HELENA & MATTHEW
HAPPY ACRES FARM
Urban Haven in Sacramento, California
To get to Melissa Rebholz’s River House Farm you drive through rolling green hillsides in the agricultural heartland of rural Appalachian East Tennessee. Pulling up to the old yellow farm house she rents, you can hear the rush of the Nolichuckey river running alongside and the wind ripping through the trees. In New York City, Melissa ran three different farmers markets and worked as a chef. She yearned to be closer to nature and live in a place with windows and space to breathe so she decided to leave the city and move to California to learn to farm. After a few years of farming under her belt, she found a job running a non-profit CSA in Greeneville, Tennessee whose mission is to supply low income families in rural Appalachia with fresh produce. Although she works over 75 hours a week farming, she still lives below the poverty level and receives food stamp benefits. She supplements her income by occasionally renting out a room of her house to vacationers and putting together farm-to-table dinners through her new venture the River House Supper Club. Her home is warm and inviting, decorated entirely by treasures she found at local thrift stores and rummage sales. She doesn’t think she will ever be able to afford to purchase her own home or land, but she doesn’t feel driven by the need to own something to love it or to take good care of it. In the sweltering heat of Tennessee’s summer months, she prefers sleeping in a tent along the banks of the river or dragging a sleeping bag out into the yard and looking up at the stars. Melissa couldn’t imagine living back in the chaos of the city again and feeds her soul through hard work, friends and good meals. (Click here to jump to their interview)
How did you two meet?
We met the summer I graduated college while we were both working at Fentons Ice Cream shop in Oakland. Matthew was a server and I was a food runner.
What inspired you to move to the country?
We had been living in Oakland (about a 40 minute drive without traffic) and we just tired of the commute. Since we were going all in and farming was our full time job it made sense to live near the farm.
What has been the hardest part of your transition thus far? What has been the most rewarding?
The first challenge was finding a place. This is a small, tight-knit community and you won't find places listed on Craigslist, it's word of mouth. We waited over a year to find a spot, some friends of ours were moving out and we were able to take over the lease. So it wasn't like living in a big city where you can look online, and theoretically move into a place within a week.
That said, it was definitely worth the wait - for the silence and the space. It's so wonderfully quiet, with the exception of the occasional train, we can hear the owls and foxes at night. There are minimal lights and you can really see the stars, we've spent nights laying outside and just looking up. There's a pasture behind out cottage that is maybe 5 acres, and has all sorts of gorgeous greenery - Bay trees, pink peppercorns, olives, and prickly pears to name a few - it also comes with a friendly horse that all the neighbors pitch in to care for. There is all sorts of animal activity - domestic, livestock and wild - horses, cows, chickens, foxes, bob cats, mountain lions, hawks, eagles, etc.
Did you grow up growing your own food, keep animals, etc. or was it something you came to on your own when you were older?
Definitely not, the closest I got to agriculture was driving past the almond orchards on my way to see my grandma in the Central Valley, or when I got older joining my mom at the farmers market - I was pretty dense when it came to food production. I "discovered" agriculture after college, Matthew on the other hand grew up with a back yard garden and an appreciation for locally grown food.
What made you decide to get into farming?
Honestly, watching food documentaries - Food, Inc. was the first one. I got so freaked out, I did the only rational thing my 21-year-old self could think of and decided I needed to learn to grow my own food. We were living in Hawaii at the time and I started shopping exclusively at farmers markets. Then we decided to start WWOOFing around the Big Island. I came home with my mind made up - I was going to be a farmer.
Matthew took a little longer to convince, I had been working for a farm for a few seasons before we came across the plot of land we currently tend. After I decided to go all in, he was still working his desk job five days a week and spending his days off at the farm with me. But the farm really called to him; the manual labor, the satisfaction of a hard days work and literally harvesting the fruits of his labor. By the end of the first season he had quit his job and was all in with me.
How did your family and friends react to your decision to farm?
