Ten years ago Jody Esposito was a top corporate chef/manager in New England, overseeing the private dining room of an insurance company where she routinely produced prime rib, baked stuffed shrimp, Italian dishes and such popular regional favorites as seafood bisque.
She also made pastries and other fresh baked goods daily–all from scratch. It was what she had been trained to do in the culinary arts program of the prestigious Rhode Island School of Design.
“I worked on a small cruise ship, at a Providence restaurant, on Cape Cod and at a large country club,” she says of her earlier experience working her way to the top of the ladder.
All that began to change 20 years ago when she and her husband, Neil, bought a piece of land on a rural road in the village of Chepachet, in northwestern Rhode Island, and Chepachet Farms was born.
The married duo started acquiring animals that were the first of what would become today’s popular petting zoo: Prince, a miniature horse; Marnie, an enormous sheep who grew up as a diapered baby in the house, bottle-fed after being orphaned; Lambert, a black sheep taken from the SPCA; goats Digby, Gladys and Spike; Yukon the donkey; a toothy black creature named Dolly Llama and her sidekick; a pig called Polka-Dottie; and assorted chickens and ducks.
“They find us and then they find their purpose,” Jody says of the menagerie. That can also be said of some of the big horses who have become the heart and soul of the Chepachet Farms business enterprise whose peak season runs from early autumn through the end of December.
“Neither Neil nor I had a farm background,” she explains. “My father was a welder and he was working on a hayride wagon. He said, ‘You have to see these horses.’ I was intimidated and scared.”
And mesmerized and, maybe, falling in love.
She started helping the farmer and learning about the horses. The couple never planned to strike out on their own, Jody insists. “It was an opportunity that happened at the right place and the right time.”
Two legends in the local draft horse world, Jim Timpson and Bill Tower, taught Jody to drive. “It took forever,” she confesses. “There was fear of heights, fear of sitting up in the wagon above the horses, fear of being dragged down ...”
The fear subsided when they met Ezra. Neil and Jody encountered him when they were out looking at horses.
“That’s how we found out about horse traders,” she recalls. “Ezra was a competitive pulling horse. He had a huge injury in the back end; a big, bloody mass. The guy had no problem selling him. He said, ‘You or the killer. Whoever gets here first. Of course, it had to be cash. It turned into the Tour de France in a can.”
There were no ATMs, the horse was in Plainfield, Massachusetts, and Neil “ran all over hitting up his friends” to put together $1,500.
“Sure enough,” says Jody, “Neil pulled in with the money and the killer drove in right behind him.”
Ezra was later joined by Bert, a former runaway horse, and they became a storied Rhode Island team, stepping into the limelight at a dramatic moment in state history.
At the funeral of the widely-revered U.S. Senator John Chafee–father of Rhode Island’s current Governor Lincoln Chafee–Ezra and Bert pulled the caisson that bore the casket past the state Capitol, through the city streets and to the church.
“The family called and they wanted a horse-drawn hayride wagon [for the casket],” Jody recalls. “Somebody else called” from his office and wanted a caisson. “We had a people-mover which we converted. The military came up and practiced; the Secret Service did background checks.”
It became the ultimate unforgettable image–captured by TV cameras and newspaper photographers–and it put Chepachet Farms on the map.
A decade ago, Jody plunged into the deep end, giving up the security of an excellent job and salary to become the full-time manager of the farm which continues to expand and evolve. “It was really hard,” she admits. “It took me from December to May to get the courage to do it.”
The first thing that happened was a really hard reality check.
“I thought when I left my job I would give dinner parties in the barn,” she says. But state and local regulations got in the way of that dream, causing her to change course. “I was crushed; I felt like a failure,” she says. “But everything happens for a reason. Now I do field trips, horticultural activities.”
In fact, the farm’s operations have grown from one hay wagon, Ezra, Bert and a former Central Park carriage horse who arrived with the name, amazingly, of Jody Girl, to today’s company of three teams pulling hayrides, sleighrides, birthdays and elegant horse-drawn carriage weddings.
One elderly team of Belgian drafts, 26 and 28, are semi-retired.
“Apple and Ebenezer give 12 rides a year but they’re the strongest by far,” says Jody, who has a special fondness for Ebenezer, a Christmas gift five years ago. Supposedly 13, he turned out to be at least 23. “I named him Ebenezer because his spirit got a second chance.”
