The following is the story of how one family, two farms, and two centuries of hard work and commitment endured the test of time.
On a quiet country day in 1819, William Wisner set his sights on a 115-acre parcel in a peaceful nook of the Town of Warwick called Bellvale. Only two small structures existed on the property previously owned by William Noble: a house and barn circa 1800.
The rolling peaks and valleys of the lush farmland would be mirrored in the ups and downs of the sole family who would farm the property for the next two centuries.
In the summer of 2019, Bellvale Farms celebrates 200 years and seven generations of active farming. Since purchasing the property in 1971, owners Albert “Al” and Judith “Judy” Buckbee have subsequently purchased five adjoining farms, bringing Bellvale Farm’s size to more than 450 acres. Located at 75 Bellvale Lakes Road, the milk produced on the Farm over the years has been used for drinking, and making butter, cheese, and ice cream.
It is no surprise the area has been referred to as Belle Valle, the Beautiful Valley. The breath-taking views of the picturesque, bucolic landscape have been photographed, filmed, published, framed and admired.
In January 2020, the New York State Agricultural Society will officially recognize Bellvale Farms for 200 years of continuous farming by the same family.
To understand the ancestry leading to present day Bellvale Farms, one must go back in time to examine the Buckbee and Wisner family trees in their complex connectivity.
Swiss soldier Johanes Weesner arrived in Warwick, NY in approximately 1714. It is purported, though not certain, that he was an officer in Queen Anne’s Swiss contingent, and he first settled in Long Island and then Warwick, NY with his wife, Elizabeth, and their five children.
Johanes’ grandson, Henry Wisner, born in 1720 in Goshen, NY, played a key role in supplying gun powder to the Colonial Army led by General George Washington. He had been an Orange County Delegate to the Second Continental Congress, which adopted the Declaration of Independence in Philadelphia in 1776. Henry voted for independence, but as the threat of the British army lingered back home, he was not present for the signing.
Meanwhile back at the Wisner Stone House in Warwick, the Wisner family continued to grow. Five brothers of the next generation moved out west, leaving one sister, Frances, behind. Frances Wisner married John R. Buckbee, hence joining the two families, and they had two children, William and Annie. William married Elizabeth Wisner (a cousin) and they had seven children. Sadly, William died at 40, leaving Elizabeth to run the farm and raise the children.
Times were changing though, and in the 1840s, subsistence farming in the region was revolutionized with the locomotive. People soon realized that liquid milk and fresh produce could be transported to New York City within a day. Hundreds of commercial farms sprouted up in the region, including several hundred dairy operations.
Around the same time, the Buckbee family was to arrive at a pivotal point in the family history’s, a point in which one might become harried with names. However, fret not.
There is, in fact, a Wisner Buckbee (Al’s father), born in 1897, as noted in the family Bible. The gent carried two family names, Wisner as his first and Buckbee as his last.
Wisner Buckbee married Edith Polegreen, who grew up in Albany and arrived in Warwick in the late 1920s. They had three children: Grace, followed by Wisner Henry Buckbee, and finally the baby, Albert in 1939.
Farmers are far from strangers to tragedy and despair, and in the late 1890s, the old barn at Bellvale Farms burned to the ground. Though the sadness and loss were monumental, Al Buckbee recalls that those tough times brought friends and family closer together. Al remembers his father’s words: “In my mind, I can still see that barn raising. Everyone came to help.”
Al also sadly looks back on dark days in the 1930s, when every cow on the farm, and elsewhere in the region, was infected with tuberculosis. The entire herd was destroyed. The Buckbees carried on, as strong families always find a way to survive in times of adversity.
Following in his ancestors’ footsteps, Al went out west for a bit, to study agriculture at Kansas State University. It was there that he met his sweetheart, Judy. The two married, started their own family, and eventually came home to farm in Warwick.
Much has changed on the farm since Al was a boy. The hundreds of dairy farms that supplied milk to the region succumbed to a combination of development pressures and pricing issues. Today, just a few dozen milk producing farms exist in the County.
Still, the Buckbees carry on the centuries old family tradition of providing dairy to the public.
Al proudly displays a bale of hay that reads 97MILK.COM, a website that raises awareness about the challenges facing the dairy farm industry and encourages consumers to drink whole milk for its health benefits and taste (whole milk is naturally 97% fat free).
A well-respected figure in agriculture, Al Buckbee, as farmer, competition judge, and breeder, has sold some impressive cattle at prestigious auctions over the years: in 1975 to a French distributor in Quebec, and then again locally in 1987, 2005 and 2014. There was also a private auction in 1980, and in total, several hundred thousand dollars were raised to help operate the Farm.
In 1986, the Farm received Orange County’s first Dairy of Distinction Award, and for several years it has been the recipient of the Progressive Breeder’s Award from the Holstein Association of America.
In 1998, the Buckbees sold the development rights of 330 acres of their farm through the New York State Purchase of Development Rights Program in concert with the Town of Warwick. Much of the proceeds were used to purchase additional land for the future growth of the family farm. At the same time, the Buckbees helped preserve open space in perpetuity, an Orange County asset which is dwindling.
“People see farms as quaint green spaces in our community, but what they don’t realize is that they are a major part of our economy. Farms are a working landscape. The open space is beautiful, but if we lose the farms, we lose the open space,” notes President of the Orange County Citizens Foundation, Nancy Proyect, stressing the importance of supporting local farms.
