Going Native: How One Woman Plans to Make the Farm a Wilder Place

Forager Tama Matsuoka has a radical plan to grow wild sumac trees in New Jersey.

Willy Blackmore is TakePart’s Food editor.

Seeing dead lawns, especially in the midst of a drought, is not uncommon in Los Angeles. But there’s a particular chunk of parkway, the piece of dirt between the sidewalk and the curb, on a main drag in my old neighborhood that I always look to this time of year. Because even when barely any rain falls in Southern California, that otherwise dead spot is dotted with papery orange flowers from early spring through midsummer. The plant that ekes out an existence there and throughout California is the state’s flower, a native poppy, which prefers the dry heat and itinerate moisture of this climate—weather that spells death for nonnative grass in cities and, without the vast infrastructure of aqueducts and wells that bring water to farming regions, most agricultural crops.

If you want native poppies or sage or walnut trees to grow in California, as they have done in the wild for centuries, it takes far fewer inputs—from fertilizer to water—than does your average garden shrub or vegetable plant. That’s led to a growing interest in using native plants for landscaping, but what if we grew wild plants for food too? That’s the idea behind The Wild Farm, a project proposed by professional forager Tama Matsuoka that’s raising money on Kickstarter. While the acre of New Jersey land she hopes to plant is clear across the country from my favorite patch of California poppies, it shares a tree, in a way, with the wild ecology of the West Coast: sumac. Matsuoka hopes to plant 500 trees on an otherwise unusable acre of land, harvesting the fruit every fall to make the lemony powder that’s a popular seasoning in Middle Eastern cooking.

While they aren’t explicitly related, both the West Coast’s laurel sumac and the East Coast’s staghorn sumac were used as a food by indigenous tribes, and the ways in which both species have adapted to their respective climates is illustrative of how radical Matsuoka’s approach to a “farm” is. Laurel sumac, for example, can’t withstand frost, whereas staghorn sumac is cold hardy. Conversely, staghorn is a far thirstier plant than laurel sumac. In choosing to cultivate a wild, native species, Matsuoka is hoping to build a farm that’s productive without the use of any irrigation, fertilizers, or pesticides. The tree is a perennial too, so it need not be replanted year after year, and the well-established root systems that will develop on The Wild Farm will reduce erosion and make tilling, which releases carbon sequestered in the soil, unnecessary.

“Most of the way we’re farming these days is, we choose a crop that we decide that we want to plant in a given place,” Matsuoka says in her Kickstarter video, and “we tame nature and the land around it to suit what that crop needs.” The Wild Farm would take the opposite approach.

Planted alongside more traditional farmland, tracts like The Wild Farm can make an area more hospitable to wildlife, and they will draw in native pollinators that will help out the more traditional crops as well.

Instead of bending nature to agriculture’s needs, Matsuoka wants to “take what nature has, and we find ways to use it as food.” As she points out, the number of cultivated species has dropped from 100,000 to around 30, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization. Integrating wild plants and more of these lost domesticated species into farming can help reshape agriculture into a more sustainable system that relies less on limited resources such as water.

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