How History Informs a Stronger Future

The Graner House on the property is maintained by ARC. Photo courtesy of Rick Kuyper
The Graner House on the property is maintained by ARC. Photo courtesy of Rick Kuyper

Wakamatsu Farm celebrates Japanese history, conserves natural resources, and supports regenerative farms in El Dorado County. 

On a grassy hillside, a three-day-old calf attempting to exercise its unsteady new legs finds itself in the arms of farmer Spencer Tregilgas, who carries the animal to meet a small of herd of Jersey cows traversing the historic lands of Wakamatsu Farm. This pasture is where the Nisenan people, gold miners, Japanese samurai, and ranchers have resided over the past two centuries. Established in 1869 as the site of the first agricultural settlement of pioneer Japanese immigrants, the land was purchased in 2010 by the American River Conservancy (ARC) to preserve its historic and ecological significance through the next century. Today, it is home to two independent working farms and various conservation projects, including the Cosumnes River Watershed, Pine Hill Preserve, and American River Watershed.


Among the first settlement of Japanese immigrants on Gold Hill were 22 farmers, carpenters, samurai, and others — the founders of Wakamatsu Tea and Silk Farm Colony. The tea plants they brought from Japan were not well adapted to the local growing conditions, however, and those conditions worsened when local miners installed a dam upriver that deprived the farm of essential irrigation water. Failed crops prevented other would-be Japanese colonists from following through on plans to immigrate. By 1871, the land was sold, and the colony began to disperse. 

The original stove owned by the Veerkamp family. Photo courtesy of Rick Kuyper
The original stove owned by the Veerkamp family. Photo courtesy of Rick Kuyper

For the next 125 years, the 272-acre property was owned by the Veerkamp family, who arrived in California as pioneers from Missouri. They acquired the Wakamatsu land in 1873 and used it for mixed agricultural production, including dairy, pigs, and chickens, as well as fruit. Of the earlier colonists, Matsunosuke Sakurai and a young woman named Okei stayed on to work for the Veerkamps. But Okei soon fell ill and died, making her the first Japanese immigrant to die on U.S. soil. It took Sakurai nearly a decade to save enough money to purchase and erect a gravestone honoring Okei. Her gravesite has served as a pilgrimage destination for many people of Japanese ancestry ever since. 


Before dividing up the property, the Veerkamp family approached former ARC Executive Director Alan Ehrgott, and ARC purchased the 272 acres of Wakamatsu Farm at fair market value. ARC successfully listed the site on the National Register of Historic Places before the sale was even complete. A grant from the California Cultural and Historical Endowment supported restoration of the farmhouse, which now features a museum. In June 2019, ARC collaborated with numerous Japanese-American cultural organizations and companies like Sapporo and Kikkoman, among others, to host more than 4,000 visitors at the 150th anniversary of Wakamatsu Farm. When asked why a land trust would steward a historical site such as Wakamatsu Farm, ARC Development Manager Melissa Lobach doesn’t hesitate in answering, “because there was nobody else to do it.”

A rendering of the visitors center that's being built.
A rendering of the visitors center that’s being built. Photo courtesy of ARC

ARC is guided by three pillars: conservation, stewardship, and education. In addition to preserving and celebrating the historical significance of Wakamatsu Farm, ARC considers the site its flagship for conservation objectives. A campaign is underway to fund the completion of an education center that would welcome thousands of annual visitors to the farm. School children frequent the site on field trips that offer tours of Free Hand Farm and FogDog Farm. With themes ranging from tea to miners to agricultural tours, open farm days are offered on the first and third Saturdays of the month during spring and fall. 


High on the list of goals ARC has for Wakamatsu is sustainability, and one piece of economic viability includes generating revenue from leases to farms having agricultural practices that align with ARC’s conservation goals. The working farms keep agricultural lands productive and connect the local community and visitors to the land through the food and fiber they produce. 

Free Hand Farm, owned by Tregilgas and his wife Melissa, leases 94 acres from ARC for grazing its sheep and dairy cattle. The couple intensively manages their pastures for soil health: cows graze in one fence paddock at a time, and nutritious perennials are planted to regenerate other paddocks after a grazing rotation. “We prioritize overall animal health over high productivity,” says Melissa Tregilgas. “Our cows are bred to be healthy throughout their lives: their udders are smaller than conventional cows and they have better foot structure for walking a distance to pasture.” 

