To Find Ramps
Or not to find ramps – that is the question. More accurately, since simply finding them is fine, should one or should one not harvest them and if the answer is “Yes, they’re delicious!” at what point, if any, does the answer become “No, they’re endangered!” or again more accurately (and the reason for all this dithering), “No, they’re in danger of becoming endangered if people keep picking them at the current rate.
- Is the worry about over-harvesting* justified? And
- Is it possible to formulate a general rule for the ethical enjoyment of foraged wild foods?
Given our intense involvement with wild mushrooms, you won’t be surprised to hear I didn’t start thinking about this the day before yesterday. It’s been at least 15 years since morels entered what might be called the upscale mainstream, and at least 10 since a host of other wild mushroom species started popping up in retail markets.
Ecologically, mushrooms and ramps are very different. Fungi are not plants and mushrooms are not fruits, but the mushrooms we eat are like fruits in function. Their purpose is purely reproductive, so they can be harvested over and over without damaging the parent fungus. Ramps, on the other hand, are entire plants, ** and they are plants that grow slowly. The trip from seed to harvest size can take three to five years.
But for the purposes of this discussion, wild mushrooms and ramps are very similar: both are foraged foods that have only recently become popular with a wide range of consumers, even though they have long histories of culinary use.
Traditionally, most foragers were country dwellers who gathered these foods recreationally from places nearby, for themselves and their families and, on occasion, for sale or sharing at local festivals.
These amateurs are still around, but now that there’s an expanding market, there is also an expanding group of professionals, foragers who gather wild foods to sell, who do this work full time and who may move from place to place with the seasons, following what is for them a primary source of income.
Regrettably, many professional foragers are not professionals in the sense of having respect for the long term health of their industry. They have no interest in conservation – either of the target comestible or of the environment that sustains it - and because time is money as surely in the woods as anywhere else, the more they can harvest from any one place, the better.
As a result, large swaths of territory can be so thoroughly stripped that the valuable product – whatever it is - cannot regenerate. And if the land is so badly torn up that other species become collateral damage, well, tough darts.
In view of these problems, it might at first seem as though the rule is easy, an extension of the currently fashionable idea that one should slaughter the animals if one wishes to eat meat: do it yourself or don’t do it. If consumers don’t buy wild foods, heedless harvesting will not be an issue.
All very well and good (about the wild foods, I mean, please don’t get me started on the meat). But there are a few little problems:
1. Not all commercial harvesters are full time, and not all of them are pros-come-lately. I may be particularly sensitive to this because I live in Maine, where foraging has been a way of life for many since time out of mind, but I think most people would hesitate before suggesting an end to, for instance, blackberry picking. And there are a lot of reasons why telling clam diggers to stop it sounds like a bad idea, right up there with saying all lobster boats should be converted to sport vessels.
2. Also because I live in Maine, I’ve seen first hand how a niche product, in this case sea urchins, can quickly go from ubiquitous nuisance to species at risk, complete with licensed harvesters and very short, tightly regulated harvest seasons. It took about two decades. But regulations did get adopted before it was too late; the urchins appear to be recovering. I suppose there’s no point in hoping a lesson was learned, the tragedy of the commons shows no signs of going away. But it may not be too farfetched to hope a more organized industry could be a sustainable one.
3. Although there are examples of local near-extinctions, there’s not much hard evidence that foraging is endangering wild foods to any significant degree. And it’s becoming clearer and clearer that – if you’re talking about the survival of an entire species – over harvesting may be less of a threat than loss of habitat. Urchins, for instance, are very sensitive to things like pollution and water temperature. Ramps can grow in shady back yards, but not under streets and houses.
* For a decent, albeit tip-of-the-icebergy overview of the endangerment issue, see When Digging for Ramps Goes Too Deep, by Indirani Sen, published last April in the New York Times.
** One conservation-minded suggestion, made by me among many others, is to harvest only leaves and not too many, so that the bulb below will be able to regenerate. This is fine as far as it goes, but it doesn’t go to the root of the problem, which is that the bulb is the tastiest part.
Ramp photos by Bill Bakaitis