Garlicky Ramps Trendy, but is the Harvest Sustainable?

  • Last year Jim Chamberlain planted ramp bulbs from Facemire’s farm. “They’re not quite ready for digging.” Photo: Roxy Todd

May 2, 2014

Glen Facemire is a retired mail carrier, but his life passion has been teaching himself and others to grow wild ramps. He and his wife run a ramp farm in Richwood, West Virginia. In March, his phone practically rang off the hook with people calling to order his fresh ramp bulbs, as his final shipment for the season went out.

"The whole country is looking for ramps," he says. "I grew up in a ramp patch, so to speak. And we harvested ramps, and enjoyed them for food. Ramps weren’t what they are now in the sense they weren’t a delicacy, they was food. We would take a big washtub, and about 15-20 half-gallon jars. We’d go into the ramp patch. Along we river, we’d build a fire, sterilize the jars and my mom would pack the ramps right in there. Add about a pinch of salt, and that was about all she put in there other than ramps. And so then we had our winter supply of ramps."

In West Virginia, eating ramps is nothing new. But across the country, gourmet chefs have begun to go a little gaga over wild foods, and ramps are one of the biggest stars at the center of this trend. In Chicago, Andrew Zimmerman, executive chef at Sepia restaurant, says he first heard about ramps in 2002.

"If you’ve never had a ramp, I would say that it’s a pretty assertive garlicky leek," Zimmerman says. "We’ll do a potato leek soup where we’ll use the leaves and then fold that into the soup at the end, so the soup has this nice garlicky leafy flavor, but it’s kind of a vibrantly green from all the ramp leaves we stir into it."

The green ramp leaves, the most quintessentially spring-like part of a ramp, are actually discarded by some people. Others go so far as to prefer the young ramps before the greens even sprout.

"We call them bullets because they got no tops on them," says Bruce Donaldson, a West Virginian who sells about 20,000 lbs. of ramps each year. He’s shipped ramps to every state except Hawaii. "Of course a lot of people say, 'Oh the ramps are depleting, but they’re not. There’s plenty of ramps, they’re just up higher. Ashley Hughes is one of Donaldson's top diggers.

"I’ve dug every day," Hughes says, as he's 14 days into it. "I try not to stop. Yeah this year was pretty cold out. Most of us got our fingers frosted. Then the ends of them, they’ll wear off from just digging in rocks."

As he digs with his bare hands, Hughes looks for ramp seeds and plants them down in the soil.

But Jim Chamberlain, with the US Forest Service, warns that many diggers are too careless, without leaving enough ramps in the soil for the plants to regenerate. He is worried that unless harvesters are more cautious, ramps will be stripped from the forests just as we once clear cut trees for timber.

"People say we’re not having any impact on ramp populations," Chamberlain says. "And that’s a concern of mine. Is that we just don’t understand how much we’re really pulling out of the ground relative to how much is being put in the ground."

Chamberlain encourages more landowners to sustainably grow and harvest wild ramps the way Glen Facemire has been doing for years.

If you want to grow ramps from bulbs, Facemire recommends ordering them in January. Delaware Valley Ramps, in Pennsylvania, suggests ordering their ramp bulbs in late fall or winter.

"If you choose to grow them, there’s no fertilizer, They’ll do their own thing. They’ll grow in different soils. They’re amazing," Facemire says. "I’m asked the question, 'Well are these ramps that you have on the ramp farm like wild ramps?' They are wild ramps. We just got them on the different side of the fence now. We’ve got them in shotgun range now."

Photos by Roxy Todd: From top, ramp chips and Jim Chamberlain, of the Forest Service, eyeing a raised bed garden full of ramps. Thanks for this content to Allegheny Mountain Radio and the Traveling 219 Project.