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HELENA & MATTHEW

HAPPY ACRES FARM

Oakland, California to Sunol, California

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The small town of Sunol, California sits sun-drenched beside the historically notable Niles Canyon. Known for its presence in silent movie history, and old heritage railroad, it remains a quiet and calm place of refuge with a populace hovering around 900 residents. With its winding roads and dramatic mountain views, getting to Happy Acre Farm feels like being transported to another time.  
 

Helena and Matt are the owners and faces behind the farm. They lease their land through Sunol AgPark, which was created by the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission in order to provide sustainable growers in the Bay Area with affordable land. For new farmers, especially in California where acreage comes at a premium, finding land is a common obstacle that prevents them from being able to grow close to large metropolitan areas and in turn provide a sustainable food source for urban-dwellers. Helena and Matt feel very lucky to have been able to build Happy Acre Farm in an area where they can easily sell their produce to both restaurants and farmer’s market customers in the Bay Area.
 

Helena and Matt met in their early 20s while working together at an ice cream shop in the Bay Area. Helena had a burgeoning passion for local food inspired by activist documentaries such as Food, Inc. She did not have any real-life farming experience or formal agricultural education, but an innate desire to break free from the industrialized food system and nourish herself through her own hard work and grit. The two both grew up in Oakland, California, mere miles apart by freeway. Matt had a backyard garden as a kid, but that was the extent of his experience before they committed to their shared ‘wild and crazy’ dream to build a farm of their own.
 

Their passion first took them to Hawaii, per Helena’s insistence. The planting started on their apartment porch, and eventually transitioned into a backyard garden business. They got a taste of farming before making their way back to California where Matt took a job as a market manager at the Pacific Coast Farmer’s Association. Helena started working at an organic CSA nearby. They learned the ins and outs of what it takes to run a farm, and when opportunity came calling in the form of an acre of land up for lease in Sunol, they quit their jobs to become first-time farmers.
 

For the first two seasons, they commuted the traffic-congested 35 miles from Oakland to Sunol, but the daily commute quickly became too much. They knew that moving to Sunol was the choice they had to make to prevent this dream from fizzling out. They went all in on becoming full-time farmers and committed themselves entirely to being close to the land where they grew their food. The couple was lucky to find a little house for rent just a short drive to the farm.
 

They recently welcomed their first child, August, into their lives. Learning how to farm with a baby in tow hasn’t been easy, but has been a lesson in patience and resilience, much like farming. If you ask them, even on a hard day, they will still tell you that it is all worth it. They are excited to be living the life they once could only dream of and are happy to be an example to August that they can live outside the norm, and make their own way in life.
 

Farming is hard business, and a challenge for a young family. They get up early, and most days work late. They rarely get to even leave the farm during the season, except to sell at farmer’s markets. Every challenge and heartbreak on the farm is new to them, and requires that they look to each other for help, and to figure out questions to obstacles neither one of them have ever faced before.
 

In the future, Helena and Matt aspire to grow a non-profit branch of the farm that will give back to the food deserts around Oakland. Currently, they are already very involved with their community. SAGE (Sustainable Agriculture and Education), organizes class tours through Happy Acre on a regular basis. Helen and Matt often get to interact with the students who come by to teach them about where their food comes from, and to understand its value. They also work with the local school in Sunol by donating plants, produce, and seeds from their farm for their garden.
 

In order to build solidarity with and bring visibility to other farmers, Helena came up with the hashtag #farmfashionfridays on Instagram, where every week she shares what she is wearing on the farm. She did this to challenge stereotypes about farmers and foster a community online by sharing the issues all farmers face – our changing climate and weather patterns, blights, slim margins, and long hours. Helen and Matt have enjoyed getting to know farmers all across the country through social media. While they have built an impressive online presence, they also gain value from the relationships they made with farmers they have met virtually.
 

Happy Acre farm was born out of a desire to reconnect with what makes us human. As Helena likes to say, everyone is a farmer deep down. Even if you have never planted a seed, or watered a plant before, if you go back far enough, someone in your family was once a farmer. That is how it began for Helena and Matt – two first time farmers with a dream of feeding themselves and their community with real nourishing food. Helena and Matt have always worked well together, supporting one another’s vision for the future; the future of their farm, and an example of what they hope to be the future of farming.

 

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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 it's 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 it's 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?

Do it! 

 

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. 

      PODCAST  

HELENA SYLVESTER

Tune into our Urban Exodus Podcast conversation from Spring of 2021. We speak about off-farm jobs, climate change, farming with kids, advocating for what you believe in and so much more!   

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