Taking in the Last of the Summer Light with Amalia Graziani at Callisto Farm
Amalia Graziani breezed into the driveway and parked her car between the old barns. She was exactly on time, spilling her long legs onto the gravel gracefully. Greeting me with a warm hello, she removed her glasses so I could see her eyes as she smiled, then introduced her lean boxer mix who was completely calm in spite of her puppy appearance.
Amalia’s Finnish and Italian bloodlines have converged to create a confident and modelesque beauty, yet she is also sincerely friendly and down-to-earth. She immediately waved me to a small, colorful garden, pointing towards the sun-kissed picnic table which sat waiting beyond the gate. “We’ll eat something there, ok?” A freshly plucked salad of sorrel, citrus, beets, herbs and goat cheese was soon served up along with bruschetta from their nearby partnering restaurant Black Dot. Drenched in the early fall’s golden light, we sipped homebrewed tea and ate a delicious meal from ingredients mostly harvested on the farm. It was one of those quintessential country-perfect scenes. Our time together felt languid and unrushed, as if this incredibly busy and ambitious human had all the time in the world.
She openly welcomed her farm manager, Jackie Wood, to join us. Jackie was the creative behind our painterly, divine salad, and the one who harvested and mostly grew the ingredients. They both met my questions with thoughtful answers, obviously impassioned by the work they are doing at the farm. They celebrated not just their crops and expanding tree groves, berry brambles, beehives, and more enterprising plans for the farm, but the relationships they have cultivated with like-minded people who care about stewarding land thoughtfully.
“San Francisco where I grew up had a land consciousness,” Amalia said, explaining how in spite of her experience with big teams in a more fast-paced world, she has chosen to root herself in the Hudson Valley. “I quickly felt connected to the land and community here.” Craving nature and connection, she visited a friend during the early part of the COVID-19 lockdown, then altered her life’s course to stay. “It may have not been logical, but I had fallen in love with this place simply because I felt good walking the land.” She couldn’t have predicted then how that urgent love would bloom into a mini-empire of open space, budding dreams of retreats, partnerships, events, elaborate gardens and more.
“A lot of friends visited me during the lockdown here. Then random people just kept dropping by who were so neighborly and supportive; who had their own relationship with the land and brought their own gifts.” She spoke of encouraging people to run with their own ideas, and not managing every project on a farm that had operated as an equestrian center until 2008 and before that, a dairy. Within this more inclusive and mutually-supportive micro-culture and leadership, the land has come to life with others who have helped revive gardens, orchards… and even hearts. Amalia softened palpably when speaking of a donkey named Mama who came by way of an abused situation and needed a home.
“Mama brought a healing energy to the farm, and there was something about being with her that healed me especially, even though it was me that was supposedly ‘saving her.’ I would sit in ‘Mama’s House’ while I read or took a call from inside her corral. She was just the best…” her voice trailing off, then explained how sadly, she had passed away last spring. Amalia spoke of her gratitude for developing a true bond with this “matriarch.”
She said, “If I was having an emotional reaction, Mama would come and put her head on my shoulder. She just knew.” Then someone had extra goats. Soon the farm had 16 and 11 chickens too.
“Being here has taken me out of a more masculine energy, a certain way I felt I needed to run sites before (as a developer),” Amalia explained. “It’s humbling to work with land. One year there’s a huge flood. Next year there’s a goldfinch invasion and they eat half your crop (Yes, that happened.) Critters, swarms of x, y and z, giant storms, trees falling on the house; every season brings a surprise. As much as you try to hedge for that and anticipate risks, being here forces you to surrender. As it comes, I will deal with it. I may not be prepared now, but the ‘future me’ will make herself prepared. But you can’t do this kind of thing without so many people. It’s even funny to be interviewed about this as if it’s ‘my project.’ I am managing the higher-level stuff, but it’s so not my baby. I may be creating bumpers on a vision. But everyone who works here, I am like: ‘Please run with something that you want to take on!’ And it’s amazing to see what happens. Like my team that comes from a construction background, one of them is madly in love with farming and working with plants and animals. Another never had a chance to fully see projects from start to finish, so I said, ‘Well, this is a style of bench I like if you are inspired or excited…’ and suddenly he made that vision come to life. What I am hoping happens is that anyone who comes here can collaborate. I want it to be a space where each person can run with a vision. That’s the spirit of what I also do working with Jackie here. We’ll look at things together and then Jackie will make a part of it her baby. Test, play, come up with things.”