The other two teams are brothers, Pat and Mike, Spotted Drafts who are the young guns, and Briggsie and Raven, a Percheron and Percheron-Morgan cross, the backups. (Briggsie is named for their neighbor Milton Briggs, 91, a former jockey who pitches in at the farm by feeding the chickens–his “girls”–and doing a variety of invaluable tasks.)
Jody is constantly devising new and stimulating attractions with wide-ranging appeal.
Senior citizens participate in “A Day in the Countryside” that may include any of a variety of such elements as planting flowers and vegetables, enjoying a cooking class and tea party with Chef Jody, interacting with the barnyard animals, whipping up a pancake breakfast or a maple sundae and, of course, going on a hayride.
Certified by the Delta Society, Jody uses all her creatures–from the big horses to the little goats–to present animal-assisted activities for children and adults with profound medical issues, mental and social challenges and physical disabilities. The program promotes mental stimulation for those with memory loss, socialization for the autistic and the inherent sense of acceptance provided by animals.
Other popular offerings are children’s country field trips; summer picnics; autumn pumpkin-picking; and Christmas afternoons with hot cocoa and Santa Claus around the wood stove.
There is a local community center that works with underprivileged children, carrying out its mission on a tiny budget. Leaders know they can call Jody who will find something affordable and fun for the youngsters to do. “They come and groom the horses. Mike comes right up to them. The kids scream and yell and it doesn’t bother him at all.”
Another big feature, the maple sugar house, came about after Neil became fascinated with the maple-sugaring ventures of two of Rhode Island’s biggest producers. He got all the equipment, put up a building and began harvesting sap.
Then Jody’s culinary skills took over. Besides maple syrup, maple-caramel popcorn and maple peanut brittle, she has also created a maple vinaigrette salad dressing that’s sold in numerous local supermarkets and specialty shops.
For early November, she put together “Celebrating the Flavors of Fall,” a demonstration and sampling of roasted turkey roulade stuffed with corn bread, sausage, cranberries and fresh sage; cranberry-apple chutney; maple caramel acorn squash; mustard-glazed Brussels sprouts with bacon; rustic sweet potato cakes; wood-fired herbed focaccia bread and mulled-spice apple cider. Jody and a guest chef prepared the menu, accompanied by a craft beer expert presenting seasonal brews employing Chepachet Farms maple products.
Meanwhile, Neil has been hard at work building an open-sided barn near the feeding stations. But Jody is still firmly in charge of operations.
“Bert and Ezra were his team,” she says. “Neil said ‘When those two are gone, I’m done’ and he was true to his word.”
Briggsie, who was 18 months old when he arrived 20 years ago, is now the boss, but when Pat and Mike came aboard, it was Ebenezer whose nose was out of joint. “He got so worked up that he gave himself an ulcer, says Jody.” Today, the two younger ones act like the old man’s caretakers during the winter. “They nudge him till he gets moving. I got him a blanket to keep him warm and they shunned him. They pulled the blanket off.”
On a crisp autumn afternoon, a birthday party of 30 children and adults are having the full package: a picnic lunch and cake they’ve brought to eat in the barn’s dining room, a hayride along country lanes, the opening of gifts, petting and feeding the animals and, ultimately, pumpkin-picking and hot cocoa.
The air is filled with the sound of excited shrieking and singing as everyone settles down in the straw-filled wagon behind Pat and Mike, moving at a sedate pace with Jody
“You have no idea how long it took to get them to slow down,” she says. “They wanted to go all the time.”
There have, indeed, been challenges. Jody has fractured several fingers and, on one occasion, barely escaped serious injury, or worse.
“I was in a stall with a Spotted Draft. I pushed him to move over and he pushed back. I was stuck between him and the wall. Then he leaned on me and I felt I was being crushed. So I did what you should never do–I screamed. He began to shake. It was the one time I didn’t have my cell phone; I’ll never make that mistake again.”
After a second leaning, screaming, shaking episode, she finally got free, but was in such pain she was certain her ribs were crushed. X-rays taken in the emergency room showed she had escaped with horrific bruises.
Recalling another, less traumatic, incident brings laughter. “I had all six horses get out when I was here alone. I called animal control and a neighbor to come and help me get them back in. And then, when everyone had gone, they got out again.”
At Chepachet Farms, like most other operations of its kind, says Jody, “every cent we make goes back into the business.” And, while she is clearly having success blending her creativity, business skills–and a large measure of culinary acumen–none of this would work if not for her commitment to the animals.
“Once they come,” she says, “they never leave.”