By Marisa Fox
“Taste this,” says Elettra Wiedemann, handing me a Sungold, a bright-orange hybrid cherry tomato she’s just picked. “You’ll never go back to store-bought tomatoes.”
I hesitate for a moment, but cede to temptation. The tiny orange fruit dissolves in my mouth like a spoonful of honey. It’s only one of a myriad of heirloom produce growing on Mama Farm, the 28-acre property in Brookhaven, New York, founded by her mother, actress Isabella Rossellini, in 2013. The 38-year-old Wiedemann, a mother, model, triathlete and cookbook author (Impatient Foodie: 100 Delicious Recipes for a Hectic, Time-Starved World) with a master’s degree in biomedicine from the London School of Economics, currently oversees as executive director—in between caring for her two sons, Ronin, 3, and Viggo River, born this past June 14, with her partner, Caleb Lane.
“There are a lot of operational farms out here, so we wanted this to have a bit of a different vibe,” Wiedemann says, of an earthly paradise where chickens crow, catbirds chirp overhead, swallowtail butterflies gingerly nip on mallow, comfrey and echinacea blossoms, and fields of herbs glisten in the morning sun. “The whole idea was to have it be part farm, part secret garden, part enchanted woodlands.”
In some ways, this idyll along the Great South Bay harks back to Rossellini’s childhood summer home in Santa Marinella, Italy, a coastal town an hour north of Rome. “The village had a beach, we had a garden, and the caretaker had chickens, pigs and a few sheep. All the farmers lived off their land,” Rossellini says. “So I tried to reproduce that here. I started with 10 chickens that arrived in a box; now I have 150.”
Like many things in Rossellini’s life, Mama Farm started out as a passion project. The land had been a clerical retreat surrounded by woods that a local developer had hoped to turn into 12 cookie-cutter homes. But when clearing the thicket and surmounting environmental regulations proved too challenging for him, a neighbor appealed to Rossellini to salvage the property.
“I talked to the Peconic Land Trust and decided to run a teeny farm and leave 23 acres intact as a conservation easement.” This allowed her to preserve two wildlife corridors with access to the water, a block away.
“It was listed as a wasteland, because there were frogs and trees and weeds and we had to have a master plan,” she says. For that, she deferred to her friend, famed Swedish landscape designer and horticulturalist Lars Krantz. Krantz is known for Rosendal Garden in Stockholm, one of the first organic gardens in the heart of a city, commissioned by the Swedish Royal Court. He came up with the circular landscape design that unites Mama Farm, a 2-acre plot that revolves around a central piazza, with a sister farm for growing organic produce and a third plot for the wildlife preserve.
From there, things began to organically grow. Or as Wiedemann puts it: “One half is our own initiative, the other half is kismet….like how Patty arrived like an angel at our doorstep right when we needed her.”
“Patty” is Patty Gentry, a former Brooklyn-based chef who ran Hampton Chutney Company in Soho before moving back to her native Long Island to “heal a broken heart.” Far away from the city’s bustling restaurant scene in a verdant strip ripe with possibilities, she thought of ways to make her chef friends’ lives easier by cultivating the types of ingredients they otherwise would never find. She joined the Bionutrient Food Association to learn about what mineral concentrations in her soil would yield optimum plant growth and started Early Girl Farm.
At the time, she had leased land in East Moriches and sought more space. Her new girlfriend, now her wife, insisted on moving to Brookhaven for work. Their realtor found them a home and connected her with Rossellini.
The rest, as they say, is herstory.
Shortly after meeting, Gentry decided to move her organic operation to Mama Farm, leasing 3 acres to grow the types of rarefied produce that make her Brooklyn chef friends swoon.
“Take your hand and run it through these leaves, smoosh and smell,” says Gentry, brushing her arm through tall, aromatic plants. “It’s rose basil. Doesn’t it smell nice?” That’s an understatement. It has such a seductive, herbal scent, I want to bottle it.
As she leads me into her “tent,” she shows me crates of round green avocado squash, which she says has flesh so buttery you can practically eat it raw. To hear her rhapsodize over a head of lalique lettuce, with its juicy, tender leaves that pack a gentle flavor—unlike the acrid crunch of a head of Foxy iceberg lettuce—is to understand why her clients include such discerning palates as Stone Creek Inn in East Quogue; Hamptons Aristocrat, a new caterer/food concierge; and cult New York chefs like Missy Robbins (Lilia, MP Grocery, Misi) and Sohui Kim (Gage & Tollner, Insa, the Good Fork), for whom she once worked.
“I’m a perfectionist,” says Gentry, picking out the eggplants, tomatoes and zucchini that may not pass Michelin muster but are perfectly edible and will be donated to a local food pantry. Rossellini calls Gentry “the Picasso of vegetables” and says she applies a similar approach to farm animals.
“I’m with the Livestock Conservancy, which promotes biodiversity so entire breeds aren’t at risk of becoming extinct,” she says. “There’s this monoculture that has evolved. It would be as if you’d pick Labradors, and that’s the only kind of dog you could get. That’s what is happening with chickens and sheep.”
