Welcome to the Wild Farm, Where Nature Does the Work

By growing native crops and using no chemical inputs, Tama Matsuoka Wong is redefining what it means to be a farmer.

(Photo: Harvey Barrison/Flickr)

Nov 26, 2014· 5 MIN READ
Heather Rogers has written for ProPublica, The New York Times Magazine, and Mother Jones. Her most recent book, Green Gone Wrong, explores the contradictions of green consumerism. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.

Tama Matsuoka Wong didn’t seem the type to eat weeds from her backyard. A successful securities lawyer for Citibank and Merrill Lynch, she had lived mostly in cities, including Hong Kong and New York. Her weed eating began three years ago, about a decade after she’d moved back to her home state of New Jersey, when she failed at growing vegetables. Her beds of tomatoes and lettuces kept dying but the weeds—dandelion, chickweed, stinging nettle, and more—thrived. She started serving them to her family and then, after going part-time as a lawyer, built a small business selling her greens and other wild plants to chefs in Manhattan. In 2012, she authored a glossy cookbook on wild plants, Foraged Flavor. Now Wong is ratcheting up her unique approach to gathering edibles by starting a “wild farm”—a native habitat that she manages in which she can forage.

Tama Matsuoka Wong (Photo: Heather Rogers)

“We’ve got these artificial boundaries between conservation and farming,” says Wong as we drive the sinuous road to her sumac plot. “I’m trying to pull these together.” In the five-minute car ride from her house this division is stark: We pass through the Wickecheoke Creek Preserve, a tangle of grasses and trees, which abruptly ends at a grid of conventional farmland. In terms of plant life, the two are utterly distinct.

Wong’s intention is to impact the web of life as minimally as possible while still extracting food. Wild farming has been practiced in the United States on a small scale for generations: think collecting mushrooms and tapping maple trees. What makes Wong’s enterprise so unique is that she’s not only growing a crop, but also restoring biodiversity and then working to maintain it. Given all the attention alternative farming now gets, Wong sees wild cultivation as a vital next step.

Indigenous sumac trees are Wong’s first crop, the fruit of which is processed into a spice. The dark red powder has primarily been used in Mediterranean and Middle Eastern food, but is now common in Michelin-ranked kitchens as well as popular cookbooks from chefs like Yotam Ottolenghi, author of the Plenty series. Besides, perhaps surprisingly, the native New Jersey variety is among the tastiest in the world.

Wong’s farm requires no inputs—no water, no fertilizer, no pesticides—and allows other plants to coexist with the primary crop. The plot, a disused parcel from an existing dairy farm that’s been preserved by the New Jersey Conservation Foundation, looks like a field that’s been left to its own devices. It isn’t suitable for conventional cultivation so, Wong says, it’s perfect for her. For the most part she lets the trees live as they would in the wild—Wong likes to call her sumacs “free-range plants.” Native plants are allowed to return to the patch, with invasive species that could disrupt the ecosystem balance swiftly removed.

Most of the trees have dropped their leaves and gone dormant for winter. (Photo: Heather Rogers)

The Farm

On a recent fall afternoon, Wong, in black Wellingtons and a chunky black sweater, wades into the mess of grasses on her hillside farm. The wind whips her dark hair as she examines a sumac leaf jutting from a fuzzy stalk. This is her first season, and the 56-year-old agricultural autodidact—she has no formal training—feels good about it. The one-acre rectangular plot—she’s starting small—is filled with 450 evenly spaced, spindly sumac trees. Some are stubs just poking eight inches above the soil; some are six feet high, far taller than Wong, with blazing red leaves. She didn’t harvest this year; the trees need to build strength so she’ll wait until her third season before picking any fruit.

The way she found her acre was by walking around, looking at the slopes and valleys in her area. “I’m always checking out land,” she says. She gets to know it: Is it wet, is the soil depleted, is there enough sun? Then she has to get to know the crop. What’s the best way to grow it—from seeds or transplants? When is it best to plant? To harvest? These are questions Wong must answer herself, as research on wild farming is virtually nonexistent. And these are the types of questions wild farming demands—questions that industrial agriculture has tried, with a steady flow of chemicals and genetically modified organisms, to make irrelevant.

“The Western mode of farming is control and structure. What I’m doing is a different idea of what’s beautiful.”

So Wong observes. Right now her crop is in the test phase. She has flagged each tree with a blue marker the size of a playing card so she can keep track of them amid the other flora. Each tree also has a bright yellow tag indicating whether it was planted from seed, a plug (a seedling in soil), bare root (a seedling with no soil), or a small tree. There is only one variety of wild sumac in New Jersey, so the study is to find out how this one type of sumac fares when cultivated in a range of ways. Whichever grows the heartiest over the coming season will tell Wong which to plant as a full crop.

Wong is not new to teaching herself about the plants of New Jersey. In the mid-2000s she collaborated with the state’s Department of Environmental Protection, among other organizations, to create the first-ever guide to the state’s vegetation, the Plant Stewardship Index. She also catalogs the culinary uses of many local species in her foraging cookbook.

“Tama works at a high level,” said Michele Byers, executive director of the New Jersey Conservation Foundation. “She is a pioneer.”

Organized Chaos

“People have this preconceived idea of how a farm should look,” Wong says. “It should be perfect with no other plants growing within it, nothing on the edges.” The farming philosophy her sumac patch represents is antithetical to this, more akin to her Japanese heritage. “The Japanese celebrate what’s ephemeral and asymmetrical,” Wong says. “The Western mode of farming is control and structure. What I’m doing is a different idea of what’s beautiful.” Her farm’s look is unpredictable; in patches it is disorderly.

For example, she’s leaving alone the foxtail that has swept in and surrounds a group of trees like a throng of adoring fans. “You know, it’s a wild millet,” she says, stroking its pale, wispy feathers. “I leave it because I know how it behaves. As the sumac gets bigger the foxtail will go away,” she says. “It won’t hurt anything.”

This apparent disorder is a vital aspect of a healthy environment; it is the very definition of biodiversity.

Wong is clear that her farming practices aren’t just about cultivation but also stewardship. Typically, restoration projects involve going into wiped-out areas and seeding native flora. But there is rarely a tending of these environments and vulnerable new plants can easily die as invasive species return. Managing a wild farm on restored land creates a reason to keep going back. Along these lines, in the future Wong would like to start wild farms in streambeds and on beaches, which in addition to generating food would support native vegetation that protects against flooding.

Although we can’t harvest all our food, fiber, and other raw materials from crops cultivated in the wild, some portion could come from farms like Wong’s. It may not be the sole solution, but the problem of ecologically sound agriculture is complex and has many answers. And it is a problem that Wong is excited to weigh in on. She says her work is a business but it’s also a statement. Standing on her land, she gestures to an adjacent farm with its tight geometry of cornfields then back at her sumacs and says, “I want farming that regenerates itself.”