Ramps-Are we Sustainably Harvesting Them?

April 22, 2014 |
photo by Mike Costello. Note: This article is a second installment about some of the ongoing issues surrounding wild ramp harvests. [For the first article, click here]
It’s earth day- and today many self-proclaimed ramp lovers in urban cities across the country are celebrating this third week of April and the height of ramp season. Thousands will sit down to a table for dinner, probably at a restaurant in Brooklyn or Chicago and eat their fill of ramps, which pair well with other seasonal spring vegetables like peas and asparagus and also grill very nicely.
They will feast on what many chefs and Appalachian foragers have known for generations-ramps are magical. Or if not that, then they are deliciously repulsive, aromatically stinky, little feisty green onions. If ever a vegetable merited an oxymoron, it’s ramps.

As a rule, ramps pack a very strong flavor, and they generally cook well any way that you would use onions, garlic or spinach. In NYC the new wild food craze has ignited obsessive Twitter followings for ramp enthusiasts, leading to an even greater popularity among urban foodies, most of whom have never even set food inside a ramp patch.

photo by Dan Schultz

photo by Dan Schultz

Across West Virginia, of course, eating ramps is nothing new, and this Saturday Richwood will celebrate its 76th annual Feast of the Ramson. But some people are worried that all momentum for buying wild ramps across the country could put the species at risk in the forests here. In the last few years, various journalists have reported issues regarding the rising popularity of ramps and the risk that they are being overharvested: The New York Times, (2011) The Washington Post (2006) and NPR’s The Salt (2013).

Over the last 3 years or so, the springtime emergence of ramps at farmers markets and at gourmet restaurants throughout NYC has attracted a very obsessive social media following. See Ramped for Amps on Twitter. A new ramp fest in NY began in 2010. An upcoming new book about farming crops like ramps and mushrooms in the forest is set to be published this fall from Chelsea Green Publishing. I talked a bit with one of the authors, Steven Gabriel, who stressed that this trend is indeed on the rise, despite the threats that face ramp populations.

Whereas ramps have been a part of gourmet menus for about 15-20 years, more consumers have been drawing towards this trend of seasonal-foods since around 2010 or 2011. The popularity of ramps doesn’t seem to be abating (due in part to ramps’ fleeting seasonality, the excitement is fresh again each year). In late March and early April when ramps first go on sale at farmers markets, they are snatched up in almost lightning speed. This is especially true during the first few weeks of the season in late March and early April. There is not a lack of people who want to buy ramps. But finding them, and sustaining them, is increasingly difficult.

Entrance to the highland scenic highway, outside of Richwood. Technically, the Monongahela National Forest prohibits commercial ramp foraging on their property, though this is difficult to enforce.

Entrance to the highland scenic highway, outside of Richwood. Technically, the Monongahela National Forest prohibits commercial ramp foraging on their property, though this is difficult to enforce. photo by Josh Stevens.

As the popularity continues, even some chefs and consumers are beginning to worry about ramps. These chefs and ramp enthusiasts would definitely suffer if ramps were overharvested (as they were in Quebec, where commercial foraging has been banned since 1995), not to mention the harvesters who have been digging them for years (many of whom support their families all spring on this income).

In Richwood, the ramp festival each year has become their main source of fundraising for the community. Since newspaperman Jim Comstock helped Richwood become the Ramp Capitol of the World when he notoriously put ramp ink in an April issue of the Richwood News Leader, the festival has continued to draw thousands of tourists each spring. If ramps went away, or if the Monongahela National Forest began heavily enforcing the ban on commercial digging on their property, the town of Richwood would seriously suffer.

If ramps disappeared, it would end a 300 year tradition of Appalachians foraging wild ramps in the woods, and white settlers inherited these practices from Native Americans before that.

Here in the Monongahela National Forest, people say there are still plenty of ramps to be found, but they are receding deeper into the forest where road access is very limited. “This indicates that ramps are being affected by digging,” says Jim Chamberlain, a researcher with the United States Forest Service.

