If there's one thing that gives me hope for the future of this country, it's the growing number of rockstar farmers who are dedicating their lives to growing beautiful and nourishing food for their communities. Every morning, thousands of young farmers around the country are waking up before the sun to milk the cows, water the chickens, bring in the dew-wet morning harvest, tackle weeds, fix irrigation lines, start seeds in the greenhouse, spread compost, plant cover crops, pack CSA boxes, deliver to restaurants, respond to emails, take care of finances, crop plan for the next season... needless to say, this is not work for the faint of heart. Farming is exhausting, all consuming and unpredictable - but it's also ridiculously rewarding, community building, soul-nourishing, and (most of the time) really, really delicious.
At a time when I think we could all use some positive inspiration, I'm stoked to continue the Eat like a Farmer series with this badass husband and wife farming team: Helena and Matthew Sylvester of Happy Acre Farm. Helena and Matthew are first generation farmers growing on 2.5 acres of land for their CSA program, farmers' markets, and local restaurants in sunny Sunol, California. Their signature tagline (#nopanicweorganic) pretty much says it all - Happy Acre Farm is certified organic, and they're committed to practicing good soil health and efficient small acreage production. Be sure to check out the full interview below - where you'll learn that these two work crazy hard, grow stunning produce, eat lots of delicious tacos, and have awesome insight on the best kitchen tools, cookbooks, and seasonal recipes straight from their farm kitchen.
Thanks and high fives to Helena and Matthew for giving us a glimpse of their farm and sharing some of their kitchen wisdom. To learn more about Happy Acre Farm, be sure to check out www.happyacrefarm.com and follow on instagram @happyacrefarm !
Where is your farm located and what do you grow? Our farm is located in the beautiful, small town of Sunol. A true hidden gem in Northern California, about 40 minutes outside of Oakland. We grow over 80 varieties of fruits and vegetables and a few flowers on our 2.5 acres.
Walk us through a typical day on your farm and in your kitchen. A typical day on our farm starts before sun up with a cup of coffee for me, tea for Matthew and the morning chores, dogs, chickens, etc. We have a second to whip up a green smoothie and grab some snacks before we head to the farm. Depending on the day of the week we’re either weeding, seeding, transplanting, working on irrigation, making deliveries, headed to market or harvesting - never a dull moment - and taking quick breaks to stuff our faces along the way. Food is very important to us and access good quality food is what got us into farming in the first place. When we’re at home toast and tortillas are the foundation for 75% of our meals, you really can’t go wrong with a taco - most recent taco was roasted butternut, sautéed poblanos and onions, topped with cabbage and our salsa; dinners always include a big ass salad. At the farm we are either eating pasta out of jars or have some kind of cracker and hummus/spread situation topped with whatever we have growing at the farm - think: crackers with hummus, parsley almond pesto and tokyo turnips; something that we can eat quickly or on the go.
What is your favorite fruit or vegetable grow, and what's your go-to method to cook it? It really varies from season to season, and I find myself craving different vegetables seasonally. Right now my favorite crop is sweet potatoes; in winter I find myself craving greens, which is perfect because it’s when the greens are at their best, the cool weather making them all sweeter.
What kitchen tools could you not live without? Our Vitamix and knifes. Shoutout to farmers market vendor trades for keeping our knifes and farm tools sharp.
Name the top three ingredients used most in your kitchen that don't come from your farm. Salt, organic sunflower oil (high heat tolerant) and tortillas.
Favorite cookbook? This is a toss up between Yotam Ottolenghi’s PLENTY and Jim Lahey’s MY BREAD.
Do you have go-to methods for preserving your harvests through the year (ie jamming, pickling, freezing)? When I was working for another farm I was super into canning everything, I had a Portlandia-like obsession. Now that we are the farm owners and the labor and the marketers, etc., time is precious. We were serendipitously gifted a deep freezer and we have shifted to freezing things; our freezer is full of pestos, bbq sauces, veggie stocks, tomato sauces, stewed tomatoes, shucked corn, strawberries, sliced peppers and more . My favorite thing is slow roasted tomatoes - I slice the tomatoes like I would for a sandwich, place them on a baking sheet, smother them in olive oil and a little salt and them put them in the oven at 300 degrees for an hour or so while I’m doing computer work or making dinner. When I am cooking with them in late winter, and I smell that tomato smell again, I can’t help but smile.
What advice do you give your CSA members for cooking through their weekly shares, especially with vegetables they may not be familiar with? Along with the veggies our members get an e-newsletter every week. We use a lot of photos, and have a few different sections with information on crops in the box, farm news, whats on our table and we share some social media photos from CSA members using our produce. The on our table section is the recipe section, and there is a disclaimer below that reads, “Disclaimer: I’m one of those people who doesn't use a recipe, i just follow my intuition and my taste buds. Love, Farmer H”. The recipes are meant to be used more as inspiration rather than a step by step process with exact measurements. I also encourage our members to be creative, have fun and not be afraid to try substitutions. Just because a recipe calls for spinach doesn’t mean you can’t use chard, you can put sweet potatoes on pizza instead of regular potatoes.
How has running a farm influenced your relationships with family, friends, and your local community? We farm in the same county we both grew up in, about 35 minutes from our hometown (Matt and I grew up 10 minutes away from each other, but didn’t meet until we were in our twenties); and being able to provide produce to our families and friends is really rewarding.
Please share a favorite recipe for a simple, straight from the farm dish that you are craving this fall. We went to Indonesia on our honeymoon last year, and I fell in love with all the mi goreng (fried noodles) - we made this dish in a cooking class and I was surprised at how straightforward and simple it was. Start with some cooked and drained ramen noodles, some seasonal veggies and some tempeh. Current favorite combination is fried noodles with sweet potato, onions, turnips and tempeh.
- 3 packets ramen noodles | cooked and drained
- 1 sweet potato | cubed
- 1 large onion
- 1 bunch turnips | cut into quarters
- 1 bunch green onions | minced
- ½ block of tempeh | cubed
- ⅛ -¼ cup kecap manis (indonesian sweet soy sauce)
- High heat cooking oil (Coconut, Grapeseed, or Sunflower)
In a wok or a large frying pan, heat a tablespoon of high heat cooking oil over medium heat. Add sliced onion, cook for 7-10 minutes, until translucent and fragrant. Add the cubed sweet potato, cover and cook for 10 minutes. Add the turnips and tempeh, cover and let cook for 5 more minutes. Once the turnips are tender and a few sides of the tempeh have a nice crust, add the kecap manis, stir to coat the vegetables. Turn off the stove, remove from heat and add cooked noodles. Toss to coat, cover the pan and let it sit for 10 minutes. Taste before serving, adding more kecap manis if necessary. Top with green onions and enjoy.