Organic food may be a fad of the 21st century, but Deborah Szekely, 91, has been organic farming since 1930. In her nine decades of life, she has run for Congress, managed a federal agency, and served as a delegate for UNESCO. Now, she’s back to where she was in 1940: Rancho La Puerta, a 300-acre property in northwestern Mexico that’s part commune, part spa, and part farm. I talked with her at The Atlantic Meets the Pacific about her thoughts on health after nine decades of life – the conversation below has been edited lightly for length and clarity.
What first got you into organic farming?
I come from a health nut background. My mother was vice president of the New York Vegetarian Society in 1926, when I was four years old. Because of the Depression, we couldn’t get any fresh food, and I was raised in Tahiti for five years, starting when I was going on eight years old.
What was different about Tahiti?
You had to carry the water, you had no electricity, and my mother started a garden right away in boats that had been destroyed by hurricanes.
How old were you when you started your first garden?
Reluctantly, when I was in high school, I had to help my mother with her garden.
What inspired you to start organic farming more enthusiastically?
I married my husband, who was a proponent of simple, natural living. Together, we started Rancho La Puerta. We were sort of refugees from World War II. When he went to the university in Europe, in Romania, there were only two Jews in his class, but everyone marched for two weeks in the military reserves. When the reserves were called up to fight on the side of Hitler, my husband was ordered to return, which didn’t make a lot of sense. We ignored it, and his passport was cancelled, and we got a letter from U.S. Immigration saying that if he was found in the United States after June 1, 1940, he would be arrested and sent back. (Editor's note: Presumably, this was because he was associated with an Axis nation.) So we went to Mexico and started a health camp.
I’ve been doing what I’m supposed to do. It wasn’t our decision. We had no money. My husband was a teacher, so it was originally called the Essene School of Life, and it was just tents. Now it’s 3,000 acres – but it’s taken 73 years!
What was it like when you first started out?
The program was not unlike it is today. We settled where we have a wonderful mountain for hiking, and at that time we had a pristine river – now it’s dry, or when it runs it’s polluted, but we’re talking about 1940. The guests all worked in the vegetable garden two hours a day. It some ways it was more like a commune.
It cost $17.50 a week, bring your own tent. And they worked two hours a day. It was mainly Europeans, and a number of key people from Hollywood. We had a lot of refugees from the war.
You later did some work on fitness for the government. What was that like?
I served on the President’s Council of Physical Fitness for Nixon, Reagan, and Ford. I was on for almost 25 years. I went to Washington for 17 years, and ran a federal agency for six years. I’ve got some kind of bio – look it up. I change careers every 10 years.
So what’s your project for this decade?
I just bought a small house, which will be a lot of work. It’s one third the size of my present house, where I raised families and entertained a lot and had a huge garden – it was always on every garden tour. But it isn’t practical to be maintained just for me. It will be a new life for 90 to 100. But it’s five minutes from my current house, so I don’t have to reestablish my community.
Do you have an exercise regimen?
I do Pilates six days a week. I used to do two, then three, then four, then five. … Now that I’m moving into a smaller house, I’m going to have a class that I sign up for in the evening, because I won’t be going up and down three flights of stairs and moving as much and going to look at the garden – I have to compensate. I bought a FitBit to know how many steps I do in an average week at home, and in the new house, I’m going to have to do that same average, because that’s where my body functions well. I’d like to try a tai chi or qigong class.
Have there been other forms of exercise that you’ve loved?
I ran two businesses and raised kids.
What advice do you have for people who would like to have a "90 to 100 decade"?
Everyone should cook from scratch. There’s really no reason not to. There are life-giving elements in food. Not just vitamins, not just minerals – freshness, aliveness. Processed food just doesn’t have it. The body has a hard time recognizing it.
Get to know your body to understand its needs. When I look at a menu, I say, “What does my body need?” rather than, “What does my mind want?” Begin to know that it is the center of your life.