My mom always cooked for us. Big, heaping piles of ravioli and tomato sauce from scratch, with fresh vegetables. If you couldn’t tell by my name—we’re Italian. And there’s nothing like growing up with an Italian mom, with homemade pasta and simmering pots of tomato sauce in the kitchen, to instill an appreciation in a kid about how our food is grown.
That’s a big part of why, decades later, when my wife, Amy, and I drove by and saw the property in Brookeville, Maryland, that would one day become Bella Vita Farm, I was in. It’s also part of why, when I started Dignity Integrative, I knew that better nutrition would be a foundational pillar of our approach to living a longer and healthier life.
The story of the farm
The real origin story of the farm starts in 2017. We were on a vacation to Zion Canyon in Utah. It was us and eight other family members from around the country at this wonderful little restaurant attached to Zion Mountain Ranch. The owner came out to talk with us, and he said that all the food on our plates had been grown right there, at the ranch.
That’s when Amy, always ready to call it as she sees it, looked down at the fish on her plate, noted we were in the middle of the desert with not a lake in sight, and asked the owner how it could possibly be that the fish were raised anywhere within a hundred miles. He answered: aquaponics.
She was hooked. And actually, Amy has a far greater childhood connection to locally grown food than I do — she and her sister Angie grew up on a farm. You can still find their brother today, managing the family farm in Somerset, Ohio, growing soybeans, corn and raising pigs and cattle.
We kept in touch with the owner of Zion Mountain Ranch after we left, and continued to ask questions about how their farm worked, and about their farm-to-table restaurant. The next month, back in Maryland, we drove by the property in Brookeville . We stopped and looked at the “For Sale” sign, and looked at each other.
It was 103 acres, with a 165-year-old manor home, and seven historic outbuildings, including a bank barn, and a corn crib. In fact, the farm is where we filmed the two Dignity Integrative videos, one about my background and another about why I started Dignity Integrative. As you can see from those, it’s a beautiful property.
Bella Vita — “A Beautiful Life”
We bought the 103 acres in September, 2017, two months after our Zion trip.
We named it Bella Vita, which is Italian for a beautiful life. We thought it was a fitting name for what we were going to create there.
Amy and Angie traveled to Colorado to take a course run by The Aquaponic Source. They spent five days learning about water and fish management and how raising fish can create a nutrient rich environment in which hydroponically-grown vegetables can thrive. After the course, the owners of The Aquaponic Source came to Maryland, stayed with us for a few days, and helped us get Bella Vita’s aquaponic system off the ground.
Meanwhile, Angie discovered a passion for axe-throwing and launched Sister Axe. Four to five times a week, groups come together on the farm on the outdoor axe throwing range. They get moving and enjoy that rush of joy that comes from hitting a bullseye, but they also build community and cultivate that human connection we have all learned is so important.
A special place
If you can’t already tell, the farm has a strong connection to a lot of what I’ve been writing about here at Dignity Integrative. That togetherness fostered by Sister Axe is exactly the kind of social activity that is good for your body and for your mind. A few weeks ago, we hosted a celebration of life for a gentleman who had recently passed. The service had been planned for about 125 people, but instead 180 showed up. It was incredibly moving to hear the stories of this man’s long life, and to be able to provide a space for that celebration and togetherness to occur.
It’s been four years since we purchased the property, and a lot of hard work and learning, with a global pandemic thrown in on top of that. Everything they say about owning a farm is true: there’s always something to do, from sunup to sundown. It sure keeps us busy!
But there is also no doubt that Bella Vita is a beautiful place, and a special piece of land. I knew it back in 2017. I remember I was sitting on the side of the porch of the manor house with the developer who we were buying the property from. We were drinking some wine. The sun was setting. The corn was still up at that point, and looking out over the field and the old barns, and the trees, I felt a rush of emotion about the place. There really is something special about it.