Gentleman Farmer

Published by Chris Wangler- August 21, 2020.

Seven months after buying an overgrown farm in Lakeview, Waltham builder Charlie Mantenuto is giving away organically grown veggies.
Tomatoes, green peppers, eggplant, cucumbers and more. The blue hubbard squash and corn are still growing.
“The butternut squash will go to the Waltham Lions for their Thanksgiving event,” he said.
While the idea of resurrecting a farm seems quaint, this labor of love has been mostly labor.
But for this self-described “worker bee,” all the toil is worthwhile. It bonds him to his immigrant grandparents who ran a pig farm on Winter Street long ago.
“It’s important to remember what Waltham was all about,” said Charlie, who’s still going strong at 72.
A mechanic by trade, he started building homes back in the late 1980s, especially in North Waltham.
He has a number of projects just finished or pending, including homes in Glen Circle nearby and plans for a small residential building near Pro-Tech on Willow Street.
Eventually he might build 11 homes on his farm, but for now he’s content to be a gentleman farmer, hoping to grow as many as 1,500 to 2,000 tomato plants in the coming season.
The farm is on 1 Balm Ave. just south of Mt. Walley Road. Back in January, Charlie spent $2.2 million on it.
What 1 Balm Ave. looked like back in January.
Formerly owned by Arrigo family members, the so-called “Grand Orchard” had declined badly, with skinny trees choked by vines and a decrepit barn nearing collapse. The property had not been used as a farm since the 1980s.
But the place has potential. It runs along the northern border of the picturesque former Stigmatines land, the rambling 46-acre site for the new Waltham High School.
Nearby, on College Farm Road, new construction homes have fetched $1 million plus, making real estate lucrative.
Charlie started clearing the land back in February. It was a tough slog.
There were so many roots and vines that he was able to create a small mountain out of the resulting mulch chips.
He used machines for the heavy lifting, but had only one helper, Marvin, for most of the planting and growing.
Then came the relentless summer heat. “It’s been hot and humid all day and all night,” he said. His pumpkins, planted a little early, aren’t going to make it to Halloween.
Charlie can smile at his misfortunes. He’s well off, and the struggle to transform land to make it yield crops is in his blood.
“My grandparents ran a 65-acre farm called Casella Farms,” Charlie said, letting moist soil slip through his fingers. “Without their farm I wouldn’t be who I am today.”
Carmelo and Sarah Casella came to Waltham in 1906, Sicilian immigrants who worked hard and laughed just as hard.
Back in the 1920s, markets at Fresh Pond and Faneuil Hall paid 40 cents for 50 lbs of tomatoes and 25 cents for 50 lbs of beans, according to a family narrative by Rosario Casella.
Once, the truck was so full that they had to push it, then nobody wanted the produce. “They ended up feeding it to the pigs,” Charlie laughed.
Respected Waltham Italian families (Rando, Pizzi, DeVincent) owned and ran farms. But 128 changed all that, making farmland more valuable for development.
For now, Charlie is reversing that trend with Casella Farm 2.0. “It’s kind of a circle,” said the lifelong Waltham resident and father of three adult children.
Currently he’s giving away veggies to friends and Lakeview neighbors. He has also reached out to a local food pantry.
For a builder accustomed to city red tape, cultivating his own little piece of paradise on his own terms, by right, has been especially gratifying.
But with the fall harvest coming, Charlie has also come to realize that a working farm takes a village. “We’re looking for people to be part of this,” he said.