Down on the Farm
As a new wave of young farmers emerges, a local couple joins the revolution.
In a world full of big-box superstores and mass production, it’s easy to forget where our food comes from—and the people who make it possible. In the past, farms run by generations of hardworking families were the lifeblood of their communities. But today, small-scale farmers face a mounting challenge from big agribusiness. Despite this obstacle, a new breed of growers has taken root in the East Bay (and across the United States) that is rethinking the concept of sustainable farming.
Helena and Matthew Sylvester of Sunol’s Happy Acre Farm are among this modern crop of agriculturists whose decision to return to the land is catalyzing a cultural shift in food production and bringing a fresh perspective to the industry. In addition to deviating from big agribusiness, the husband-and-wife team represent a radical change from the traditional American Gothic stereotype.
“There’s definitely a revolution of young farmers,” says Matthew, 33.
“Every farmer I’ve met in the last five years has been our age or younger,” adds Helena, 31.
The Sylvesters, both Oakland natives, attribute this emerging collective of growers to a greater awareness of how and where food originates. “People are caring about the soil, and don’t like how [big] farms are tilling or using inputs [such as pesticides or other chemicals],” Matthew says. “[New farmers] want to grow ‘clean’ food for others, and we are just a pebble in that pile.”
Seeds of Change
What started as a movie marathon turned into a full-fledged lifestyle change for the pair. “We became passionate about food in 2011, when we started watching food documentaries and became more conscious about what we were eating and how the industrial food system works,” Matthew says. “We became a little freaked out about it all.” The couple turned that unease into positive action by launching a mini agriculture business that created edible gardens for schools and residences in Oakland and Berkeley.
After participating in a WWOOF (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms) exchange experience in Hawaii, Matthew and Helena went all in. “We came back, and I was very gung ho,” Helena recalls. “I thought: I’m going to have 40 acres and two tractors. Let’s do this! My parents were like, ‘OK, you were a history major. Maybe you should take one class to see if you really want to do this.’” She enrolled in a horticulture course at Merritt College and started working at Shooting Star CSA (now Shooting Star Organic Farm). Helena loved it so much, she ended up spending three seasons at the farm, gaining a whole new skill set.
Matthew took a different track, working in the restaurant industry before accepting a role as a manager at a farmers market. “Helena was at a farm, learning about field to table to market, and I was learning the behind-the-desk stuff, such as what papers farmers need to sell their [produce] and what insurance you need,” Matthew says. “Plus, I was talking to farmers and building my knowledge.”
A Growth Industry
Since signing the lease for Happy Acre Farm in the spring of 2014, the couple have grown their homestead from one acre to three and a half acres, built a greenhouse, hired two employees, and planted new crops such as shishito peppers and heirloom tomatoes—all while maintaining their certified-organic standing. (The farm’s slogan is “No panic, we organic.”)
Even four years later, the pair continue to master some farming essentials. “We hopped into this so new, we didn’t know what an oval hose or drip tape was, and [we didn’t know] basic terminology,” Matthew admits. “We had to learn so much the first couple of years, and as much as it was physically [demanding] on our bodies, we also had to learn mentally.
“We have a saying: You jump; I’ll catch you,” he adds. “It’s about being inspired, having ideas, and supporting each other. So, the farm was both [of] our idea, but really [Helena’s], and now we just continue to grow.”
While the little farm tucked away in the rolling golden hills seems serene with its bright patches of blooming perennials and groomed rows of veggies, caring for the land is backbreaking work. The Sylvesters spend 12 to 15 hours a day prepping, planting, and maintaining their plot each season—as well as overseeing business operations, including bookkeeping, seed orders, and restaurant relations. They also sell at three farmers markets. If all that wasn’t enough, Matthew and Helena added a baby to the mix earlier this year, with the birth of their son, August.
Food for Thought
Now in their fifth growing season, the Sylvesters are hitting their stride. “We’re feeling much more comfortable about knowing what our operations are going to be like and streamlining everything,” Matthew says. “It’s also physically relieving because we have some help now and it’s not just all on us. It’s more sustainable; we are figuring it out.”
The couple also give back to their community. “[Community] is a really big part [of farming],” Helena says. “It’s what got us into it—seeing what was going into our food and realizing everyone is eating it … and wanting to have better options.”
They also try to cut down on the farm’s food waste by donating to local food kitchens. Last year, they contributed $17,000 worth of market-value produce to Bay Area nonprofits, including Open Heart Kitchen and Loaves and Fishes Family Kitchen.
“We realized getting into this that there are a lot of food deserts out there, and not everyone has equal access to high-quality food,” Matthew says. “It’s hard because we need to sell our produce, but a lot of low-income folks aren’t going to buy tomatoes at four dollars a pound, so we try to give back in that way.” He and Helena are considering establishing their own nonprofit to provide produce to low-income schools, too.
But for now, they’ll focus on their friends, family, and neighbors. “Food is community building,” Matthew says. “You eat it and share it. … You bond over it. It’s all tied in.” happyacrefarm.com.
Planting the Seed
The Sylvesters offer helpful tips to first-time growers.
Know Your Environment
“Look at where you live. A lot of people want to grow tomatoes, but it’s not practical if you’re in an area that’s really foggy. Instead, you’re going to love growing greens of all sorts. But if it’s warm with a lot of sun, take a look at your yard and where it gets sunlight. That’s a good area for plants that love the heat.” —Matthew
Start With the Basics
“Everyone should grow squash plants once in their life because they are prolific producers. At the bare minimum, plant some kind of herb you like to use, like parsley, and some kind of onion. I feel like spring onions are staples for your kitchen.” —Helena
Try, Try Again
“You have to get comfortable with things dying on you. As a farm, we lose a lot of plants. We are planting 1,500 tomato plants right now, and not all are going to make it—that’s why we plant so many. With home gardeners, it can be frustrating because you only have four tomato plants, and that gopher came and got two of them, but you have to stick with it. Plants are going to die, and it’s completely out of your control, but you have to keep going.” —Matthew
Go for an Easy Win
“Radishes are good because they’re ready in a month. So, if you are an instant-gratification kind of person, radishes are the way to go. Arugula, too. Sometimes, it’s hard to put four months into a plant and then only get one or two tomatoes, but if you do 30 days of not attending to arugula, it will just take over.” —Helena
Come On, Get Happy
Here’s where to find Happy Acre Farm produce in the Bay Area year-round.
Pleasanton Farmers Market
W. Angela St. at Main St., Pleasanton.
Saturdays 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.
Jack London Square Farmers Market
Webster St. at Embarcadero West, Oakland.
Sundays 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Stonestown Farmers Market
501 Buckingham Way, San Francisco.
Sundays 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.