Farmer Feature: Be Love Farm
Be Love Farm, owned by Matthew Engelhart and his wife Terces, is located in Vacaville, in Solano County, California. Though tucked in the Sacramento Valley, Vacaville is close enough to the San Francisco Bay Area that the farm is able to supply food to the Engelharts’ San Francisco restaurant, Gracias Madre, their long-standing restaurant in the busy Mission District. Vacaville has a typical Mediterranean climate, with hot, dry summers and cool, wet winters (albeit, less wet in recent drought years).
Matthew and Terces run their farm with a regenerative farming philosophy, summed up by a quote on their website:
“Annuals planted under the protection of trees, with the redemption of grasses.”
Following what is called the Oak Savannah model, Be Love Farm treat the farm as a holistic organism, with an emphasis on plant and animal diversity to create diverse soil biology. They practice minimal disturbance of the soil food web, planting perennials, practicing alley cropping (fields enclosed by tree crops), and feeding the local community.
Freedom to Grow
Matthew Rose Stark (MRS) arrived at Be Love Farm after an eight-month internship at Shakefork Community Farm in Humboldt, CA. The experience piqued his interest in perennial cropping so he searched extensively for other farms in California that practiced this method. Through the Savory Insittute’s Grazing for Change conference, he was put in touch with Matthew Engelhart at Be Love Farm, and quickly became their on-site farm manager. He worked at Be Love for about two years and says the most valuable part of the experience was the space and autonomy he was given to experiment with different practices.
During MRS’s time at at Be Love, they transitioned the veggie gardens to no-till and expanded the sheep flocks from just a handful of sheep to 25, dialing in a silvopasture method. They also started rotating the chickens grazing spaces, as opposed to letting them roam free. MRS learned how to propagate a hedgerow himself, deciding on the species mix and following his curiosity.
Farming hasn’t always come naturally to MRS. He grew up in Berkeley, California and studied American Studies at UC Berkeley, a far throw from agriculture discussions. It wasn’t until he interned at Food First – a food justice publication – after college, that his interest in the food system began. After a stint working in the tech industry doing corporate recruiting, he fled that world to volunteer on small farms in South America.
“That’s how I got here,” he says.
Because there was already so much diversity on Be Love Farm, MRS narrowed down his interest in farming quickly; he realized his passion was regenerative grazing management and perennial cropping systems.
Paths from Kiss the Ground’s Transition Program
Through Kiss the Ground’s Transition Program, he attended Soil Health Academy’s training. “I got to be in a room with people on the cutting edge of ranching,” he explains. The networking aspect of the training was “really useful and cool,” and the best part of attending regenerative agriculture workshops not having grown up in the space is that it’s not just about what you learn, but how to learn. “The best part is being around people who share the same values and are actively working to put those values into practice.”
Sonoma Mountain Institute
The time he spent at Be Love experimenting and gaining confidence in agriculture helped prepare him for his life now. Still excited about regenerative grazing and holistic management, MRS started working at the Sonoma Mountain Institute (SMI). SMI focuses on scientifically verifiable ecological restoration: in other words, the monitoring of biological diversity, perennial cover, soil health, rotational adaptive grazing, and compost application. As part of the CDFA’s Healthy Soils program, MRS participated in compost application trials across 50 acres of rangeland. In collaboration with Grounded Grassfed, he worked on large scale custom grazing contracts, across 4500 acres with up to 1400 head of cattle. Again, MRS was given autonomy relatively quickly; by the end of his first year he was responsible for 500 cattle, which increased his confidence in operating at a large scale. MRS grew to love working with cattle, and looked to Grounded Grassfed’s founder, Byron Palmer, as a mentor.
He says he loves low-stress stockmanship,
calmly and quietly moving large groups of cattle between pastures,
because he has to be entirely present,
more so than in any other area of his life.
