I visited Westwind Orchard late one day when the sky was sun-shot through with roiling white and gray clouds. I could hear thunder far away. The air was thick with the sweet, fresh aroma of a farm. It was “farmish”: my new adjective evoking all things fecund, organic in the full biological sense. When I got home, I looked up the Italian word for “heaven.” There’s paradiso and cielo. I prefer the second, but they both describe Fabio and Laura Chizzola’s beautiful orchard and farm on Lower Whitfield Road in Accord.
Westwind Orchard is a certified organic operation, which includes apples, raspberries, pumpkins and various other produce grown on the 33-acre property. The Chizzolas also keep bees and sell honey products, art from local artisans, maple syrup, jams, applesauce, cider vinegars, herbal health and beauty products and other non-local fair-trade items. They raise chickens for eggs and have added a wood-fired pizza oven next to the small farmstand. And they have planted more trees: pears, plums, cherries, pawpaws.
The couple bought the abandoned apple orchard back in 2002, when they were still both working and living in the City. Accord was their weekend getaway, their quiet home in the country. Fabio, a photographer, and Laura, a stylist, figured that they would hire someone to reinvigorate the trees and tend to the land. “We looked for someone who would do the work and take whatever apples and vegetables he wanted to grow. That farmer was nowhere to be found. So, I was the crazy one to buy it; then I met Mike – who is first a really good friend, and my consultant for the orchard.”
Mike Biltonen, who now lives in the Finger Lakes region, made his home in the vicinity of Kerhonkson for about nine years. “I spent the vast majority of my time as a grower. I’ve been consulting for four years now. I have a history here; I know all the growers, I know the terrain. My client base at this point is all the way from eastern Long Island to Connecticut to the Hudson Valley to central New York.” With an educational background in horticulture, the pomologist works with production issues – integrated pest management, whether it’s organic, holistic, biodynamic – and also a variety of things such as cider projects.
When I ask Fabio if he originally had the idea to reestablish the farm as a viable food production endeavor, whether he even had an inkling that bringing the orchard back to life was possible, he says, “The only indication I had when I bought was the smell of the basement of the stone house that reminded me of Italy. It was musty, and there was some kind of wine feeling in there. I thought, ‘Mmm, this reminds me of where I grew up.’
“[Farming] was not my first job, but I started to prune one tree, then five, ten, 15. In 13 seasons, little by little – it opened my mind in an amazing way, especially the beekeeping. We have 24 hives. Now farming is my primary job.” Asked how it “opened his mind,” he says, “Think about how people in the city approach rain: They say, ‘Oh, I’m getting wet.’ Farmers don’t approach rain in that way. If it’s raining too much, it means diseases. So it’s how you see things, which perspective you see it: from a farmer life or a city-boy life.”
Fabio is from Rome, so he knows city life. He talks about how hard it is to grow fruit and vegetables, and to do it organically, and how difficult it is to sell your produce. “Sometimes you have an overabundance of a crop. Certain things you can freeze, apples you can make cider, tomatoes – we’ve been doing a tomato jam. Some crops, you’ve just gotta sell them. We try to be as diversified as we can.” They make prosciutto and pancetta just for themselves.
“And we do value-added products, even collaborating with Fruition Chocolates in Ashokan. We give him our chilis, pumpkins, raspberries and apples, and he makes these four kinds of chocolate bars.” People can purchase Westwind products online, at their farm store and at health food stores. “We sell fresh produce to restaurants and value-added products to stores in the City.
“With one full-time person, a brother-in-law two days a week and in the summer some part-timers, even if it takes 14 hours a day – we could use three people full-time, but that means another $40,000 a year in wages.” It all sounds very much like a traditional family farm. I ask Fabio if he has a master plan. He says that Mike told him about the “master plan” concept two years ago – all about the budgeting and so on. “Did he listen to you?” I ask Mike. “No,” he said, “but he knows I’m right.”
“The farm grew organically in my mind,” says Fabio. “We had a crop in 2008, and I called Mike. He told me to open the orchard and let people pick their own. The second year we lost a crop, and then we put in raspberries. We’ve been taking little steps. What I can see happening in the near future is making hard cider. It works perfectly for our apples. Growing organically is very hard in the Hudson Valley. There are very few certified organic orchards, and now I know why: You lose a lot of apples, and the apples don’t look good. So with cider, the game changes. The big idea these days is to open a cidery with a tasting room and serve our cider and other ciders from New York State.”
Operating a cidery and keeping the farm store open to introduce locals to some Italian products, some linens from all over the world, coffee, tea and so on would extend their season. “And why not have people taste our food? Our tomatoes, our string beans, healthy finger foods to sample. That’s the next step for us. Three years ago a friend said, ‘Why don’t you serve pizza?’ It was so successful. It is an experience. When a family comes here with their kids, I want their kids to tell the father and mother that they want to come back – not because of my business, but because of the experience they had. They will remember this orchard when they grow up; they will remember the experience, and maybe more people will come closer to farming again. That’s what we need: more farmers.”
Since the Chizzolas moved to Lower Whitfield Road, at least two more small farm endeavors – Hollengold and Arrowood – have opened into the neighborhood. And Kelder’s and Saunderskill Farms are nearby. The land is abundant, and Fabio says they are all good friends. “The common denominator is: Stay small, give quality, don’t oversize or go too big, because you cannot take care of it. We’re going to stick with this land and, respecting it, get as much as we can out of it. We do cover crops, rotating crops, and whatever produce we don’t use goes to the chickens and pigs. We are trying to use that philosophy.”
On one of the last days of the harvest season, Laura Chizzola gazes around the grounds. A group of kids carve pumpkins while others play in a large open shed filled with ping-pong and Foosball tables. People are scattered around on blankets or sitting at picnic tables near large kettle fires. The pizza oven was going full-tilt.
Although the Chizzolas lost their apple crop last spring when a hard frost killed the blossoms, Laura talks about the outpouring of good will from the community. “We’ve been grateful for everyone who has come out anyway. Even with no apples to pick, people come here. They are so thoughtful. Instead of being angry about it, they’ve been so warm. The raspberries and pumpkins, squash, onions and garlic, kale – everything else has done really well.
Laura grew up in a farming family in Italy. “I came here when I was four from many generations of farmers – including my mother, who is a butcher. They had their own farm, butcher shop, cantina; and they made their own wine as well… Food is part of our Italian culture and family. Food equates with love in many ways. It’s actually better than a diamond ring. That’s where our values sit.”
Westwind Orchard, 215 Lower Whitfield Road, Accord; (845) 626-0659. To order from their online store, visit http://westwindorchard.com.