Free Hand Farm owner's daughter Adele stands beside the livestock guardian dog. Photo courtesy of Free Hand Farm
Free Hand Farm owner’s daughter Adele stands beside the livestock guardian dog. Photo courtesy of Free Hand Farm

About half of Free Hand’s herd of 34 cows is milked just once daily. This practice stands in stark contrast to the farms that produce the majority of milk in California, where herds numbering in the thousands of cows are milked three times daily. The remaining cows in the Free Hand herd include heifers, dry cows that are pregnant and not currently lactating, and calves. Young calves nurse from their mothers for the first six months of their lives; conventional calves are separated from mothers at birth and receive nutrient-rich colostrum from a bottle. 

Free Hand operates as a herd share, not unlike the community-supported agriculture business model for vegetable production, wherein community members invest in the long-term viability of the farm and receive milk in return for their support. Free Hand’s commitment to healthy soils, vital pastures. and vigorous animals ultimately results in high-quality raw milk that herd share owners retrieve from the barn refrigerator.  

The cows at Free Hand Farm spend most of their day on pasture, 16 acres of which are irrigated during dry months to supply nearly all food needs of the animals. Another perk of cows bred for holistic health is that their genetics help them stay healthy while eating only small amounts of corn grain. The grazing practices Free Hand Farm employs — limiting animals to a smaller portion of a pasture (also known as a paddock), rotating the herd from one paddock to another, ensuring pastures are not defoliated before rotation, and planting perennial pasture forbs — are known as management-intensive grazing, or MIG. Grazing sequesters carbon and MIG practices result in a 66 percent smaller greenhouse gas footprint than conventional cattle production. 

Meanwhile, sheep graze non-irrigated parts of the pasture and are hired out to landowners and municipalities for targeted grazing to reduce fuels and prevent wildfire. Watchful guard dogs protect the sheep from predators like coyotes and bobcats. Sheep are sheered annually, and field trip visitors learn about where wool comes from and how it becomes the yarn for winter sweaters. 

Across the street from the milking barn, FogDog Farm leases 10 acres from ARC for sustainable vegetable production. Founded in 2016 by Kristen Draz and William Holland, the farm was born of a dream to sustainably produce food without synthetic inputs. The couple trusts customers to use an indoor, self-serve farmstand to accurately weigh items and pay the prices marked for fresh vegetables, herbs for tea infusions, and beautiful flower arrangements. Customers who want to ensure they get the first pick of the harvest bounty may also place orders online. 

Brocolini harvest on foggy morning, photo courtesy FogDog Farm.
Brocolini harvest on foggy morning. Photo courtesy FogDog Farm

Small-scale dairy and mixed crop vegetable production harken to a bygone time, yet the farms operating at Wakamatsu also point towards a more sustainable future. A large solar panel outside the milking barn meets all the energy needs of the dairy, from the vacuum pump for the bucket milker to the bulk tank that rapidly cools fresh milk to powering the refrigerator Every part of the practice carried out by these farming families pays homage to the immigrant farmers who first settled here.

Upon leaving Wakamatsu Farm, cows can be seen grazing just east of the hill marked by Okei’s gravestone. To the south of that small rise, a tea house is located in a fruit tree orchard. ARC volunteers tend the adjacent Giving Garden and native plant nursery. While the original Wakamatsu Colony was short-lived, it initiated the very significant and enduring contribution of Japanese-American farmers to California agriculture. If the colonists had encountered more favorable growing conditions in 1869, they likely would have learned, for example, that tea fares better in climates with more consistent humidity and year-round heat. 

The grave of Okei is a pilgrimage destination for many Japanese; cows of the Free Hand herd. Photo courtesy of ARC
The grave of Okei is a pilgrimage destination for many Japanese; cows of the Free Hand herd. Photo courtesy of ARC

The subsequent ventures on the site have also prospered and are informed by understanding the land and climate. Seasonal vegetable production, grazing, and native plant production now dominate the Wakamatsu landscape and work synergistically to conserve and steward natural resources, all while educating the public on the history and ongoing work.   

“Wakamatsu Farm brings our three pillars all together,” says Lobach. “These places need to be protected. More people need to know about them and get involved.”