Keystone Land and Livestock
MRS still works with Sonoma Mountain Institute and Grounded Grassfed about one week per month, helping with cattle receiving and shipping or big cattle moves. He and his fiance, Riley, are also starting their own operation – Keystone Land and Livestock. Riley’s family owns Rangeland in the Sutter Buttes (known as Estom Yanim or “Middle Mountain” by the Nisenan Tribe) – a volcanic mountain range in the middle of the Sacramento valley. The Sutter Buttes are an anomaly in the valley, which has been largely degraded by industrial agriculture. The “Butte sink” as it’s known, is a low wetland area on the Buttes west side and, together with the mountains, they comprise the largest cohesive remnant of undeveloped, uncultivated, land in the Sacramento valley. MRS and Riley will begin grazing cattle on a portion of her family’s land, with a business model very much based on Grounded Grassfed’s. They’ll bring in cattle seasonally, aligning with the winter growing seasons of California’s Mediterranean grasses, and collaborating with other ranchers who share similar grazing practices and have summer pasture. Collaboration not only allows them to get their foot in the door, but also allows for some flexibility; when facing drought they can adjust how many cattle are on the ranch and how long they are there to match their grass production. This allows both them and their pastures to rest and recover during the hottest time of the year, when the grasses are dormant.
MRS and Riley are currently in the process of getting their 2650 acres Ecological Outcome Verified (EOV) by the Savory Institute. They’re also building fences and getting the water systems set up, like they’re “stagehands setting up for the play,” says MRS. He’s also active in the community, providing space for inquiry and introspection for other grasslands managers in his blog Keystone Questions.
MRS is the first to admit that his experience in farming and ranching has been predicated on privilege which allowed him to spend years making relatively low wages while gaining the skills necessary to be successful in the space, and which now has provided him with land access to start his own operation. He believes that if the regenerative agriculture community genuinely wants to expand its reach, it needs to make work experience, education, and land accessible to people who don’t have the considerable leg up that he has had.
Moving Forward at Be Love Farm
Since MRS left Be Love Farm, Matthew and Terces Engelhart are still implementing no-till in the vegetable gardens and rotating animals. Matthew thinks their most successful practice is taking one of their seven pastures out of production every seven years. They have fairly dense, clay soil that gets further compacted from the cows. If they start with 20 varieties of grass in one pasture – some clover, some alfalfa, some orchard grass – only a couple varieties are left after six years, so “it’s kind of nice to clear the deck” and create more biodiversity all over again. “The pasture likes being opened up to breathe again” says Matthew. They till the dormant pasture, plant a field crop, and then let it go back into the ground. After seven years, they plant veggies in it again.
In recent years, wildfires have hit Solano County and the surrounding areas hard. Several fires have engulfed Be Loves’ neighbors’ properties, but Be Love weathers the heat because they “don’t have a lot of brown stuff,” as Matthew says. Fires need fuel, and Be Love makes a practice of reducing dry grass by irrigating, grazing, managing for carbon in the soil, and thus creating increased water retention. One of their neighbor’s lost their house and their barn, but unfortunately none of their neighbors seem to have changed their land management strategy.
What’s next for Be Love? As Matthew and Terce grow older, they foresee a “pecan savannah tree model” which is less about harvesting crops than about maintaining biodiversity. If he could do it all over again, Matthew would plant a series of hedgerows, then trees, then pasture, instead of blocks of trees – to allow more surface area to get sunlight. Part of the farm has been planted this way; for example, fig trees followed by olive trees followed by pecans and walnuts, so the hedgerow is shaped like a tent.
Agriculture is all about labor; the farming strategy of their future depends on if any of their children or friends can be just as passionate about stewarding the land. The farm has four employees, and they have also invested in a large hospitality business that employs more people (they host on-farm retreats, weddings, yoga etc – they have about three events per month). Their on-site farm store makes about $500 per day and they still grow food for Gracias Madre.
Since the pandemic, Be Love has become somewhat of an agri-park, an escape from suburbia with multiple people visiting the farm just to take walks and enjoy the natural setting. “On Saturdays, it truly is like a park,” says Matthew. He hosts weekly farm tours at Be Love, sometimes twice per week (check him out leading a tour at the bottom of the page here). Be Love farm is proof that with collaborative effort and a lot of love, you can create a regenerative farm model that feeds the community and provides a natural sanctuary for healing, connection, and learning about the natural world.