“A lot of Orange County farms have been turned into business parks, strip malls, and residential housing developments. Without farms, Orange County would probably become even more industrial, which doesn’t generally attract families or keep us beautiful. Keeping farms as a strong component of industry and the
community helps center development where it belongs,” Proyect noted.
In a melodic agricultural symphony, the Buckbees are the conductors, as Bellvale Farms works harmoniously with dozens of businesses in the region. There is an authentic connection between the Buckbees and their community: consumers, mechanics, veterinarians, grain vendors, mills, and livestock nutritionists, to name just a few of the players in the finely tuned orchestra.
The chief operators of Bellvale Farms are Al, Judy, and their son Skip, who runs the day to day operations. In addition to community boards, Skip served as an Orange County Legislator for one term. Their daughter Amy and her husband Tim have owned and operated Bellvale Farms Creamery, an ice cream store 800 feet up the mountain from the Farm, since 2003. Amy and Tim have two children, Jasmine and Will. Both have shown animals and worked on the Farm over the years, however while Jasmine seems to be focused on animal husbandry, Will has shown more proclivity towards the business of ice cream.
Other indispensable hands in the business include Bill Korwan, the Farm’s early a.m. milker for the past 15 years, and foreman John Willemse, who has assisted in all aspects of the Farm for more than 20 years. The Farm and Creamery also employ more than 40 teenagers and sees hundreds of visitors each year.
Bellvale Farms has a current registered Holstein herd of 60 cows with a BAA 111 and a rolling herd average of 24,000 pounds using rotational grazing. There are also Jersey cows on the property, and all cows are milked in tie stalls using a pipeline milking system.
The Farm grows and harvests 50 acres (300 tons) of alfalfa and 50 acres (1000 tons) of corn, all as sustenance for their cows. The farmers also harvest hay, barley, and oats.
In 2018, the Farm sold more than one million 8 oz glasses of milk and the Creamery sold many thousands of scoops of ice cream.
In addition, they produced and sold rye grain, which is distilled into whiskey. At about 55 pounds per bushel, they distributed 1,250 bushels. That’s the makings of a pretty boozy soirée!
Fun fact: Bellvalle Farms has over 200 rubber tires with air, and on any given day at least one tire will go flat!
With the exterior grounds of the Farm bustling with livestock, crops, and constant activity, the interior balances the property with traditional farmhouse style, charm, elegance, and warmth.
The renovated farmhouse, built in 1848, boasts a hand-rubbed cherry railing and staircase and cornices in the front hall. There are detailed moldings and high ceilings in the dining room with a marble fireplace and views of Sugar Loaf Mountain. A downstairs billiards room with a custom designed bar made from planks found in the barn is a fun gathering spot for family.
With never a moment remaining dull, in 1903, thieves entered the Buckbee house through a cellar window, stealing $54 and a shotgun. The brazen outlaws even feasted on some canned fruit on a horseblock (stepping stone) before making their escape. Perhaps one day, the unsolved mystery will be solved!
Beyond farming, Bellvale Farms has acquired quite a name in show business, with the grounds filmed in many television series and commercials. The popular series “Sneaky Pete” filmed three seasons at the Farm as well as a Hulu 10-part series about the Wu Tang Clan, and an Unsolved Mystery program. Household names like Nestlé’s, Fruit of the Loom, Bloomingdale’s, and Amazon Kindle are just a few of more than 30 companies that have used the property for commercials.
This seamless juxtaposition of farm life and film crews is a testament to how well the Buckbees grow, diversify and adapt with the times.
The Buckbees have hosted two Open House on the Farm days in conjunction with Cornell Cooperative Extension Orange County, as well as with several seed and chemical companies. In October 2000, the Buckbees hosted “Farm Day,” a free community event that drew approximately 800 visitors.
The Farm also hosts free tours on Sundays from June through October.
And so through good times and bad, through seasons both fruitful and barren, Bellvale Farms has remained a warm, welcoming, and wonderful place to experience the true essence of farming and family.
Al and Judy Buckbee have served on countless committees, valuing agricultural education and community. Their generosity has included the purchase of the Buckbee Center, which they subsequently donated to the Warwick Historical Society in January 2011.
As a former board member of the Orange County Citizens Foundation for nine years, Al worked tirelessly to bring agricultural awareness to the forefront. Through the Foundation, he formed a committee to educate the public on how important agriculture is for the economy and the quality of life. A cultural exhibit, inspired by Al’s ideas, told the story of 26 working farms in the county through photography and history. This was paired with a series of lectures and panel discussions, all of which brought new life to the conversation about agriculture.
Nancy Proyect sums up the Buckbee legacy succinctly: “They’re not just farmers who live here; they are a major part of the community. The family’s priorities are to keep farming at the forefront and to give back as much as they can in meaningful ways. It’s hard to measure the impact of a family like the Buckbees on our community. Truly, they are the community. They are the backbone of Warwick.”
The Buckbee Family cherishes the land’s rich history as well as the deep-rooted ancestry that surrounds the Farm. It is the family’s wish to preserve and document the story of Bellvale Farms, both its precious past and productive present, as they look towards a bright future that embraces agriculture, family, hard work and community.
This historical narrative has been compiled from official and unofficial recorded historical documents, personal accounts, and hand-written notes.
Buckbee, Al and Judy. Owners, Bellvale Farms. Interview. June 2019.
Proyect, Nancy. President, Orange County Citizens Foundation. Interview. June 2019.
Wisner, George Franklin. The Wisners in America and Their Kindred.
Writer: Sara Paul
Production Manager: John Willemse