Recipe for a Happy Acre
Two young farmers, one selfie-loving mutt, and a baby in the broccoli crate
By Cheryl Angelina Koehler | Photos by Helena and Matthew Sylvester
Farming as a vocation often calls to mind dire reports on the demise of the family enterprise and the aging out of our nation’s farmer community. But here’s a story with plenty of reasons to take heart: There’s a cute baby, a smart dog, catchy hashtags, and a young city couple who made their way into farming and found in it a recipe for fulfillment."
First, we must introduce Roux, the two-year-old mutt on this magazine’s cover. She was found in a box near Fresno and is said by her people to be a great appreciator of farm life. “She takes amazing naps in both the sun and the shade, chases off rabbits, and catches voles and sometimes mice and rats. She loves racing around the farm and enjoys various raw veggies like carrots, peas, and kale. She will do anything for food and loves a good selfie.” (See #thingsonrouxshead to believe it.)
August Wolf Sylvester joined Roux at the farm on March 4, 2018, and at four weeks old became equally popular on Instagram after his mother photographed him happily lying beside a bunch of rainbow chard, #chardtobabyratio. More recently, he has been appearing at the Pleasanton Farmers’ Market bobbing inside crates of broccoli and butternut squash.
“He’s great moral support at the farm and sure loves chatting with customers at market,” says his father, “but as far as actual help, we’re figuring a five-year return on our investment.”
The Road to Sunol
The farm is in southeastern Alameda County at the Sunol AgPark, where in the spring of 2014, two East Bay urbanites, Helena and Matthew Sylvester, then in their late 20s, decided to lease a single acre of land and try growing food for their community. They optimistically named their endeavor Happy Acre Farm, and within a few years they expanded their cultivation of certified-organic happiness by 250% with the annexation of two and a half then-available AgPark acres.
“If anything, we took advantage of a passion,” Matthew says of their impulse to give farming a try. “[It was] a passion we stumbled upon after watching a bunch of food documentaries and becoming dismayed by the state of our food system. That passion started a chain reaction of self-education regarding the food industry, which eventually led us towards farming.” He adds that Helena got the bug for farming first. “Then it got me too.”
Farming gradually revealed itself as a path these two Oakland natives would follow. They grew up two freeway exits away from each other and went to some of the same parties in high school. Matthew knew a bit about gardening from home, where his parents tended a backyard veggie plot. “I have fond memories of picking tomatoes and watching bees buzz about,” he says. “They also took us camping, which conditioned me to constantly being dusty and dirty. My father owns a construction business, and he had me working basic labor from a young age, which is also excellent conditioning for becoming a farmer.”
According to Helena the two first met in 2009 when Matthew made her a sandwich at the A.G. Ferrari in Montclair where he worked. They met again while both were working at Fenton’s Creamery. “I was 24, serving tables and hustling for tips, and she was 21, just graduated, a food runner—not a very good one—saving up to move to Hawaii because California was ‘too cold,’” says Matthew. “She would write silly messages on my food tickets.”
The Sylvesters did in fact make it to Hawaii, and that’s where they started growing vegetables, fruits, and flowers on the lanai of their Oahu apartment. They took a position offered through WWOOF (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms) on the Big Island, then returned to Oakland, where they started their own backyard garden business and worked at the Holy Names High School garden.
But they say their real learning began when Helena was hired at Shooting Star CSA, an organic farm in Fairfield, and Matthew went to work for Pacific Coast Farmers’ Market Association as a market manager. “It was a good chance to learn the office side of being a farmer, plus I got to meet a lot of farmers and immerse myself in talk of weather, crops, and soil conditions. Together we were gaining experience, or perhaps confidence, to start our own farm.”
When the opportunity came to lease the acre at Sunol AgPark, the couple figured they could do it while living in Oakland. “We commuted to the farm for the first two seasons, and to be honest, we hoped we could have it all: the city life with our friends and family, our favorite haunts, our farm life,” says Matthew.
But that city life became hard to include, especially at the height of the summer growing season when all hands were needed in the field and at the market. “The commute was 35 miles, and the Sunol grade is notorious for traffic. Eventually it became too much for us,” says Matthew. “We agreed we should go all in on the farm and move to Sunol. Our current commute time is two minutes by car and eight minutes by bike.”
Keeping It Real . . . on Social Media
Approximately 43,300 people follow Happy Acre Farm on Instagram. Matthew says there’s no formula or science behind building that impressive number: They simply started it as a way for their friends to follow their farm adventure. “It turns out a few more people are interested in what that’s like. We don’t romanticize what we’re doing: We keep it real.”
Social media has also been instrumental in bringing them into a wider farm community. “It’s enabled us to connect with farmers from all across the country who we never would have met otherwise,” says Matthew. “We ask questions: ‘What kind of boots do you wear?’ or ‘How much should a CPA cost?’ We commiserate on weather, talk about gophers and gender bias in farming. Farming is hard, and it’s nice to be able to commiserate over a lost corn harvest.”