After hearing that the Metropolitan Museum of Art had tried restoring a tapestry made from the wool of a sheep that no longer existed, she began to research what breeds were near extinction. She found that merino sheep had become such staples of the industry because of their fine, soft wool that’s white and easy to dye, other breeds were becoming endangered.
“I thought I can do with heritage breeds what Patty is doing with heirloom seeds,” Rossellini says. “We don’t want to slaughter animals here, so I want animals that provide other things than meat. You don’t have to kill them to get their eggs or wool, and maybe in the future we’ll get cashmere goats. I’m always trying to find endangered breeds.”
From there, she had the idea to partner with the Parsons School of Design on a residency so students could come for three weeks and work with the 22 sheep she raises and learn about different qualities of wool, as well as what plants could be used for dyes. This Labor Day weekend, two students will present their projects and sell their designs at Bellport General.
“The idea that the farm can be a lab where you can try things is good,” says Rossellini, adding that Wiedemann recently launched a memoir-writing series “to heal our communities, spirit and land,” a collaboration with Peconic Land Trust and Herstory Writers Workshop.
The female focus is as central to Mama Farm as Mother Earth herself. Besides being run by women, the farm boasts a female-dominated menagerie, coop and hive.
“You don’t need roosters to have eggs,” says Rossellini.
“Roosters make noises and can be aggressive, and we have a lot of children coming to the farm and we didn’t want them scaring them away.” Occasionally, a rooster will turn up. “If they’re gentle, they can stay,” she says. “We had one, but he was killed by a hawk.”
The bees, she continues, are 90 percent female. She says she also prefers female sheep, which she’s named after famous women artists like Georgia O’Keeffe and Frida Kahlo, because the males attract harems, and “if you have more than one male, they’ll fight. We want it to be friendly here. We attract lots of mothers who come with their young kids. So it’s Mama Farm.”
It’s also a haven for female artists, like Lia Chavez, a medicinal herbalist who’s leasing a garden to grow flora for her new botanical line, Hildegaard, named after a 12th-century nun who studied plants’ healing powers.
That may sound way too esoteric a goal for most gardeners on the East End, but Mama Farm isn’t your typical grange. It’s a jewel in a sea of industrial cornfields and pumpkin patches, but it’s also hard to maintain.
Though the pandemic proved transformative for Mama Farm, sending its CSA membership soaring from 30 to 120, Rossellini says boutique, artisanal farms like hers struggle. Peaking too fast can be a mixed blessing, which is something the Blue Velvet star should know. Rossellini lost her iconic Lancôme contract shortly after turning 40. But at 70, she is once again the face of the French cosmetics brand and her acting career is back, as she co-stars in the upcoming HBO Max series Julia, about Julia Child.
“My big bet now is how to make the farm financially viable, so I’m not financing it through my work as an actor,” she says. That’s why she’s hoping her new bed-and-breakfast yields much-needed revenue.
“Agriturismo,” she says, rolling her r’s in a way only an Italian can. “It’s become a blueprint I followed that helps preserve small family farms in Tuscany and Umbria by inviting people to come and live on the farm and eat the produce. Maybe we’ll have Elettra do cooking lessons, someone can do gardening and guests can stay for a few days or a few weeks and try the life of a farmer.”
The heart of Mama Farm is the piazza, a clearing in the woods with a stage for performances, illuminated by a festive string of lights
“This is where we do our Full Moon concert series,” says Wiedemann, who came up with the idea after attending a concert in a catacomb at Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn. “It was a haunting meditation on death, and as I walked out the crypt on that cold, crisp winter night, I thought, this is really powerful, but I wonder if we can do this in a more life affirming way?” she recounts.
Over the pandemic, as the days blurred together and Wiedemann personally delivered produce to all 120 members of their CSA, she says she’d gaze up at the night sky and relied on la bella luna to track the passage of time.
“The full moon was like a way of saying, ‘Hey, we’re heading to spring, or we’re heading to summer!’” she says. Together with jazz musician Oran Etkin, whose Timbalooloo children’s music classes delight Mama Farm’s young guests, Wiedemann launched the concert series, which also features farm-to-table cuisine served up by visiting chef Francis Derby (Momofuku, Prime) and wines from Wölffer Estate, along with astrological readings.
“It just felt like a gentle way to come out of our shells after COVID,” says Wiedemann. “We also felt COVID marked a very divisive time, so we thought of bringing people back together to hear music and art from all around the world. It just felt like a very important pillar of what we’re trying to do.”
Or as Gentry puts it, “One thing we can all agree on is the need to eat and our love of the Earth. Nature doesn’t judge. It’s not political. It’s a field of dreams. If you build it, they will come.”
To Rossellini, seeing the farm’s impact on her neighbors has been the greatest reward. “It’s no longer just my private home and garden,” she says. “The property may belong to me, but it is also now part of the community.”
Magos Herrera, dubbed the Edith Piaf of Mexico, will take the stage at the next Full Moon Concert at Mama Farm on August 21. Click here for tickets.