Jackie agreed. “Yeah, I really feel like that.” Then she described each ingredient in the salad. “Have you had French Sorrel before?” she asked.
“Not consciously,” I laughed and took another bite.
“That’s what the lettuce is; it has citrus tannins. A little zesty, great with the beets and actual citrus,” she said. Definitely.
Jackie continued, “Something I’m really excited about in this garden here is the allowance to let things express themselves. There’s so much beautiful teaching in that… and understanding as to why things are expressed as it relates to our soil health as clues to what’s needed in the soil to create more vibrant, more delicious food. Nutrients express as flavor– and that drives me to want to create really delicious food from well-grown vegetables. And that’s the balance- the learning… I’m not a pathologist, but with every season I feel more understanding of what’s what.”
I asked them about how many acres they are utilizing for veggies and fruits, recognizing that the small fenced plot we were in was actually, for now, the extent of their vegetable enterprise’s boundaries. Amalia said, “I guess in sum, probably three. We have an orchard and we wanted some interesting diversity this spring and to add more to the experience at the farm. Our planting structure is so not production oriented, it’s more about discovery.
We have a berry bramble down this path. We created a little persimmon grove that will take a minute to mature. We have some Pawpaw trees. A beautiful chestnut tree that was here for a long time, although we are in talks with someone who may want to start a chestnut tree production at the back of the property.”
Callisto Farms doesn’t have a sign demarcating it as a farm at all, and beyond supplying Black Dot, a quaint little spot in Stone Ridge, there’s not much in the way of harvest, at least not yet. There’s not even a farm stand. I said to Amalia, “You call yourself an “accidental farmer” on Instagram. Why, and how much is farming part of your personal daily life?”
She answered, “My personal daily life is hard because keeping a schedule is something that is not within my skill set. I am constantly chasing the different butterflies of my life. I am getting things done, but it’s a tough one to schedule because I am running and chasing things. Farming is less of the actual hands-on work I am doing in terms of hourly input, but it has lit up something in me that is always the thread that is pulling at me. This is our first public-facing season here and there’s a lot that I want to create farming-wise on this property.”
“I am still doing architecture. I’m technically a developer, not licensed as an architect. I’ve been working here with Scott Dutton who owns the Kingston Fuller Building; he’s a great architect. So I’m building the 1865 farmhouse project with him now; that’s the project that I am actively working on. And there’s a really fun abandoned vineyard! I think someone is going to do a lease project there soon!” She paused, laughing. “You can see where my excitement lies,” she said, still chuckling. “Yeah, there’s this renovation project… but the grapes! [Swoon] I’m extra enthusiastic about that! But there are so many structures on this property and I am knocking them out one at a time. I’ll show you one completed room that’s been done.”
Before she did, I asked Amalia to share stories about any mentors that have shaped her and how. She explained how “one was more of a spiritual mentor that also offered a ‘special woman-to-woman relationship.’ Another was a really talented builder and developer who had a penchant for teaching and probably should have been a teacher, but it wasn’t the path he took. He took me under his wing and helped me build a lot of confidence and refine my vision. So I had some wonderful people in my 20s who are still in my life. Elisabeth Field Wolfe has become another mentor. She ran the community garden at Smith College where I went to school. She brought Jackie to the farm and helped find some other really wonderful people here. Elisabeth is based in Maine. She came down here with an incredible background in permaculture, biodynamic gardening, and a no-till approach to farming so the land can support itself. I reached out to her and said, ‘Well, you may not remember me as a student long ago, but I bought this farm in the Hudson Valley… .’”