When August joined the family, the Sylvesters put their CSA program on hold, inviting customers to shop with them at the farmers’ market in nearby Pleasanton instead. “Burnout is common among farmers, and we don’t want to burn out,” he says. Their social media posts now often include musings about how to farm with a baby in tow as you’re laying irrigation line or harvesting tomatoes.
January on the Farm
“Right now it’s raining, and I’m glad the cover crop is growing nicely over the acre where our tomatoes were,” says Matthew as he anticipates the family’s pending vacation in sunny Mexico. “The cover crop holds the soil in place and takes the moisture down through the roots. Come spring it’ll be five feet tall, and I’ll mow in all that plant matter so the soil will turn it into rich organic matter.”
January harvests for market included plenty of brassicas—broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, arugula, turnips, kale, and collards—plus parsley, lettuces, watermelon radish, and rainbow chard. And all of those good plants make their way into the Sylvester’s home kitchen, where cooking is a daily activity . . . “sometimes every meal through the day from scratch. We literally keep a five-gallon bucket with a lid in the kitchen for food scraps, and we fill it up every two to three days.” Those scraps go directly to one of the farm’s compost heaps, where the organic matter can break down and re-nourish the farm.
“At market we usually trade for bread, eggs, meat, fruit, other veggies we don’t grow, and honey . . . plus soap and some other things I’m forgetting,” says Matthew. “We go in phases of making bread and pizza dough, especially in the summer and fall. When it’s warm, our dough rises better and there are tomatoes to put on all the carb-y goodness. In the winter and spring we roast a lot of vegetables and make soups and stir fries. We always have salads . . . usually we fill up a big ol’ popcorn bowl with salad and share it.”
When the Sylvesters were running their CSA, they always included a weekly newsletter with recipes and pictures of the crops plus blurbs about the farm.
“It’s fun to learn new ways to cook the same crop,” says Matthew, whose Italian mother cooked delicious meals utilizing lots of vegetables. “I always enjoyed food, cooking, and the warmth of busily working in a kitchen. My mother taught me focus and attention to detail, both of which are important with operating a business.”
Advice for people new to cooking? “Just try stuff, make mistakes, stumble upon something you like and go with it.”
For folks who are stuck or not feeling passionate about cooking anymore? “Simply try something new. I made empanadas and galettes a lot last summer after watching the Great British Baking Show,” says Matthew. “I’m not great at them, but it’s fun to get creative and hands on with the thing that you are going to be eating. I don’t have a recipe, but last night I roasted butternut squash, onions, garlic, ginger, and olive oil together and then blended it into a soup. I topped it with the seeds from the butternut that I also roasted up. I made a salad to accompany the soup. I used a couple heads of lettuce and grated a couple of carrots, half a beet, and two watermelon radishes into it. Then I added butternut squash seeds and topped it with chopped green onion and a balsamic dressing. And boom: That was dinner.”
In closing, this writer offers a mea culpa for not asking Helena and Matthew to discuss all the gritty challenges they face daily in running their farm business. But as we said at the start, that story gets told all too often, and when there’s a chance to indulge in dogs, babies, and pizza with all the latest farm-y goodness on top, maybe ya just go with it. ♦
Anna’s Kale-Arugula and Toasted Cashew Pesto
Chef Anna Buss started her food journey on an educational farm in Israel, where she learned how to grow and cook with seasonal ingredients. On moving to the Bay Area, she worked as a farmers’ market chef for the Pacific Coast Farmers’ Market Association and also for Frog Hollow Farm. A longtime member of the Happy Acre Farm community, she created many recipes like this one for the farm’s CSA newsletter before stepping back while starting her own family. She now works on the Kaiser Permanente social media team and develops recipes for their Food for Health blog. Follow Anna on instagram @_annabuss.
This recipe can serve a crowd or a few. Count on having plenty left over to freeze for later use.
2 cups tightly packed fresh kale leaves
2 cups tightly packed fresh arugula leaves
½ cup cashews
1 clove green garlic, chopped
1 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon champagne vinegar
¾ teaspoon kosher salt
Grated Parmigiano Reggiano
Wash greens and de-stem the kale. Bring roughly 2 quarts of salted water to a boil. Blanch kale and arugula separately for about a minute or until the leaves become a deep green. Drain leaves into a colander and run cold water over them. Press leaves to remove excess water and let drain.
Meanwhile, bring a sauté pan to a medium heat, add raw cashews and a pinch of salt. Occasionally move the pan around to prevent the cashews from burning. Toast until you start to smell a nutty aroma and the cashews have browned on both sides. Remove from pan and let cool.
Place blanched kale and arugula, toasted cashews, green garlic, olive oil, vinegar, and salt in a blender and process until smooth.
Cook your pasta of choice according to the instructions on the box. When pasta is ready, strain and immediately toss with a little olive oil and salt. Add pesto (enough to coat pasta) and serve garnished with grated Parmigiano Reggiano.
Store any remaining pesto in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to a week. If you wish to preserve a large batch of pesto, portion it into freezer bags and freeze for up to a year.