By Richard S. Chang
the new york times
Fabio Chizzola, a fashion photographer, was 4 years old when his family began leaving their home in Rome to spend summers in the mountains of Italy. When he turned 12, his father started farming a small plot of land there, less than a half-acre on which he grew tomatoes, string beans, onions and potatoes for the family.
But the young Chizzola wasn’t interested. “I would go biking,” he said, “play soccer, chase the girls, do wheelies with my bike.”
It wasn’t until much later (after moving to New York City, oddly enough) that he began to develop an enthusiasm for farming.
In 2002, he and his wife, Laura Ferrara, a freelance fashion and beauty stylist, were looking for a place to spend weekends in the Catskill Mountains.
And, almost by chance, they discovered what would become Chizzola’s new passion: a 32-acre apple orchard.
It was the old Dutch-American stone farmhouse on the property, built in the 1770s, that initially pulled them in. The ceilings were low, with exposed hand-hewn beams, and the windows in the kitchen looked out onto a big yard surrounded by a low stone wall.
“The house is really sweet and cottagelike,” said Ferrara, 44, who was also born in Italy.
And as Chizzola put it, “It smelled like Italy.”
So the couple embraced the aura of the house and bought it for $385,000, in 2002. Soon after, they did a few small renovations, spending about $5,000, which, Ferrara said, “felt like a lot of money at the time.”
They intended to rent the land to local farmers. But the previous owner had neglected the orchard for years, and the landscaping was tragically overgrown. The trees were too big to produce good fruit, and their long, spindly branches arched toward the ground.
With the guidance of a neighboring farmer, Chizzola reluctantly took on the task of pruning and clearing the yard himself.
The job proved overwhelming.
He and Ferrara ended many weekends the same way: driving back to the city on Sunday night with their young son, Matteo, asleep in the back seat, while they talked about selling.
But the pruning and clearing continued. And gradually, the orchard started looking better.
“So we pruned some more,” Chizzola said. By 2007, 75 percent of the orchard had been pruned, and 400 of the 700 dead or dying trees had been cut down. And in 2008, they had their first crop of apples – “a bumper crop,” he said.
A few years earlier, in one of the sheds on the property, they had found an old envelope with the home’s address and the name Westwind Orchard written on it. Now they decided to resurrect the name, making signs on old slats of wood and posting them on trees at the end of their drive. Their U-pick business opened for a few weekends that fall.
One Sunday last month, Chizzola was up at the farm, where he now spends an average of three days a week, or “a long weekend,” he said.
The farm, which has become a certified organic orchard, had just closed for the season. It had sold out of pumpkins, winter squash, jams, applesauce, honey and most of the apples. (“I need some of the apples on the trees,” he said. “I have a photo shoot up here in a couple of weeks.”)
Chizzola’s mother, who had visited from Italy during the peak of the season, could not believe the business.
“In Italy, it doesn’t work like this,” Chizzola said. “My mother said, ‘The people come and pick the apples, and they also pay you?’ ” He laughed.
Chizzola exudes warmth. He has a youthful face with short dark hair and some facial scruff. That afternoon, he was wearing a navy North Face fleece over a utility shirt, jeans, a black-and-yellow John Deere hat, and dusty work boots. “I was in the mud,” he explained.
Because a hundred or so new trees hadn’t been planted deep enough, he and a worker had been covering the trunks with soil, work that stands in stark contrast to his job in the city. A few days earlier, he was in a studio shooting for Victoria’s Secret. Other clients include Marie Claire and Glamour Spain.
“It’s sort of weird, because the farming doesn’t balance at all with what we do in the city,” he said. “But it does put my mind in perspective as to how hard it is to make a living in the country, and as a farmer.”
Sitting at a round table in the kitchen, Chizzola explained that he and Ferrara plan to do a bigger renovation on the house, “once we agree on what to do.”
In 2009, they renovated and moved one of the barns, converting it into a loftlike space with oversize sliding doors on two sides, for about $125,000. Chizzola amicably characterized the process as “many little fights.”
After a couple of glasses of fresh apple cider, he was ready to offer a reporter a tour of the barn, a big box shaped like a Monopoly hotel with stacked square windows and a bright silver wood grain.
The original siding has been replaced with mushroom wood, the name given to recycled cypress and hemlock once used in bins in mushroom factories. (As William Johnson, the owner of Will III, the New Paltz, N.Y., the company behind the construction, noted, “It’s basically a potting base for mushrooms to grow.”)
Inside, the barn smelled fresh and woody, like a sauna. Because the stone house is so compact, Chizzola said, he and Ferrara wanted this to be an open space where the family could relax.
There is a small loft, a bathroom and a kitchen with a poured-concrete counter and an exceptionally long dining table made from a slab of light reclaimed wood and table legs found by a friend in Switzerland.
Leaving the barn, Chizzola headed for a big shed a few yards away. Opening one of the doors, he said that he holds very closely the memory of the day he first unlocked it. There were holes where the walls had been eaten away by vermin, and the roof had rotted away, allowing rainwater to destroy some old books he found stored inside.
But that wasn’t all he discovered. There was also a large stash of photography equipment from the 1920s and 1930s that had been preserved intact: a tall tripod, 20 or 30 film holders and developing tanks in a variety of sizes. Some of it was wrapped in newspaper, editions of The Philadelphia Inquirer from long ago, and some was wrapped in kraft paper, including several boxes of glass negatives and contact sheets.
“I got goose bumps,” Chizzola said.
Many of the photographs were of nude models in classically artistic positions – holding an urn on a shoulder, for example. It was clear that whoever took them was more than a hobbyist.
Inquiring around about his home’s previous owners, Chizzola learned that the equipment had probably belonged to a man named Chester Kohn, who had lived in Philadelphia and farmed the land in his spare time starting in the 1930s. Kohn, he found out, had owned the farm until the 1970s, when he died.
Chizzola now keeps the equipment stored in the basement of the stone house. Many of the photographs are on display at his studio in Manhattan. And after researching Kohn’s life and photography, he is considering combining their photography in an exhibition or a book. “Something past and present,” he said. “Two stories: him in the early 1900s and me now.”
“I’m attached to the land,” Mr. Chizzola added. “But I’m even more attached because I know that the person who was farming the land before was into photography, too.”
By Richard S. Chang