On the homepage of Wolfe’s site, Robin Wall Kimmerer’s words glow, looming: “Take care of the land as if our lives, both spiritual and material, depended on it. Because they do.” This quote from “The Rights of Land” reveals a lot about Elisabeth Wolfe’s orientation as “a consultant helping individuals and organizations steward land using whole systems thinking,” as well as how she’s affected Amalia’s approach to land ownership.
Later, exploring Wolfe’s site, I would discover how she describes this further, “Whole systems thinking recognizes that every farm is inextricably linked to a larger ecosystem. It is in our mutual best interest to steward land in ways that support ecological integrity, empower rural and historically disadvantaged communities to reclaim food sovereignty and support civic agriculture through innovation, responsible decisions and the nurturing of land and self.”
Eventually, I turned my attention back to Amalia’s keen design sense. “You are attuned to creating spaces that are calming yet also classic- something that can sometimes be a tension of opposites… the dramatic and yet comfortable. That’s not an easy balance to achieve- it can often be one way or the other.”
She said, “I think spaces can be comfortable without being undone. I try to play with that balance- although here on the farm, every time it looks undone, I’m happy! The messier the better,” she said, laughing again. “If something shoots up and wasn’t supposed to be there growing, I think, let’s let it grow and see what happens. In my developed work I try to make it feel clean and together, ‘done’ in a sense, but yes, still have it feel calm.”
I asked, “When is your favorite design period and who are your favorite architects?”
“My favorites don’t necessarily reflect my aesthetic,” Amalia said. “Like Ricardo Bofill- who did beautiful, dramatic, colorful, plaster-heavy structures—so not what you see in my past work. But his play of scale is very imaginative- and he always brought in nature in an interesting way. He brought in green roofs before they were a thing. Nature is where I have found mental quiet, deep feeling and solace. If too much of our lives are spent indoors, it can affect us so much. On construction sites, you are constantly outside and in, exposed to the elements. I suppose I try to bring some of that feeling inside my spaces.”
“What is your favorite room or space in your house or property here?” I wondered. “It could be outside, but what is the place you feel you can be your most authentic self? Your greatest exhale space?”
Amalia answered earnestly, “It’s not a room, but it feels like a room of the land if that makes sense. There’s a little knoll; now there’s a fire pit and some benches up there. It’s the highest point and has a nice view. It’s the only place here where you can observe uninterrupted sunsets. There was a mulberry tree there being eaten alive by invasive vines. I went through a breakup and I was like, ‘You know, it’s me and that tree now!’ So I went there and took out those vines and saved her!” she exclaimed, laughing. “I was so dirty and disgusted and it was such an intense process. Eventually, I came down to the barn and Elisabeth and the team were there and were like, ‘Do not disturb this one!'”
Amalia was laughing still. “I left a piece of me up there and it was wonderful. And under all the vines were these incredible rock formations that are just… beautiful and felt important. I don’t know what’s under the ground there but all this exposed rock was revealed. That’s definitely my favorite spot.”
I asked if she worries about the impact of development on open space and in this area in particular. Without delay, she said, “Yes, massively. I’ve become the very quirky one of my professional community. I know and have worked with many developers and I am defining land stewardship for them, the responsibility of land ownership and the rewarding elements that come from fostering biodiversity and pollinator plants. I say things like, ‘If you put bees on one side of your property… and these are all these other things that you can do….’ And they’re like, ‘Huh?’”
“Or things like, ‘You don’t just have to have a field with fertilizer; In fact, that’s very boring of you, think bigger. What about systems?’ I am doing my MBA right now and you always have to go around and talk about what you do. Of course, I can talk about having a development company because that’s quite relevant. But I say, ‘Well, I have a regenerative farm I’m working on.’ And people are really interested! Most people are looking to start things.
“I am very concerned about development. I do think that the lot sizes lend themselves to not having what happened to the Hamptons happen just because there are larger pieces of land here. But yes, I hope the towns are on top of that in terms of subdivision allowances and all of that. It’s important for everything- in terms of air quality, traffic, density, and so many things. It’s such a responsibility.
