By Jonah Raskin
At Bee-Well Farms on Highway 12, between Trinity and Nun’s Canyon, Austin and Melinda (Missy) Lely are taking stock of the year that’s ending and looking ahead to the year that’s about to begin. Winter is the only real season that allows for reflection, though there’s no hibernating at Bee-Well, unless it’s by the bees.
“In last year’s fire we lost a lot, though we also sold almost everything that we produced,” Austin says. “We didn’t grow enough to satisfy our customers.”
The Lelys belong to the most recent wave of farmers who are breaking new ground in Sonoma, reinventing old ways, bringing generations together, and linking rural folks and city dwellers.
At the peak of summer, they sold 1,700 eggs a week. Locals and tourists who drove along Highway 12 noticed their free-range chickens, pulled off the road, climbed out of their cars, bought eggs by the dozens and went home happy. At the peak of fall, Austin and Missy sold hundreds of the pumpkins they grew. They also gave a lot of them away. Their tomatoes didn’t ripened until August, but they harvested all through September and October and until early November when the tomatoes on the vine were still sweet, juicy and red.
Austin and Missy started Bee-Well Farms in 2015. Every year since then, they’ve made enough money to keep going, though it’s not just money that motivates them.
“We have a business and we need to survive financially, Missy says. “But we have a bigger purpose than money. We like to donate and we want to help educate people about farming, raising animals and caring for the land.”
Recently, the staff at Mint and Liberty, the new restaurant in the Maxwell Village Shopping Center, visited Bee-Well, helped plant cabbage and learned about crops and soils.
The Lelys grow vegetables and raise chickens and beef cows. They have one honeybee hive. Hence the name “Bee-Well,” though they also have their sights set on the wellness of the land, the community and themselves.
Missy and Austin are both Californians, though they come from very different parts of the Golden State. Missy was born and raised in Groveland, near Yosemite. Austin was born and raised in Sonoma. He grew up with some of the Coturri boys and guys like Taylor Bertrand-Barrett who works in the field at Oak Hill Farm and who also has a vegetable patch and a CSA with Stacey Tuel. They, too, belong to the wave of young farmers who are rewriting the back-to-the-land movement that started in 1905 when Jack London left Oakland, settled in Glen Ellen and raised pigs and more.
Austin was born in 1988, Missy in 1990. She doesn’t come from a farming family. Fresh produce wasn’t readily available in Groveland. But healthy food mattered to her parents.
“My family was health conscious,” Missy says. “From an early age I had an awareness of healthy life styles and healthy eating. Because of that I’ve had a drive to grow my own food. In college, I even did a business plan for a food coop.”
Austin’s grandfather, Edward Lely, grew flowers and vegetables on a small parcel in Shellville. He served on the board of directors for the Sonoma Valley Certified Farmers’ Market and sold his produce on Friday mornings. Austin inherited his grandfather’s green thumb and his keen appreciation of community.
For years, Austin worked as the ranch manager at Benzigers and at Imagery, where he learned both indoor and outdoor skills that come in handy now. After he and Missy met, they compared notes, realized that they shared common interests and passions and joined forces.
Paul Wirtz at Paul’s Produce—one of Sonoma’s most beloved farmers—admires the Lelys and the life they’ve carved out. It helps when older farmers serve as models for younger farmers.
“They both do a lot of different things, including working in the fields and keeping the books,” Wirtz says. “And they have one another, which makes all the difference in the world.”
Paul and his wife, Candi Edmondson, work closely together. He’s on his tractor in the fields. She and a handful of reliable helpers are familiar faces at the Friday morning market where they sell the produce that Paul and his team grow on Arnold Drive.
Austin and Missy admire Paul and Candi. They also inspire one another. “I couldn’t do it without him,” Missy says. Austin adds, “I wouldn’t want to do it by myself.”
This winter Missy will make jellies and jams: blueberry, tomato, apple-quince, cranberry and a red pepper jelly. She and Austin lease land from Medicine Wheel Orchard, which is owned by Patti Williams. “She’s mentoring me,” Missy says. “We emphasize the fruit and the natural sweetness.” The jams and jellies will be sold under the “Bee-Well” label.
While Missy plans to spend winter days in the kitchen, Austin will be outside much of the time. A crew might accomplish the work he’ll do, mostly singlehandedly, including the building of raised beds for root crops, putting-up hoop houses as well as a greenhouse twenty-two-feet long and ten-feet-wide that will sit on the back of a portable trailer.
He and Missy say that this winter they’ll figure out how to work more efficiently and how to bring more people to the farm where they’ll be able pick their own vegetables. “We remind one another to look up,” Austin says. Missy adds, “We bounce ideas off one another and remind ourselves that we can always get better.”
They’ve already made giant strides.
Jonah Raskin is the author of “Field Days: A Year of Farming, Eating and Drinking Wine in California” and an occasionally contributor to The Sun.