Local farmer pivots farm business to create firepit starters after economic toll from COVID-19

Photo courtesy of Lisa Wolff
Tama Matsuoka Wong (center) of Meadows & More harvests Juniper to make Wild Cedar Firestarters.

Local tenant farmer Tama Matsuoka Wong has partnered with the Friends of Hopewell Valley Open Space (FoHVOS) to sell wild cedar firestarters in order to maintain her farm assessment, when her business of supply restaurants with speciality ingredients took a hit due to COVID-19. 

Prior to the pandemic, Wong farmed and foraged at the Marshall’s Corner (formerly known as Thompson) Preserve. Employing sustainable practices, Wong harvested and sold unique organic plants as specialty ingredients to high end restaurants in New York City. When the pandemic hit, Tama lost her customers overnight as restaurants shut down, according to a prepared statement. 

Adding to her misfortune was the risk of not meeting the minimum income requirements to qualify for farm assessment on the property.

Wong is a forager, weed eater, meadow doctor, lawyer and mother of three, according to the statement. She has written several books including a James Beard award nominated cookbook “Foraged Flavor: Finding Fabulous Ingredients in Your Backyard or Farmer’s Market.”

After graduating from Harvard Law School and serving more than 25 years as a financial services lawyer in Tokyo, New York and Hong Kong, she returned with her family New Jersey and rediscovered her passion for the natural world. In 2007 she was named Steward of the Year by the New Jersey Forest Service.

Currently, Wong is a tenant farmer for the Friends of Hopewell Valley Open Space in Hopewell Township. 

Wong notified Stewardship Director Mike Van Clef of her tenuous position and together they sought out solutions to avoid losing the farm,” she said. As they walked the land, Van Clef noted that the wild cedar (juniper) trees needed to be removed in order to maintain and properly preserve the meadow. 

“Removing the underappreciated, weedy, local tree helps restore the land,” Wong said in the statement. “I never like to waste anything, so I researched ways to repurpose the juniper. When I found out that Native Americans revered our local juniper trees for its ‘hot flame,’ I knew I was onto something.”

Wong began experimenting and found if she lightly kiln-dried the wood, they became highly flammable and less smoky, resulting in the perfect firestarter. She said many people are staying home and enjoying their fire pits.

Wong’s company Meadows & More partnered with Friends of Hopewell Valley Open Space to sell wild cedar firestarters to the public with goal of raising enough revenue to maintain her farm assessment. 

When Pennington Quality Market (PQM) owner Mike Rothwell heard Wong’s story, he immediately wanted to help.

“As a local business, PQM has always focused on giving back to the community. We have been a longtime supporter of FOHVOS, and when they told us about Tama, we knew that the Hopewell Valley community would want to get behind this effort to help a local farmer and we were happy to distribute their wild cedar firestarters,” Rothwell said in the statement.

Wild cedar firestarters are $5 each or 3 for $12. Profits will go to FOHVOS.

Unlike other firestarters, they contain no wax or chemicals, are locally harvested, kiln dried and wrapped in natural paper, according to the statement.