Hot Topics - Wild RampsMay 10, 2017
Last Monday brought lively discourse to the meeting room at Hotel Vermont where Vermont chefs, farmers, distributors and wildcrafters gathered for a roundtable discussion about ramps – Vermont’s favorite spring harvest. Debate was sparked when VFN Chef Doug Paine posted on Facebook that he was taking a year off from serving ramps in his kitchen due to overharvesting. Chef Doug’s post went Vermont-viral, and soon other organizations and restaurants were sharing his thoughts. Comments started rolling in, Vermont’s community of wildcrafters questioned the post, and it became clear that there were two sides to this story. According to the wildcrafters, this ramp season was the most abundant they’d seen and just getting started.
Ramps are a wild onion that grows during the spring in Eastern North America. Often also referred to as wild leeks, they taste like a mixture of garlic and onion – pungent and delicious. Ramps are a favorite spring delivery to kitchens in Vermont and across the country, but enthusiasm for the harvest has landed it on the threatened list in Quebec and a species of ‘special concern’ in Maine, Rhode Island and Tennessee. Ramps are not on any similar watches here in Vermont, in fact – calling the Department of Fish and Wildlife was the first thing Chef Steve Atkins did after speaking with one of his wildcrafters, Paul Moore. He wound up on the line with the state botanist who expressed no cause for concern for Vermont ramps – confirming what Paul was telling him. However, those who frequent harvesting spots in Chittenden County may feel differently as they see shrinking plots - there has been an impact on the popular ramp spots in Vermont's population center. Unscrupulous harvesters are absolutely a problem and will perhaps be a growing problem if transient foragers start looking to Vermont to feed the demands of larger markets like New York and Boston, but feeding the demand for Vermont's small restaurants and hobby home collectors is unlikely to cause problems. The biggest threat to the ramp population according to wildcrafting luminaries Les Hook and Nova Kim, is development. Outside of Chittenden County, Les and Nova report “more ramps than they’ve ever seen,” and they keep careful records of populations year to year. It’s not only their livelihood but also their passion. At the gathering, Nova wondered out loud, “why would you trust the opinion of anyone other than the collectors and gatherers who are out in the woods every day, watching and caring for these species.”
As the conversation closed, it was abundantly clear that this group came together with differing opinions but identical motivation – love and concern for the wild leek and a desire to see it on menus this year and for all years to follow.
While the ramp population in Vermont may not be imminently threatened, harvesting should be done with care and conservation in mind. Just as you know your farmer, you should also know your wildcrafter. We talked to a number of VFN chefs about how they make sure the products coming to their back door are harvested responsibly.
Here are questions and practices inspired by their advice.
1. Ask questions! Talk with your harvester about their collection locations – Are they on private land? What’s the environment like? Have they been monitoring the same spots for years? If so, what have they seen change? Are they harvesting in or outside Chittenden County? *Some wildcrafters will gladly take you and your staff out with them to harvest so you can see for yourself – it’s worth asking!
2. Do they practice sustainable collecting? What is their sustainability plan? What percent of each plot do they harvest?
3. Scrutinize at the product. Is it clean, neat, packaged gently? An upstanding wildcrafter is taking good care of the product from harvest to delivery.
4. Ask for references. Who else do they sell to? Where did they learn their craft? Check these references!
5. Paperwork! Ask them to fill out a W9 and to provide an invoice for you - a professional will take a check.
6. Know the cost! Know the going rate for good product – if the deal is too good to be true, it’s likely at the cost of the environment.
Paul Moore, Essex - Moore Mushrooms
Colin McCaffrey, East Montpelier - Hermit's Gold Wild Edibles
Dave Kaczynski, Worcester - The Wild Side of Vermont
Les Hook & Nova Kim, Northeast Kingdom - Wild Gourmet Food
Information and Upcoming Classes
Wild Edible and Foraging, Inn at Weathersfield, Perkinsville. May 13, 2017
Spring Wildcrafting: Greens & Mushrooms, Shelburne Farms, Shelburne. May 21, 2017
Farm to Medicine Cabinet Plant Walk, Shelburne Farms, Shelburne. May 27, June 14, July 13, July 15, & September 23, 2017
Sustainable Foraging in the North Woods, Sterling College, Craftsbury. May 30 - June 3, 2017
Wildcrafting: Food and Beverages from the Natural World, Sterling College, Craftsbury. June 5 - 9, 2017
Wild Edibles of Late Spring, Shelburne Farms, Shelburne. June 6, 2017
The Mushroom Forager Event Series | Summer 2017