Of the Earth: Antonellis siblings carry on Frank Ciesluk’s farming legacy

The Recorder, August 21, 2018, by Wesley Blixt

Despite summer’s soaring temperatures, Jen Antonellis and her brother Mike of Deerfield continue to be the most good natured people around.

“It must be miserable to work the fields on a steamy day like this,” a visitor suggested recently.

The pair smiled politely.

“I mean,” the visitor continued, “it must be a drag to haul yourself out of bed at 4:30 a.m. to get ready for a day of corn silk, sweat and mud-mired vehicles and … and then to manage a demanding farm stand on a busy road …”

Their grins widen.

“This is where I belong,” said Jen Antonellis, 34, who manages the Ciesluk Farmstand while Mike Antonellis manages the farm operations. She returned to family farming in April, leaving an office where she did medical billing and insurance coordination for a major regional social service agency.

“I’ve lost about 30 pounds on the farm,” she said, hefting a bushel of Silver King corn. “I think Mike did, too.” They call it “farmbod,” she said.

The Antonellis siblings are among a growing number of young men and women in the area who have retreated from other opportunities to return to a life that was forged by — and to land that was farmed by — their parents and grandparents.

In the case of Jen and Mike Antonellis, that grandparent was Frank E. Ciesluk, whose family came from Poland in the early 1900s and settled in Old Deerfield, where the farmstead still stands directly across the road from Deerfield Academy. Ciesluk, who died in 2016 at the age of 84, was revered in the community and celebrated by sweet corn lovers everywhere. Jen and Mike Antonellis’ mother, Suzanne, is one of Frank Ciesluk’s four children. Their father, Tom Antonellis, also worked the farm. Another brother, Chris Antonellis, lives in Boston.

Mike Antonellis, 30, who found himself on the seat of a tractor at age 6 and graduated cum laude from the State University of New York (SUNY) Cobleskill with a degree in agricultural equipment technology, said he has nothing but admiration for and gratitude toward this grandfather as he takes over the farming operation.

“I just want to walk in his footsteps. I could have gone elsewhere, but I owe it to him to do this,” Mike Antonellis said.

He cultivates about 350 acres, including 200 acres of hay and 130 acres of sweet corn, along with pumpkins, a few garden vegetables and 15 head of prized Black Angus beef cattle. Several things make Frank Ciesluk’s land a joy to farm, he said.

First, the land has been replenished by flooding for thousands of years.

“Other places, you plant, and then you still have a lot of work to do to make things grow,” Mike Antonellis said “Here, you plant something and it just grows.”

Secondly, the family has created committed reliable markets for both corn and hay. They sell corn daily to Foster’s Supermarket, Whole Foods, and Stop & Shop, and indirectly to Hannaford and elsewhere. Half of that is Silver King and the other half is bi-colored Butter and Sugar. Jen Antonellis confesses to prefer the latter.

Jen Antonellis said she has no expectation that her 14-year old daughter, Lexi, will carry on the tradition, although it is probably worth noting that Lexi is working at the Ciesluk Farmstand this summer.

In the coming weeks, Of the Earth will look at other area farms that are in the process of being replenished by a new generation — places like Clarkdale Fruit Farms in Deerfield, Upinngil Farm in Gill and Warner Farm in Sunderland. There are others. I welcome your suggestions.