purchase, along with hand written receipts of taxes paid to the town of North Smithfield.

On August 23, 1903, Betty's grandfather gave the town $13.60 for taxes on the roughly mile long track.

Giovanni split the property between his two children - Betty's father and aunt - and at her father's passing the land was again divided, between the five Cesario children.

"I'm the last Cesario around," said the spunky 85-year-old. "I don't want to see it split up because I'm up in age now and I want to come back and haunt everyone."

The story of both the Cesario land, and Betty herself, tell a tale of the town's early days and the rise of a local business and politics.

Betty's grandparents came from Tursi, Italy and from the start, used their land for agriculture.

"When my grandfather purchased it, there was only one house out here," said Cesario.

In addition to growing apples and an assortment of vegetables, the land once held a dairy farm. Cesario was raised in the house where she still lives now, overlooking the farming fields and the forest beyond.

Cesario spent four years of her education at the Little Red Schoolhouse, a one room school building now considered historic, which serves as headquarters of the North Smithfield Heritage Association.

In 1968, Cesario opened a women's clothing shop in Woonsocket. At the time, she says, women were just starting to wear panty hose, and she made her first profits by flooding the store with the items.

Betty Cesario Specialty Shop eventually had two locations, after the young entrepreneur expanded to Slatersville Plaza.

Cesario also served five terns on the Town Council, and was president of the board for two. She recalls a time when the town's trash collection service first went out to bid, and a gentleman approached her in the store.

"He was a bidder for the rubbish contract and he said if he were to get the contract, he'd be willing to donate to my campaign," said Cesario. "I laughed and said 'no way.'"

At the time, Cesario said, her political campaigns cost no more than $50.

"It's not that way today, and it saddens me," she said. "It's so corrupt."

In the early 1980s, Cesario also served as state senator. Her successful business stayed in operation until 2004.

Since then, Cesario's spent her time learning to take it easy and enjoy her land, and that change is what prompted her move to protect the property.

"It's really given me time to enjoy this and just watch the sky change," she said.

Eighty percent of the land is currently leased to Wright's Dairy Farm and corn crops grow in the orchard from Cesario's childhood.

"It was always a farm," she said.

Since her retirement, Cesario has had a deck built on the back of the house and spends her days enjoying visits from a variety of animals and photographing them on her iPad. Guests include deer and wild geese that wander over from the abutting land, which belongs to the Audobon Society.

"I always had an affinity for this place," she said. "I want this to stay as it is."

According to the DEM, farms to which the state acquires development rights are working farms and remain in private ownership. The development rights require that the lands remain in agriculture or in a condition available for agricultural use. The land acquisition project keeps farmland in active production, enables a farmer to purchase land affordably to grow a farm business, and benefits the local community by preserving the rural character of the town.

Christensen Apple Orchard joined the program in 1990 and the Clifford Farm, an 18-acre property on Iron Mine Hill Road with a similar agricultural history, was accepted to the program in 2012.

Owner Michael Clifford has since been working with Cesario to help get her property accepted into the program, and it looks promising. The application was on the commission's Oct. 15 agenda, but that meeting was cancelled. According to Primiano, the group will take it up again on Nov. 21. The Audobon Society, which operates Fort Wildlife Refuge, a massive track of woodland along Providence Pike that abuts the Cesario land, has written a letter of support.

The Town Council will also consider drafting a letter of support and will take up the issue at their meeting Nov. 4.

Comments

I am quite pleased to read all of this. I live just down the road and worried this land would get developed in the future. Preserving the rural character of this area would be a blessing to us all.