Sunday, May 15, 2011

On Ramps

My interest in farming and food production, though longstanding, has been abstract for most of my life. Apart from butchering an occasional deer, my teenaged ideas about food were formed at some degree of removal from the source of what I actually ate. I became largely vegetarian in an attempt to minimize my environmental impact and to minimize my support of factory farms. The venison was okay to my mind, because I knew there was an excessively large population in my suburban area, and - apart from cars - human hunters were their only predators. In college and after it I tried to shop at farmers' market. I read Michael Pollen.

Moving to the farm has made my thinking about these topics far more serious, which is to say, far more specific. Organic practices are easy to endorse in principle, but as I look at a bed of cabbages in which every seedling has been killed by flea beetles, it is easy to imagine what a godsend effective pesticides must have seemed, and must still seem, to many market growers. I am now an emphatic omnivore, not only because I have come to believe that a high fat, relatively high protein diet is probably ideal for humans, but also because most farms in our area, and our farm in particular, is much better suited to growing animals on grass than anything else.

As these smaller questions have been both complicated and clarified, the larger question of agriculture has come into focus. The alternative agriculture publications I read, such as Acres, Graze, and The Stockman Grass Farmer, implicitly acknowledge what books like The Botany of Desire and Against the Grain explicitly state - that agriculture is a process of coevolution rather than human control. The latter of these two books, which I found interesting, though frustratingly cursory, posits that the ancestors of the annual crops that either directly, or as livestock feed, provide the vast majority of human food evolved to take advantage of the brief niches left in the wake of a huge environmental upheaval, such as a fire or a flood,. Because of this, the partnership we have created with them requires us to continuously simulate these conditions. We keep huge swaths of land bare and fertilized for them, they provide food for us. The result is erosion, soil mineral depletion, famine and for most civilizations throughout history eventual collapse.

Though our entire world rests on the supposition that the dynamic of bare land and monocultures can be maintained over the long term, that continued scientific advances can keep yields permanently high, I am skeptical. Whether phosphorus depletion, topsoil loss, or energy scarcity, the maximum yield for the arable land on the planet will be reached, and then decline. This is one reason cows strike me as better than corn, at least in the long term; though lower yielding in a single year, an agriculture of cows on grass, perhaps followed by chickens, sheep and pigs, is closer to the sort of stable ecological systems that cover the parts of the planet not recently touched by flood or fire or humans.

Which brings me to ramps. Ramps, also known as wild leeks, grow in dense bunches on the floor of deciduous forests. They have broad, droopy leaves growing up from slim bases, and their flavor is complex and earthy, like an onion crossed with a mushroom. We bought several bunches at the market last year, and this spring we hoped to buy them with dirt still attached so that we could establish a patch in our woods. But a month ago Alanna and I were out walking the fence line, and on the steep, wooded bank above the pasture we saw a swath of emerald amid the dormant trunks. I hopped the fence and picked a few just to make sure, and as we continued, we sighted more and more patches.

Ramps are beautifully adapted to their niche. They do not compete by aggressive growth or setting huge amounts of seed or exuding chemicals from their roots to poison neighboring plants. In fact, they don't seem to compete much at all. Instead, in the month or so before the trees have begun to leaf out, the ramps grow their tops and take advantage of the available sunlight. When they are shaded out their leaves die back, and they send up flowers and set seed. But because they harvest all their energy in so brief a window, with such marginal temperatures and light, they are slow to grow and to spread, whether by seed or by splitting off a new bulblet. The most reliable source I could find suggests that they take five to six years to reach maturity, at which point they are about the same size as a scallion. This same source suggested that for a patch to have a stable population only 5-15% can be harvested annually. Given this extended time frame, ramps would seem to be poor candidates for domestication, so I am guessing that the burgeoning interest in wild edibles will likely see them eradicated from much of their native habitat.

It is incredibly difficult for me to have the patience and perspective to limit myself, a fault I suspect much of humanity shares with me. I hope that I can be wise enough to harvest the small bounty of the rocky slope above our pasture in a way that does not diminish it. But the idea of imposing to a greater or lesser extent a set of animals and plants on a place, and hoping that they can be nudged into some sort of stable relationship while simultaneously providing human food feels sometimes foolishly optimistic, sometimes insane. From hunting megafauna to extinction to tilling the prairie, human intervention in North America (or anywhere else, for that matter) has not generally led to increased ecological stability.

When I think of the tiny bulbs sleeping ten months of the year in the shale and duff, unfurling lush leaves for a brief moment, incrementally building their reserves like interest in a bank account until they can split off an offspring or send up a shoot, I am encouraged and disheartened. I am encouraged that I can understand the cycle and try to live within limits that will not compromise it. I am disheartened at the thought this understanding prompts of larger cycles that I don't understand or choose to ignore for fear of the limits they would imply.



  1. Great post, Garth. Your line of reasoning on the merits of raising livestock flies in the face of everything I seem to hear about the merits of large-scale agriculture. That is, one argument in favor of vegetarianism that I commonly hear is that we expend all this energy to grow enough corn etc. to feed all our animals, and we'd be much better off just using that land to grow food for humans. If I understand you correctly, a lot of land is better suited to grow animals on grass. This means we should tailor our life styles to this way of supplying ourselves with food. Also, I'd like to hear why you have come to the conclusion that a high fat high protein diet is ideal for humans. Once again, thanks for the post, I really enjoyed reading it.

  2. I was listening to a foodie radio show this weekend, and a woman called in to say that she and her husband were planning to pickle wild ramps for use in their martinis. Ridiculous but intriguing.