This year with the high temperatures and no rain we can't be as leisurely with our harvest times and so yesterday morning and night, and this morning, saw the majority of the harvest (unless we get some damn rain).
Our good friend Molly is the horticulture editor for Wilder Quarterly who turned us oblivious flatlanders on to the presence of ramps in our forest last year. She is also the concerned horticulturist who wrote me Tuesday night with news that ramps have been listed as threatened by the Vermont Fish and Wildlife and that we ought to be careful with our harvest.
We are very fortunate to have three very prolific and expansive stands of ramps in the hills by our current farm. We have worked with the landowners around us to allow an annual harvest from these stands. Nick and I are always looking out for ramps to see where and how they grow best and there are few stands as thick and productive as ours. This surprised me at first, but after Molly's warning email I did some much needed research to find that ramps have been over-harvested in the past years.
Ramps can fetch upwards of $12-$13/lb wholesale in cities like Boston or New York. Because of this huge payout the temptation to harvest any ramp you see is overwhelming for a farmer/ forager like myself. There aren't many times on a farm where you can reap such a profit from such minimal input.
Because of this, the ramp harvest has been rampant with near to total annihilation of entire stands.
A ramp seed takes anywhere from 6 to 18 months to germinate. For some perspective a carrot takes about 2 weeks to germinate. Kale takes just about 5 days.
Ramp plants can take 5 to 7 years to mature to a flowering plant.
You can see where this is going. Wild ramps cannot match the current high volume commercial demand. They are disappearing.
Some places in North America have already banned or heavily regulate the harvesting of ramps. Québec and the Smoky Mountains have done so.
They are a delicious and nutritious first green of the season and it is my wish not to stop their harvesting but to create awareness of their peril and how we can continue to forage for them in a thoughtful manner.
Here are some harvesting tips for any budding foragers. Please feel free to add anything I have forgotten or left off.
1. Always be triply sure that what you are picking is in fact an edible ramp. I am not aware of any false lookalikes to the ramp, but this is the No.1 rule for wild foraging ALWAYS.
2. Harvest no more than 5% of your ramp stand in a year. We harvest somewhere around 1% of our stand each year. Studies in the Smoky Mountains have shown that a 90% harvest takes over 100 years to grow back. A 25% harvest takes over 10 years to grow back. A 5% harvest takes at least 2 years to grow back.
3. Allow 2-5 years of rest for each ramp stand.
4. Tred carefully in the forest. Even if you are only taking a few ramps every ramp you step on you can break its leaves and damage its growth cycle. Treat them as you would the vegetables in your own garden.
5. Be aware of what else is growing underfoot on the forest floor. Ramps are special because they are one of the first wild edibles to present themselves after winter. However, baby fiddleheads are coming up too. The beautiful trillium, coltsfoot and jack-in-the-pulpits are growing and flowering as are a whole hosts of other species whose names I have yet to learn. Careful not to disturb these innocent bystanders of the ramp harvest. Try to use deer paths if possible to navigate through the forest. Molly told me just now that that coltsfoot is actually an invasive, so trample those little sweeties away :)
6. Harvest in the early morning or at dusk as to incur minimal damage to the plants you harvest and those around you. Nothing takes well to the beating of foragers in the hot midday sun.
7. Wash your ramps off in a nearby creek if you can. This will save you water and clean up and is just about the nicest way to spend a morning.
8. Marie added a great suggestion to only harvest the leaves! Gently cut the leaves without disturbing the bulb This allows the ramp to continue growing and you get to go home with all the taste!
Happy foraging. Let the game of spring begin.