My family was surprised, I don't think it was anything they ever thought I would do. They were supportive but they also thought it was a phase, and would say things like "when you're done with farming maybe you can try..." or I'd get questions like "Isn't farming hard?" and when I'd respond that it was but I liked it I would get "But why? You don't have to work so hard". So it took a few years for them to come around, but now they are some of our biggest supporters and you can even find them coming out to the farm to help our a few times a month.
Where did the name Happy Acre Farm come from?
It came from Old Man Joe, an apple farmer who sold at one of the farmers markets Matthew managed. He was talking to him about names one day and at the time we were farming one acre, and Joe said "it's a happy acre" - and it stuck.
What surprised you most about country living? Has it lived up to your expectations?
I was surprised by how isolating is it, in both good and bad ways. Our friends from Oakland (which is seriously only a 40 min drive) consider it a full day trip coming out to visit us, and to be honest going to the city takes it out of us so it becomes a sort of day trip. So we aren't as social as we had been before. But its also wonderfully isolating in the silence and serenity that it brings. We are surrounded by regional parks and really enjoy spending time in nature and its perfect for that. We are still living in the same county we grew up in - Alameda County - just the furthest corner of it, so we call it "kinda country".
What advice do you give to others wanting to live city life behind?
Would you ever consider moving back to a city again?
We're getting ready to have our first child this February and thinking about raising a family here, for me, has really cemented wanting to live out here. I can't handle the hustle and bustle of city living for more than a few hours, heck I get overwhelmed when I go to the mall and it is busy. I really enjoy the space, the quiet, and our farm.
Do you feel like there is a movement underway of more young people being interested in learning to grow food?
Yes, it seems that there is a big knowledge gap between the generation that grew Victory gardens during the war, and the generations that came after them. Convenience became king, and we became really separated from our food sources. Now there is a movement to re-educate.
Do you have any advice for people interested in growing their own food or starting a farm?
There is no better time than the present. If you're interested in growing your own food, start anywhere you can - whether it's a community garden, building a raised bed in your yard, or keeping some potted plants on a balcony.
If you think you're interested in starting a farm, I recommend working on one for a season, not just a weekend - really get a feel for it. If you have the resources, check out the program CASFAS.
Where do you draw your inspiration and passion from for your work?
So many places, being out on the farm is a huge one. It's hard to be out here and not be inspired. Our customers are another, it's so wonderful to form relationships with people who appreciate good quality, fresh, local food. Social media is another, seeing what other farmers are doing and hearing new ideas or sharing ours, it's a great community.
What hopes do you have for the future of farming in America?
I hope small farming continues to be a viable profession. I would love to see more small farms continue to pop up and prosper across America, and to see consumer demand support that. I think the future of farming depends a lot on the customers. It is not only saying things like "I support small farms" but actually following through and buying from small farms. This goes for both market customers as well as restaurants - it is disappointing how many restaurants slap the phrase "locally sourced" on their menu but don't actually source their ingredients locally.
Are there any books, mentors, podcasts, farming heros that you would recommend to people wanting to start growing food?
For books I like Eliot Colemans The New Organic Grower, Jean-Martin Fortiers The Market Gardener, anything by Joel Salatin to name a few.
Podcasts I recommend - Farmer2Farmer and Female Farmer Project: the podcast
If you want to drool over amazing produce and hard working farmers Instagram is where its at. Follow Working Hands Farm, Andrea Bemis, Even Pull Farm, Spade and Plow, Evertt Family Farm - there are seriously so many.
What are some common misperceptions about farming and country living that you would like to dispel?
Farming is hard. It seems idyllic and is definitely rewarding, but it's really demanding physically and mentally stressful - and women do it, and we do it really well. It seems that because it is known to be a hard job people assume that it is mainly done by men, but women work hard too.
What plans do you have for yourself, your land and your farm in the coming years?
We're expanding - in many ways. Our family is expanding (in February), our farm is expanding by an acre this next season and were expanding into olive oil.