Pulling at the Roots of the Wild Ramp Market

April 17, 2014 |

photo by Mike Costello

On Saturday, April 26th the town of Richwood, West Virginia will serve 2,000 pounds of wild ramps, along with bacon, potatoes, cornbread and sassafras tea. Richwood prides itself as being the “Ramp Capitol of the World”, and its Feast of the Ramson Festival is the oldest ongoing ramp celebration in the world. Since 1938 Richwood has been celebrating the springtime emergence of this ephemeral wild green. Ramps grow most abundantly along the shaded slopes of Appalachia and near moist creeks and streams. The forests that surround Richwood make it one of the most ideal locations to find wild ramps.

More pungent than garlic and more odoriferous than a skillet full of sizzling bacon, ramps are nothing new to most people in Appalachia. People here have been eating, or avoiding, them for years. About twenty years ago ramps began appearing on menus at gourmet restaurants in New Jersey and New York City, and now it’s common to find restaurants that serve ramps in most major cities each April and May.

“The whole country is looking for ramps!” says Glen Facemire, a retired mail carrier who was born and raised in Richwood. His life passion has been teaching himself and others to grow and harvest wild ramps, and since 1983 he and his wife have run a ramp farm. His phone has been off the hook all week. It’s March and people want to order his fresh ramp bulbs, and his final shipment goes out in just a few days. Their ramp bulbs and seeds are incredibly popular, and people in many states across the country have found luck growing his ramps.

“I grew up in a ramp patch, so to speak,” says Glen. “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 a 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. And 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.”

Glen and Norene Facemire own the ramp farm in Richwood.

Glen and Norene Facemire own the ramp farm in Richwood.

But something is changing in the heart of ramp country. In the last 20 years the gourmet culinary industry has created a new market of buying and selling wild ramps for vast sums of money. Never before have so many people had access to wild ramps without once ever having stepped foot inside a ramp patch. Many of the most celebrated chefs across the country pay $10-$25 a lb. for fresh ramps.

Andrew Zimmerman, executive chef of Sepia Restaurant in Chicago, says he’s used ramps for about twelve years.

Zimmerman has even dug ramps himself, on a farm in Illinois, so he knows that it’s extremely difficult work and is happy to pay $18 per lb. or more for local ramps. And he says he loves using all parts of a ramp, including the green leaves. Not all chefs do.

“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,” says Zimmerman.

Andrew Zimmerman's Green Ramp and Potato Soup. Courtesy Sepia Restaurant.

Andrew Zimmerman’s Green Ramp and Potato Soup. Courtesy Sepia Restaurant.

The green ramp leaves, full of nutrients and perhaps the most quintessentially, spring-like part of a ramp, are actually discarded by some people. Some chefs even go so far as to prefer using the early ramps in February or March, before the greens even sprout. They claim these pencil-thin ramps are more sweet and less potent.

“We call them ‘bullets’, because they don’t have tops on them. We start selling ramps in October, and we’ll go to the end of May,” says Bruce Donaldson, who owns Four Seasons Outfitters store in Richwood. He sells about 20,000 pounds of ramps a year, and he’s shipped ramps to every state except Hawaii. He also supplies the Richwood Ramp Festival with the 2,000 lbs. of ramps each year.

“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,” says Donaldson.

Earlier this spring I searched for ramps with some of Bruce’s top diggers, Ashley Hughes and his cousin Pat, who specialize in finding and digging the winter’s bullet ramps. “This is like my 14th day. I try not to stop. So about a month and a half that you dig every day. There’s no break whatsoever,” says Hughes.

“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. But I don’t wear gloves. It was a really cold, brutal year this year.”

Jim Chamberlain planted ramp bulbs last year. "Not quite ready for digging."

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

“A lot of time we’ll have to cross creeks and drainages and we’ll have to take our boots, and pull our pants up and take our socks and shoes off and cross. And then put them on quick enough before your feet start getting really cold and numb,” says Hughes. He must work quickly. His personal record is about 100 pounds of ramps that he dug in one day.

He scratches at the top layer of leaves, hacking away at the mud to find the bullet ramps. He and his cousin are skilled at locating ramp patches before the greens even show, and to do that you must know the woods like the back of your hand. They do. “It also helps if you can read a topographical map, but that’s easy,” says Hughes.

There’s an economic advantage to their adept skills at reading the landscape; they earn more money for digging the ramp bullets. On the other hand, how does their digging of the smaller ramps endanger the future of ramp populations?

Searching for "bullet" ramps.

Searching for “bullet” ramps.

Three years ago Hughes brought his children to dig at this same patch. He says it appears that the ramps here have come back even more robustly in the time since then. I ask him if he thinks ramps will still be around when his children are grown.

“Oh yeah, the only thing that will get bad about it is where the people dig and dig and dig. But if you want to abuse it, yeah you probably could dig ‘em out.” As he digs with his bare hands, he also looks for ramp seeds and plants them down in the soil.

But Jim Chamberlain, a research scientist with the United States 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. 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,” says Chamberlain.

“Two conservation messages come out: #1: Eat the leaf, and you can decrease the amount that you have to harvest. #2: Wait until the third week in April, around that time, before you harvest,” he suggests.

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

Jim Chamberlain built a raised bed for growing wild ramps. With about 30-40% shade and moist soil, ramps can be sustainably cultivated.

Rather than waiting till the situation becomes critical, Chamberlain and other researchers, including Eric Burkhart, of the Shavers Creek Environmental Center at Penn State University, hope that more landowners will try to sustainably farm wild ramps, the way Glen Facemire has been doing for years. 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.”

Glen and his wife will serve ramps at the 74th annual Feast of the Ramson again this year on April 26th, and Bruce Donaldson will supply 2,000 pounds of the festival’s ramps.

Delicious Ramp chips made by chef Blair Campbell at the Pretty Penny Cafe in Hillsboro, West Virginia. One way to make eating ramps sustainable is to use them in ramp salt like Campbell does.

Delicious ramp chips made by chef Blair Campbell at the Pretty Penny Cafe in Hillsboro, West Virginia. One way to extend the ramp season is to dehydrate them and then turn it into ramp salt.

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 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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Category: Blog, Elkins to Marlinton, Food & Farming, Lewisburg to Rich Creek

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