Research suggests that ramp plants can take as many as 8 years before they are mature enough to sustainaby harvest them, and that even then only about 10% of the plants should be harvested so the patch to continue. Ramps are bulb dividers, rhizomes, like ginger or ginseng, and are very sensitive to mass-harvesting. Native Americans used to only cut off the green ramp tops, and a new movement in NY is trying to promote this type of green-harvesting. However, there is far more demand for the bulbs that the greens.

photo by Dan Schultz

photo by Dan Schultz

This year, The New York Times reported that one of the first restaurants in NYC that served ramps this year was Tarallucci e Vino, which got its early ramps from an unnamed source in South Carolina. I asked Chef Welch if he would consider buying ramp greens without their bulbs, and he said it would be a more difficult sell.

“The greens have a very short shelf life and the flavor concentration tends to be in the bulbs themselves, not the greens.  I do use the greens but they would not be the same if that were the only part we used.  I wouldn’t be opposed to buying just the greens to bulk up pesto or ramp butter but it would be used in conjunction with the bulbs, never without them.”-Andrew Welch, chef at Tarallucci e Vino.

And while there are only a handful of studies about the effects of ramp harvests on populations, there is some indication from the scientific community that we should be erring on the side of caution. This includes a study in 2012 from St. Lawrence University. Other researchers who have contributed considerable evidence that we need to better protect wild ramp populations includes Dr. Jim Chamberlain, researcher with the United States Forest Service Dr. Jim Chamberlain, Janet Rock, botanist with the National Park Service, and Dr. Jeanine Davis, assistant professor in the Department of Horticultural Science at North Carolina State University. Dr. Davis was part of a long-term studies about ramps that led to the Great Smokey Mountain National Forest banning commercial digging on their property in 2002.

Decades ago Jim Comstock printed an issue of the Richwood News Leader with his own concoction of ramp juice-ink as a publicity stunt to promote the Richwood Ramp Festival.

Decades ago Jim Comstock printed an issue of the Richwood News Leader with his own concoction of ramp juice-ink as a publicity stunt to promote the Richwood Ramp Festival.

The general message that these scientists offer is: ramps are not going to go extinct anytime soon, the sky is not falling, but we are reaching a point when we need to be planting ramps in the forest if we are going to continue removing them, and we need to be seriously changing the harvesting habits by leaving more ramps in the forest as we dig.
Otherwise, scientists warn that ramp harvests won’t be able to continue sustainably, and 20 years from now, we could begin to see the gradual extinction of ramps.
Poaching of ramps on public lands and on private lands is also an ongoing problem, these scientists also say. “As demand for ramps has increased, so has the incidence of poaching on private land,” wrote Erika G Galentin, Outreach Coordinator with United Plant Savers. “Our office is based in Meigs County, OH, where in the past Ramps have grown in great abundance. Unfortunately, due to lack of awareness from the culinary industry and lack of legal protection for the harvesting of the species, these populations are dwindling rapidly due to illegal harvest.”
Galentin reported to us that two weekends ago in Meigs County, Ohio, a local landowner had over 150lbs of ramps stolen from her property. “The poachers were apprehended, the police called, and they were caught.”
“What is interesting to note going forward, is that unless poachers are caught red handed, there is no protection for private landowners,” said Tanner Filyaw of Rural Action (also based in Ohio). “It states that one must have permission from the landowner to harvest on private land, but when the harvesters turn around to sell these plants to a buyer, there is no way of verifying that there was permission. There is no way of verifying the source of the product and whether or not it was harvested legally. The buyers are not responsible for where they get their ramps from, which is an utter shame.”
Poaching has also continued to be an issue recently on the Great Smokey Mountains National Park. Janet Rock, botanist with the National Park Service, reported that this March about 800 ramp plants were poached from the Great Smokey Mountains National Park. A forest ranger confiscated the plants, and the botantists planted them in their greenhouse and are working to soon return them to the forest.
Before the situation becomes critical, says Eric Burkhart, of the Shavers Creek Environmental Center at Penn State University, more landowners could be helping by learning how they can sustainably farm wild ramps, the way Richwood native Glen Facemire has been doing for years.
Jim Chamberlain demonstrates a raised bed of farmed ramps that he built.

