By Jonah Raskin
Ever since 1940, when Victor Lindlahr published You Are What You Eat, a runaway bestseller, doctors, nurses, and health practitioners have known that there’s a correlation between diet and health. Actually, the cognoscenti have known about the connections long before Lindlahr arrived on the scene and publicized his ideas – some of them wacky, some of them commonsensical – in books such as The Lindlahr Vitamin Cook Book, Eat and Reduce!, and Calorie Countdown. Lindlahr moved from meritorious ideas to quackery, as the 19th French author, Brilliant-Savarin, would have understood.
“Tell me what you eat and I shall tell you what you are,” Brilliant-Savarin wrote in 1825.
Just two years ago, Laura Shapiro borrowed Brilliant-Savarin’s concept for her book, What She Ate, a gastronomical history for foodies, fashionistas, and feminists in which she explores the lives and the eating habits of four women, including Dorothy Wordsworth, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Eva Braun, Hitler’s mistress. Now there are dozens of books and articles that argue “You are what you eat,” many with the same title that Lindlahr used in 1940.
Sonoma Valley’s Missy and Austin Lely have gone one better. No, they haven’t published a book about diet, food, and wellness. Instead, they have authored a farm, Bee-Well, in Sonoma Valley, that has hives for bees who make honey which the Lelys sell, along with all kinds of vegetables, which they believe can help people live healthy lives.
This season, for the first time, the Lelys will have a CSA. Members who sign up for $25 a week receive a box of veggies every seven days. The boxes will be available at the Friday morning market and at the Bee-Well Farm Stand near the corner of Trinity Road and Highway 12. There are always freebies at the farm. Missy and Austin are notorious for their generosity. Last fall they gave away hundreds of pumpkins.
The Lelys are part of an agricultural movement that looks at wellness holistically and that has been inspired by Wendell Berry, who noted famously, “Eating is an agricultural act,” and by Michael Pollan, who urges, “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” (In the world according to Pollan, packaged potato chips aren’t real food, and neither are Slurpees from 7-Eleven.)
The Lelys have local friends and allies: David Cooper at Oak Hill Farm and Hayley Cutri at Flatbed Farm, both on Highway 12, who share many of the same ideals and values and translate them into farming practices.
On a rainy day in April, when the fields were too muddy for a tractor, Missy and Austin opened their larder, took out jars of their homemade pickles and jellies, along with store-bought cheese, crackers, and locally made sopressata. While they watched the rain, they shared some of the homegrown philosophy they’ve gleaned at Bee-Well ever since 2015, when they began to cultivate vegetables and raise cattle.
The Lelys are not vegetarians, vegans, dieters, or “food purists” in any sense of the term. They like beer and they enjoy venison stew and roasted wild turkey. Austin is a hunter as well as a cook. Missy makes the jams, preserves, and pickles they sell at the Friday farmers market.
“When you buy ripe, local produce from an organic source you can have the highest density nutrient food,” Austin said. “You leave the least harmful carbon footprint on the land.” Missy added, “We can’t just live on fats, carbs, and proteins. We need vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients that are in vegetables and help make for healthy minds and bodies.” Scientists agree.
The Wellness Newsletter from UC Berkeley, suggests foods to eat to maintain health: turkey-papaya salad for vitamin C and potassium; and coffee, tea, and chocolate for antioxidants, which can reduce the potential for chronic illness. In the field of nutritional psychology, Columbia University Professor Drew Ramsey recommends eating oysters, which have omega-3 fatty acids that can decrease the risk of depression. So his research suggests.
On that rainy day, Missy spread cheese on a cracker and explained, “Austin and I have adopted the 80/20 rule. We eat healthy at home 80% of the time; 20% of the time we go out to eat and are less disciplined about what foods we put in our bodies.”
At Chico State, where they learned about healthy and unhealthy environments and about social issues – and took part in outdoor activities – they mostly ate what they wanted to eat, which meant a lot of carbs. They put on weight, especially during the first year at college.
Austin said: “We had no agricultural background, but the more we asked ‘how can we help the most and do the least harm to the earth?’ it came down to farming in an intentional way, growing diverse crops, and contributing to the well-being of the local community.”
Missy added, “We knew we wanted healthy soil, a healthy economy, healthy mind, body, and spirit, and a healthy personal relationship between the two of us.”
Sometimes it’s a real challenge, especially when Missy and Austin get up at sunrise and get to work moving cows or harvesting crops.
“One afternoon, I got real cranky,” Missy said. “I hadn’t eaten anything all day and I was ready to give up, but I realized that if I didn’t do what I was supposed to do, Austin would have to do his work and mine too.”
What did Missy do? Went out, bought burritos and beer, returned to Bee-Well, ate and drank and then went back to work.
The Lely’s friend and fellow farmer, Stacey Tuel, grows vegetables with her partner, Taylor Bertrand-Barrett, who went to high school with Austin. Phoenix Family Farm is the name of Stacey’s and Taylor’s operation. The Lelys say it helps to have a community of farmers and environmentalists, including local role models such as Ann Teller, Bob Cannard, Paul Wirtz, Candi Edmondson, and Jack London, who belonged, at the start of the 20th century, to what was called “the back-to-the-land-movement.” In Sonoma Valley, there has always been, for the past 125 years, a back-to-the-land movement, which has also been a movement for health and wellness and for what Missy Lely calls “the spirit,” which London also prized.
Missy explains, “If I eat bad I don’t feel good. The spirit is about radiating joy and energy. It’s about engaging with the land and the community, growing as individuals and learning more.”
Jonah Raskin is the author of Field Days: A Year of Farming, Eating and Drinking Wine in California.