West Virginia ramp farmer looking for successor
By RICK STEELHAMMER, Charleston Gazette-Mail
RICHWOOD, W.Va. (AP) — Glen Facemire, owner of what may be the world’s only ramp farm and West Virginia’s top promoter, educator and product developer of the aromatic, early spring herb, is planning to hang up his ramp hoe.
“I will be passing my ramp farm business on to someone else, hopefully a person or a couple who really have their hearts in it,” said Facemire, now in his mid-70s.
Facemire’s G-N Ramp Farm, a 71-acre patch of woodland that clings to a hillside overlooking the South Fork of Cherry River on the edge of Richwood, took shape after he retired from his job as a U.S. Postal Service letter carrier in Charleston. The “N” in G-N Ramp Farm stands for Norene, his wife and a fellow ramp fan, who handled the ramp farm’s business chores prior to her death two years ago.
The ramp farm is located a short distance down the mountain from his childhood homeplace, where, every spring, bushels of ramps were dug, trimmed and cleaned, and then canned in a mild brine solution before being stored in a root cellar along with potatoes to serve as a winter food staple.
Back then, the ramp wasn’t considered a gourmet wild food item, as it is now. “It was just food,” Facemire said.
During Facemire’s childhood, his father, Glen B. Facemire, gathered all the ramps needed for the annual Richwood ramp feed, the Feast of the Ramson, while he and his mother handled the cleaning and trimming chores.
“That was back when they served 200 or 300 people — not the crowds of 1,200 or more people we get now,” he said.
To help whet his state’s appetite for the ramp, Facemire, while living in Charleston, returned to the Richwood area on weekends during ramp season to dig hundreds of pounds of the wild leek, which were sold at a produce market on Patrick Street.
Facemire said the idea of enhancing the ramp population on his property by planting seeds took shape in the early 1990s, while turkey hunting.
“I was sitting in a blind and I noticed there were ramps with seed all around me,” he said. He used an empty sandwich bag to gather seeds and brought them to an especially shady, moist section of his land near an old fence line, where he planted them.
“Almost two years later, baby ramps started to show up,” he said.
Glen and Norene Facemire’s business, Ramp Farm Specialties, started out selling freshly dug ramps to restaurants and food vendors in the region, and eventually, across the nation.
The couple decided to expand the product line to add ramp products that could be marketed year-round, including ramp jelly, ramp mustard, pickled ramps, ramp candy, ramp salt, ramp biscuit mix, ramp gravy mix, and at one time, ramp bolo ties.
At ramp festivals, the Facemires sold such items as chocolate-dipped ramps, along with Glen’s DIY ramp-growing book, “Having Your Ramps and Eating Them, Too,” and his book about the plant’s natural life, “Ramps: From the Seed to the Weed.”
In recent years, Facemire has focused on selling ramp seeds and ramp bulbs to make it possible for people to garden-raise their own ramps. Interest in grow-your-own ramps has apparently taken root.
“Last year, we sold about 45,000 bulbs” he said. While discussing the bulb trade further, Facemire took a call from a New York woman who had bought bulbs for a friend last year, but now wanted some to plant for herself.
While Facemire focuses on seed and bulb sales, Bruce Donaldson, of Donaldson’s Greenhouse and Landscaping, is Richwood’s primary purveyor of fresh ramps. He ships tons of them each spring by overnight mail to restaurants as distant as Seattle. On Wednesday, he was holding a pair of larger orders for food service vendors in Washington, D.C., and Charlotte, North Carolina, to pick up.
Even before celebrity chefs began extolling the virtues of the pungent herb, it was hard to supply the demand for fresh ramps due to the brief time the plant is harvest-ready and the fact that people have to venture far afield in the cold to dig them.
“Ever since I’ve been in this business, there’s never been enough ramps to go around,” said Facemire. But since the ramp has become known as a gourmet wild food, demand has skyrocketed.
“I’ve had chefs in New York call me and ask me to send them 100 pounds a week,” he said. “The USDA sent a group of food buyers here once, and some of them were interested — if we could ship them a ton every few weeks. A Japanese buyer wanted us to ship partially pickled ramps to him in barrels. I just can’t fill orders like that. I have 71 acres and they’re not all in ramps. Maybe if we had a co-op it would work, but I think we will always have a deficit of ramps for the people who want to be supplied with them.”
Demand for ramps, he said, has forced diggers to forage ever deeper into the woods to gather the wild leek.
“It’s time to be more conscious about what we’re doing,” he said. “If we keep going on digging more and more without doing anything different, we are going to deplete the resource.”
Overharvesting prompted National Park Service officials to ban ramp-digging in Great Smoky Mountains National Park several years ago, although the practice is allowed, for personal use only, in National Forests, including West Virginia’s Monongahela National Forest.
In the NPS-managed New River Gorge National River, personal-use ramp digging is allowed, although a daily limit of 1/8 bushel, or about half a standard paper grocery bag, has been put in place.
Facemire believes ramp consumption hasn’t become so critical that a drastic cutback on digging is needed. “People need to be more conservative in the way they dig ramps,” he said. “Johnny Appleseed had a purpose in his life, and if we don’t follow his lead, our ramps could become seriously depleted.”
Hunters, hikers, ramp-diggers and other outdoor enthusiasts should collect ramp seeds and “spread them around in the areas they travel,” he said. “We can’t keep going on like we are without replenishing. But it needs to be done in an organized way,” he said, with support from the Forest Service and other land managers.
Since becoming involved with the ramp on a full-time basis, Facemire has been invited to speak at small farm conferences throughout the region, consulted with the Cherokee Nation about restoring ramps on tribal lands, and hosted researchers exploring the medicinal possibilities of ramps. He and his wife also traveled to ramp festivals across the region.
“I’ve been blessed to meet so many people, and make so many friends,” he said. “You wouldn’t think running a ramp business would lead to something like that, but it has.”
Information from: The Charleston Gazette-Mail, http://wvgazettemail.com.