Jim Chamberlain demonstrates a raised bed of farmed ramps that he built.

At the US Forest Service’s Southern Research Station in Blacksburg, Virginia, Dr. Chamberlain built a raised bed for growing wild ramps, using bulbs from Facemire’s farm. With about 30-40% shade and moist soil, ramps can be sustainably cultivated. Both Burkhart and Chamberlain stress that this is a plant that requires patience. Ramp patches take about three years after the bulbs are planted until they are mature enough to harvest. If you plant seeds, it can take up to two additional years before the ramps even begin to sprout. As long as you have the appropriate conditions, with moist soil and about 30-90 percent shaded area, you can enjoy the benefits of growing wild ramps in your own backyard.

“If you choose to grow them, there’s no fertilizer. They’ll do their own thing,” says Glen Facemire. “They’ll grow in different soils. They’re amazing. 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.”

Here are more links to growing wild ramps:


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

Glen Facemire’s Ramp Farm :  P.O. Box 48, Richwood, WV 26261. Phone: 304-846-4235. Email: rampfarm@frontier.com

Delaware Valley Ramps : Steven Schwartz’s farm is located in the little town of Equinunk, PA on the banks of the upper Delaware River. Phone: 570-224-0580. Email: smsinc@panix.com

Ramp Festivals: For a complete list of ramp festivals, click here to visit the King of Stink’s website. 

Besides Richwood’s Feast of the Ramson, here are two more ramp festivals which are also planned on the same day as Richwood’s feast, Saturday April 26th. Maybe someone can hit all three in one day:

Helvetia’s Ramp Supper: April 26. Click here for Helvetia’s website.

Elkins Ramps and Rails Festival: April 26

Ordering Fresh Ramps: Please note, when ordering ramps it is always best to buy from a local ramp dealer. Check with sellers that the ramps you are buying have been harvested sustainably.

Wild Purveyors : 5308 Butler Street, Pittsburgh, PA 15201. Phone: 412-206-9453. (they also forage wild mushrooms and sell other wild foods and wild food products)

bullet ramps with no topsBruce Donaldson’s Four Season’s Outfitters Store : 190 Middletown Rd. Routes 39/55, Richwood, West Virginia, 26261. 304-846-2862.



Ramps from Elegance Distributors, grown in Michigan.

Ramps from Elegance Distributors, grown in Michigan.

Elegance Distributors : 106 Main Street, P.O. Box 275, Eaton Rapids, Michigan, 48827. Call Claude Ghafari or Burdette Pombier 1-800-487-6157.

Sources: Special thanks to these researchers for providing information about conserving and harvesting wild ramps:

Jim Chamberlain demonstrates a raised bed of farmed ramps that he built. located on the campus of Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, he ordered ramp bulbs from Glen Facemire's farm in Richwood, West Virginia.Jim Chamberlain, Ph.D. Phone: 540-231-3611. Email: jchamberlain@fs.fed.us. USDA Forest Service, Southern Research Station. 1710 Research Center Drive, Blacksburg, VA 24060. “If we don’t figure out a way to manage them, they’ll be gone,” says Chamberlain. “If there are no more ramps, there will be no more ramp festivals.”-quote from an article by the Washington Post. Click here to read the article.



Eric Burkhart, PhD.

Eric P. Burkhart, PhD. Program Director, Plant Science, Shaver’s Creek Environmental Center. Phone: 814.863.2000 ext. 7504. Email: epb6@psu.edu. The Pennsylvania State University. 3400 Discovery Road, Petersburg, PA 16669. Eric teaches courses for Penn State on agroforestry. He also conducts research on important non-timber forest products like American ginseng, goldenseal and ramps.








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