- Associated Press - Sunday, April 19, 2015

RICHWOOD, W.Va. (AP) - You could say Glen Facemire was destined to be a ramp farmer, given his lifelong connection with the wild leek.

“I asked my dad how long I had been fooling with ramps, and he told me, ‘I found you in a ramp patch,’” Facemire joked.

He is a native of Richwood, roughly two hours from Charleston to the east, the self-titled “Ramp Capital of the World.”

There, Facemire was raised with ramps. His father, who had a hillside pasture farm, used to help supply the plant for the town’s annual ramp feed, the Feast of the Ramson.

“It was a way of life,” Facemire said.

As an adolescent, Facemire would harvest ramps for his neighbors.

“Some people would mow yards; I’d dig and sell ramps,” he recalled. “I really enjoyed it.”

Nowadays, Facemire is doing the same thing, though this time he’s focusing on helping others cultivate their own ramp patches through Ramp Farm Specialties, the business he owns with his wife, Norene.

“You can have a ramp patch just about anywhere with a little management,” he explained.

The idea behind Ramp Farm Specialties grew out of Facemire’s experience with his own patch. He started it in the ‘80s on his land along the South Fork of the Cherry River in a wooded area - which is critical, because, unlike other alliums such as onions and garlic, which have leaves that are shaped like a tube, ramps have leaves that are shaped like a blade, and don’t hold a lot of moisture, so they should not get direct sunlight.

Facemire and his wife learned by trial and error.

“We gathered about 4 or 5 gallons of ramp seeds and tried them at a test site near an old fencepost,” he recalled. “I had never started a ramp from a seed before. They take about four or five years to mature and can take up to 18 months to germinate, depending on the environment.”

It’s an especially long process for a plant that is only consumed a few months out of the year.

According to Facemire, a ramp begins to bloom in June. Then, around July or August, it starts to develop nodules. In September, those nodules break open in, releasing little black seeds the size of a No. 4 or 6 shotgun pellet.

“The ramp bloom will have about 40 seeds, but only one or two will survive,” he said.

That’s mainly due to being eaten or carried off by wildlife.

“There’s about a 95 percent mortality rate,” Facemire added.

Those seeds that do survive are covered up by leaves in the fall for protection.

“The way we do it is we bury the seed, rake the leaves away to the bare dirt, sprinkle the seeds, put the leaves back and put our foot on them to firm the leaves so that they won’t blow away,” Facemire explained.

Then, the wait really begins.

“About 18 months later, a baby ramp will start to come up,” Facemire said. “You wouldn’t really recognize it in the woods, though. It takes about two or three years for it to become really recognizable.”

Facemire usually begins harvesting around January and shipping in February.

His ramps have been sold all over the country, from New England (some of his biggest customers) to the Pacific Northwest - even Hawaii.

“Consequently, there’s now ramp patches growing in places where there weren’t any ramps before,” Facemire said.

Some places, like West Virginia, are more conducive to growing ramps because of the temperate climate.

“There’s five layers to the ramp and then the heart, which makes six,” Facemire described. “Now, the heart is right in the middle, like when you cut an onion. In the winter, the heart moves to the side, the outer shell dies and moves away, so in January, the old heart is now on the side, and it has created a new heart in the middle.

“This is unique to a lot of things in the way that (the ramp) operates. If it can’t go through that cycle, the ramp will try to grow within itself, and you’ll end up with a deformed ramp. So, you can’t greenhouse them. They need those four seasons.”

Though he’s helped others establish their own ramp patches, and there are plenty of other people, especially in Appalachia, who sell ramps, Facemire is said to have the only ramp farm in the world.

“Folks around here, a lot of them have had ramps over the years,” he said. “But not necessarily a ramp farm where it’s working.”

Facemire estimates he submits about 50,000 to 70,000 individual ramps for shipping a year.

“The demand is much more than we can produce,” he said.

“Ramps are one of the fastest-growing alliums for chefs. It’s really big in upscale restaurants.”

Chef Tim Urbanic, owner of Cafe Cimino Country Inn, has been using ramps, often with morels, another Appalachian delicacy, for years - in gnocchi, dressing, with pork belly and other dishes.

“We get as many as we can at the start of the season,” Urbanic said.

“They freeze really well, so we try to extend the season as long as they’ll last.”

Facemire, though, prefers to eat his ramps in more traditionally Southern ways - sautéed up, in a quiche or made into a gravy and served with biscuits and eggs.

Oh, and the ramp’s odorous reputation doesn’t put him off, either.

“The smell is different, and you’ll be able to identify it over an onion or garlic, but the flavor is also so much different,” he said.

“It’s nothing that normal hygiene won’t take care of. You don’t need bleach water or anything like that. I’ve often said that people that don’t eat ramps smell funny.”

___

Information from: The Charleston Gazette, http://www.wvgazette.com

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