I have the privilege of multiple perspectives just because the folks I work with on every project are local and I always work in secondary markets- I’m not really in the city much. Someone who helps me with some things in my house here, she’s the postmaster of a neighboring town. Someone else is a retired firefighter. So many of the people I work with are multi-generational locals. I hear their stories about displacement and not being able to plan where their kids are going to visit them, or how they will be able to do things. You can’t really appreciate a place that’s so centered around agriculture if there isn’t affordable housing. And the commute time for everyone, even for those living ‘nearby’ is at least 45 minutes. So you lose something huge if you lose diversity– all types of diversity, including economic diversity in an area.”
Why did you choose the Hudson Valley to settle now over any other and to grow this vision?
“Because there are so many things to love at once here. It was cultural first:- every store I went to, every person I met through the friend that I have here, just seemed excited about really grounded things. And there’s a focus on food and good ingredients and the fact that you can walk up to a tiny stand behind a motel and have the best sandwich. People are very serious about every single bit of the composition, the ingredients and the composure, everywhere I seem to go here. There’s world-class hiking, and I liked the heavy base of locals. That felt important. What also struck me is the quality of produce.”
Favorite HV Restaurants?
“I like Inness. It is so product-forward. I don’t know where they source their stuff, but wow. Their carrots with ricotta! I get 3 for a table of 6, and I say, ‘No, it’s not too much, trust me!’ Butterfield has some strong options. I really like Ollie’s a lot in High Falls. And I also really like Village Grocery and Refillery in Kingston, it’s on a little back street behind a CVS, but their food is solid.
Any other dream partnerships in the Valley? You’ve mentioned Black Dot and Hasbrouck House. Any place else?
“Oh my gosh, there are too many to list! The main thing now is just having people bring exciting ideas here and see what dreams come to life. I have a handful of things locked for the fall, bringing different chefs, healers, and folks with a vision to make things happen.”
I asked Amalia what her earliest memory with dirt was: “When I was about 8, we were in this little beach town in Capitola California. We had a little house and there was a tiny shed behind it. My dad gave me a project- to weed it and clean it up so I could play in it. I tore off the pitched roof myself. There were lots of critters. I had to push past my squeamishness and face fear. It was humbling. Then I painted the ceiling blue like the sky, the walls brown like trees. It’s probably where I developed an aesthetic for old things.”
Toward the end of my visit with her, she declared with her big smile, “Let’s walk! I want to show you my favorite knoll!” Not something you hear every day.
First, we stopped to see her sun-flooded and spacious, newly rehabbed barns at the ready for events and classes. Then, after I received a parting gift of garlic bulbs and a bouquet of fresh herbs from Julia, Amalia and I headed back out towards the bucolic trail. Taking long, graceful strides as her dog walked faithfully nearby, she mentioned that she had done a lot of the bushwacking herself. The sun was shining, big happy clouds floating by a bright blue sky. She described the tangled and overgrown paths that she hadn’t been afraid to clear herself. “I love using a machete!” she exclaimed.
I asked her if she worked with power tools, a threshold I had not personally crossed in my 20+ years as a Gardiner homeowner, in spite of also being very hands-on with my own house and property’s transformations. I didn’t expect her answer. She tossed an exuberant, “Yes! I can use a chainsaw now!” over her shoulder, and then added, laughing easily, “I drill, I have dabbled with a snow plow, and I’ve learned to use a tractor. But I’ve merely achieved high-amateur status because I learned once I got this property.”
As we walked to her famed knoll, I thought about how Amalia is tough to peg. In our short time together I could see how she was very determined and visionary, yet inclusive. A high-end developer who adores trees and also heralds open space and a diverse local and cost-accessible economy. Refined in her tastes and well-educated, she’s got huge visions that she’s manifesting, yet she also knows how to relax and enjoy life. A chain saw slinging trailblazer in all senses of that word. I appreciated her complex contradictions and unexpected defiance of the model-beauty archetype.
“Both of my parents are convinced that the impulse to be so hands-on came from their side of the family. Yet both are so disconnected from nature and neither even wanted me to ever adopt an animal! But I let them both believe what they want. It’s hilarious!”
Written by Jenny Wonderling
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Photos courtesy of Amalia Graziani 📷 @chrismottalini @heflpop