CUPERTINO -- Up in the hills above Silicon Valley, past the point where sewer lines give way to septic systems and city lights no longer wash out a starry sky, Dave West is living the simple life.
There, next to the in-law unit where the former aerospace consultant lives on his parents' 10-acre homestead, a trail has been carved out of a steep hillside. It winds past planter boxes sprouting with winter crops, a chicken coop and a hopyard, fruit trees and mulch piles until it reaches a plateau, where West hopes to someday install a "Last Supper table" so picnickers can soak in the sunset.
Welcome to Hollyhill Hummingbird Farm, established July 2011.
"Originally, I was just trying to produce all my own food," said West, 31, who added that the plan involved enough food for eight people -- himself, his parents and a couple of close relatives plus a little extra to give away. "But once I got going, I started loving it more and more and came to the conclusion that this is what I want to be doing, full force."
After Craigslist ads ("Free Eggs, Free Education for kids, Free Homebrew for Adults!"), Facebook posts ("If you like beer and chemistry, please be our Yeast Master!") and plain, old-fashioned word-of-mouth exposure, more than 200 people came to the farm to learn about gardening, sustainable living and the symbiosis of life. More than 25 of them returned as volunteers to help grow the farm and West's vision.
His vision is threefold: maintain an ethical and symbiotic relationship with life; educate people on how to do the same; and keep a balance with the community without sacrificing principles.
"A lot of people come out and they get excited," West said, standing near an electrified fence that protects his flock of 18 Plymouth barred rock hens (good for both eggs and eating). "They feel the energy in what we're doing."
West's life wasn't always so bucolic. After graduate school at UC Irvine, where he obtained a double major in aerospace and mechanical engineering, he clung to a dream he had held since childhood of one day helping humans colonize Mars -- or at least create some kind of DNA repository on the Red Planet.
"Like a Noah's Ark," he said. "I grew up in the Cold War era, and I'm still a little scared we're all going to nuke ourselves someday."
But the jobs he got, for the Army, the Navy, NASA or Boeing, more often than not involved advancing machines of death, West said.
"Everything was geared toward war," he said. "Aircraft, drones, improving jet engines."
West said he was not particularly proud of the projects he was involved in and, besides, "most of my life I worked on things that I was not supposed to talk about. And I like talking."
So when the consulting firm he worked for let him go, it was time for a new field. Like the one behind his parents' home, where he grew up as a kid, where the coop that West caught a "wet egg" from a hen when he was 4 still stands.
West was "pretty mad at society in general" after losing his job, and was trying to become more self-sufficient. But when he looked into what he needed for his chickens and his crops, he saw a cycle: The chickens get the vegetable dregs, they eat the insects, and they in turn provide the manure to feed the plants.
"Everything seems to need everything else," he said. "And there's no need for chemicals or fertilizer."
Such are the lessons taught in the biweekly tours offered at the farm along with down-in-the-dirt farming tips.
Master gardener Lisa Fink, a 26-year-old who works for the Santa Clara Public Library, offers a helping hand for those without naturally green thumbs.
"A lot of times they're interested in it, maybe they grew up doing it, or maybe they don't know where to start," she said. "They often have a desire to connect back with nature."
Other volunteers include a brewmaster who was once a key member of a startup company bought by Logitech, a nurse who serves as a child education specialist, and some with earthier callings, such as an expert weaver.
Volunteer Davinder Kapal, a 25-year-old substitute teacher from San Jose, was the first to answer the original Craigslist ad, driven because he wanted some eggs and to see how West incorporated chickens on the farm. He has been a steady presence since.
"I like to see how everything comes together," he said. "I want to see it taken to the next level."
West said that next level will be further expansion at the present site, and maybe down the line moving to bigger digs elsewhere if a benefactor is found. For now, he relishes the lessons he's able to teach through the land.
"My real hope is that I affect the children the most," he said. "I want kids to grow up thinking how things could be different, how farming can integrate everything, so they can change things later.
"From adults, I want them to go home and grow more vegetables."
Contact Eric Kurhi at 408-920-5852. Follow him at Twitter.com/erickurhi.
For information about Hollyhill Hummingbird Farms, go to http://hollyhillhummingbird.com. ___
(c)2012 the San Jose Mercury News (San Jose, Calif.)
Visit the San Jose Mercury News (San Jose, Calif.) at www.mercurynews.com
Distributed by MCT Information Services