It’s not uncommon for New Yorkers to dream of decamping to the charms of upstate New York… but it’s a little less common for them to go from working in the fashion business to running a full-scale apple orchard and certified organic farm, in addition. But for Laura Ferrara and Fabio Chizzola, owners of Westwind Orchard in New York’s Hudson River Valley, the apples couldn’t be stopped.
Their quest for a country getaway lead them to a 32-acre plot of land covered in untended knotty apple trees. Fourteen years later, Westwind Orchards is a testament to the resilience of Mother Nature (and its hard-working owners who balance the business with city life).
For Laura and Fabio, the entire orchard has felt fated. “It has to be destiny in some respect.”
There are parallels to the farm’s previous owner—like Fabio, he was a photographer from NYC. Then there are the pictures that Laura recently found, snapshots of her as a child surrounded by her parents and uncles and their friends drinking wine, playing music, and hanging out in the backyard. Pictures that could just as easily have been taken on their farm today, with the sense of community and good energy radiating parallel in the past and the present.
“It’s all come full circle in that way,” the couple said.
But back to the beginning. Following the birth of their son, Laura and Fabio spent plenty of time in the Catskills, fly- fishing and rock climbing. Soon after, the time seemed ripe to find a place that allowed Laura and Fabio a little nature. While hunting for a place near their rock climbing haunts, they came across an overgrown apple orchard.
“We had no idea what we were getting ourselves into, but the serene setting of the landscape, complemented by the old majestic trees, was impossible to pass up,” Laura said.
Fruit farmers advised them to cut down the trees and get new ones, but those knotty trees stirred their Italian roots. “We just kept thinking about how the shapes of these old trees looked like olive trees and even if they never produced apples they would be beautiful to look at,” Laura said. “In some people’s eyes, these trees and apples were disfigured—we saw beauty and nature at its best with no human intervention. When we had our first harvest of apples, it was as if we had tasted an apple for the first time—perfect, pure, and simply delicious.”
That first apple harvest was a bumper crop. “It was really like we didn’t do anything to the trees. The trees all bloomed and it was so beautiful,” Laura said. “We had so many apples we didn’t know what to do. Friends came. We made applesauce.”
Fabio worked with a local pomologist to research the varieties, finding that the trees were heirloom apple strains like Stayman and Ida Red. His research and tending revived the trees and in 2008,
the doors swung open. Over the years, operations evolved—now the farm also grows pears, paw paws, berries, garlic, winter squash, tomatoes, and grapes, and is home to honeybees, pigs, and chickens. The family produces maple syrup, jams, handmade wood cheese boards, wood butter, cider vinegar, and applesauce. Last year, they built a wood- red oven to make pizzas to feed the many guests coming by. This fall, visitors can pick their own apples and raspberries, or drop in for movie nights and performances from local artists, or to sample their latest endeavor: hard cider.
“There is something special when the sweet juice from our apples ferments into a kind of divine, natural effervescent hard cider,” Fabio said. “We have been experimenting for a few years, and finally we found what we like. Old style cider-making and natural fermentation are the key.”
To be fair, the couple aren’t total novices. Growing up in Rome, Fabio spent summers in the country farming a small plot of land with his dad. Laura was born on a farm in the Campania region in Southern Italy, before immigrating to Brooklyn at the age of four. Her maternal grandfather packed a fig branch and a grapevine for the trip, and Laura watched as her father tended the trees to yield figs and grapes in America.
“Those branches always symbolized the importance of planting roots in a new country but still keeping your traditions and heritage close to your heart,” Laura said.
Both of their mothers help with that heritage, working during their visits—when Fabio’s mother arrives from Rome she cooks tomato sauce and baked goods, and spends time foraging for dandelions.
“When people come to the farm they actually ask for Nonna Dora and Nonna Pia,” Laura said. “It amazes us that each of them, in their eighties, still have so much life within them and bring such joy to the guests that visit the farm.”
The elders aren’t the only ones involved. When Matteo, their son, is not in school, he loves working at the farm store during harvest season, packaging honey, and hand pressing the cider. But his biggest contribution is the logo—which was designed based on a Valentine’s Day card he drew at age six.
When asked what’s been the biggest surprise of running the business, Laura demurs. “I can’t say anything has been a surprise, because we never knew what we were getting into. We went into this with our hearts, not our heads.” In that way everything has been a surprise, from learning about tractor tires to garlic rot. Laura credits the years they spent in other careers, helping them to manage the dualities that come with running a business that requires you to wear every hat.
That doesn’t mean it’s easy: Laura and Fabio refuse to call themselves farmers. “Farming is physical and mental,” Laura says. “A farmer has to be a chemist, a scientist, a mechanic. You need so much knowledge to run a farm and to grow crops. I’m in awe and so appreciative of them.” Every year she’s thankful that the apples return. When folks call and ask if there will be apples in a few weeks, she often says, “I’m not sure, call back.”
But resilience of the trees soldiers on, surviving frost and El Niño. “We have developed a magical connection with the land throughout the years. It truly has lled us with joy and inspired us to continue on this journey.”
Like the apples returning, Laura’s also been shocked to see the people come back to the orchard. She’s embraced its role in the community and delights in seeing people take joy in eating apples or just enjoying their time in nature.
“That was another surprise: that people wanted to pick apples and hang out with us,” Laura says. “We’ve gotten to meet lovely people we wouldn’t have met otherwise. It’s our home, but it’s also become a home to many other people. We never had time to think about it.”