Do you ever look at someone else’s life with envy? Do you admire someone, driven by passion, who has taken what they love, followed the calling, and turned it into their profession? As someone who has never had a well-defined career, a title to easily slide after my name, I envy those who not only have that title, but wear it as a badge of honor because they are doing what they truly love. If I was ever to put the title “Farmer” after my name, many in my family would die of laughter. I do not have a green thumb; you could call it black. Things don’t stay alive in the dirt when I touch them. Not only that, I don’t like to garden, plant, pull weeds and so on. Yet when I am on a farm, I SO desperately wish I could be one of those people who loves it. To be a farmer would incorporate so many things that I DO love; early mornings, the outdoors, healthy food fresh from the dirt. If I could only get over the “don’t like to dig in the dirt for hours on end” thing I would be all set. I would be sold. To visit a lovely young couple from Oakland that has done it, turned their passion for fresh produce into a way of life that sustains them with their very own Happy Acre Farm, brought my envy bubbling to the surface.
Oakland natives Matthew and Helena Sylvester first crossed paths at Oakland’s beloved Fentons Creamery about eight years ago. Between the bustle of serving tables and running scoops back and forth they hit it off and as you often hear “the rest is history.” Interest in organic farming and concern over the industrialization of food in our country quickly became a shared passion that paved a path towards farmer’s market management for Matthew; Helena began to work on an organic farm. Their combined experience was the perfect stepping stone that launched them into a lease on one acre of dirt over the hill in Sunol in March of 2014. Their love of Oakland had them commuting for the first year. Eventually the need to be closer to the land they dedicated so many hours to each day took over; they relocated to the small town in 2015, the same year they said “I Do” on their beloved acre. Now two years later, their plot has more than doubled in size to 2 1/2 acres.
I first came across Happy Acre Farm while doing some research on Oakland-based CSA Programs. Community Supported Agriculture has became a popular trend in local culture these days. As our communities become more focused on sustainable food practices and locally grown produce the natural next step from a weekly farmer’s market trip is to dedicate your dollars to a farm of your choice. In doing so, you help to support hard-working farmers who dedicate their lives to a passion that doesn’t typically equate to a high bank balance.
While larger companies may offer wider selections for weekly delivery, they often source their produce from a vast array of farms. My interest was seeded in support of a smaller operation. A few months later, an email from within my neighborhood group popped up in my inbox; Matthew grew up just a few blocks away from me and his mom was helping promote the upcoming Spring CSA Program. The combination of Matthew’s alumni status from my son’s new elementary school and a pick-up location for a weekly CSA box less than a minute from my door had me sold on Happy Acre Farm.
So a few weeks ago I made the trip over the hill on a very warm Friday morning to meet Matthew and Helena on Happy Acre Farm. I was excited to take a peek at the rows of dirt where our greens, beets, radishes, and more were pulled from. With a welcoming round of barks from their rescue pup Roux, and a wander through the rows with Matthew to see what was going to make an appearance in our upcoming boxes, that tug of envy made an appearance.
The life of a farmer is one grounded in both a relationship with the soil and with the community and people their product goes to. An occupation that is often under-appreciated, Matthew shared with me that the biggest challenge is the amount of hard work that they put in in relation to their financial return. The lurking thought of the steady income and perks of a regular 9-5 gig can sound appealing on the hardest of days. Yet the enjoyment they get from working with each other in the soil every day outweighs those thoughts. Producing a product from seed to plant, that once harvested yields praise from their customers, makes it worth it.
Furthermore, the dreams of what they hope will be the next level of Happy Acre Farm are fuel to keep going. They hope to one day open a Happy Acre Farm kitchen; a place to preserve their produce and to teach the ease and benefit of creating healthy meals from fresh local vegetables. They also hope to start a non-profit that would give back to the food desert neighborhoods of Oakland.
The pair adjusts what they grow each year based on what works best in their soil, what flavors they love, and what is popular at market. With their spring season wrapping up, Matthew and Helena are excited to offer an array of tomatoes in heirloom and cherry varieties in the coming summer months, in addition to the sweet corn I saw just beginning to peek through the ears during my visit. Potatoes in both tender new and sweet form are another favorite of theirs this year. Each CSA box offering is a mix of greens, herbs, roots, pantry staples and “seasonal delights”.
As the midday sun sent temperatures rising I made my way from the fields to the greenhouse and on to the shade. Helena sprayed off carrots, radishes, and beets bound for the cooler until market day. Tender tomato and basil starts were underway in the greenhouse and the perils of organic farm life were evident in clever counts and stacks of traps. As stated on their website, Happy Acre Farm prefers “to be plant positive rather than pest negative”. While they inevitably have to work to rid their rows of vermin that destroy plants completely, they have created an environment that fosters the symbiotic relationship between plant and animal life. While it may result in a few holes here and there in leafy greens, it keeps their produce pesticide free.
I left Happy Acre Farm with the thoughts that always crosses my mind when I get a glimpse of this type of life; daydreams of a quiet nook in a sleepy town, land to tend to, animals to care for. While I happily banged the dirt out of shoes that afternoon, I know myself well enough to know I would not be so happy to dig it out from under my fingernails. I am thankful that I live in a place where farms such as this one are becoming more frequent. I am happy that I can help support one and strive to eat in a way that is healthy and seasonal.
In the seven weeks of the Spring CSA Program I have eaten salads galore, including ones of collard and broccoli greens. I have become someone who dips a turnip in hummus. I have been giddy as my daughter wandered the house munching on a kale leaf. I watched my kids smile over two carrots wound tightly together and could only laugh as they fought over who would get to eat which one. For all of these reasons, and more, I look forward to what the upcoming months will bring from the couple getting their hands dirty on Happy Acre Farm. I still feel the tug of envy now and then…but I happily receive their box of goodies with my clean, dirt-free hands.
For more information about Happy Acre Farm, please visit their website here.
Happy Acre Farm has openings in its upcoming Summer and Fall CSA Seasons. You can learn more about the CSA Program here. The summer season kicks off on Wednesday July 19th!
CSA drop sites in Oakland include neighborhood locations in Redwood Heights and Trestle Glen. You can also opt to pick up from the Jack London Farmers Market on Sunday’s.
Happy Acre Farm has a booth at two East Bay markets on Sundays from May-December. You can find them at Jack London Square in Oakland from 10:00am-3:00pm and at the Kensington Farmer’s Market from 10:00am-2:00pm.
The top image of Matthew & Helena Sylvester is by Steve Babuljak. More information about his work can be found at www.babuljak.com. Photo used with permission from Happy Acre Farm.
All other images by Adrienne Schell. Do not use without permission.