While I’ve dabbled in many wild edibles in our 20 plus years, wild leeks – or Ramps as they call them in southern states – have been a mainstay from the beginning. They were the first item I ever pickled at home and one of the first products I sold at farmer’s markets under the Food For Thought brand.
All wild edibles are gaining in popularity with leeks dominating many markets. As a result, concern over sustainable harvesting methods is gaining attention and even resulting in prohibitions from harvesting or selling Wild Leeks in some parts of Canada and the eastern U.S.
For years I’ve had my own method of sustainable harvesting from our wood lot. In short it includes:
- Never use tools or dig into the rhizome (the main root from which the bulbs grow).
- We map and mark harvest zones so we never hit the same spot two years in a row.
- We never take more than half the bulbs from any one cluster.
- Never take the bulb that contains the seed pod
- Leave no trace
Lot’s of people have their own methods, and there’s little science behind any of them – though I’d venture that if any method includes a shovel and wheelbarrow, it’s likely depleting the resource.
Those of us concerned about sustainable harvesting have been winging it on our own and hoping for the best. After close to 20 years of harvesting my woodlot, my eyes can’t see a difference. Yet eyes only see part of the story.
In comes the Institute for Sustainable Foraging (ISF) a non-profit based in Traverse City, Michigan. (http://sustainablyforaged.org/). They’ve recently joined forces with the College of Natural Resources and Environment at Virginia Tech, the U.S. Forest Service and the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Indians. It’s an ongoing study Led in part by Dr. James Chamberlain, a United State Forest Service Technologist and his team of researchers. They bring over 15 years of research around sustainable leek harvesting throughout the U.S. Together with Joe Lisewski, Director of ISF, they recently visited Food For Thought and joined me for a walk in our forest.
Because our wood lot is certified organic we’ve documented all harvests, including dates, amounts harvested, locations and more. As Jim stated, “The Food For Thought forest provides us a unique opportunity to compare a population that has been harvested with another part of the same population that has not been harvested. This is special. More often we don’t get the chance to do this. In addition, the method that you use to harvest is very different from the typical harvest method. Documenting the way that you harvest is special. It will provide valuable knowledge of an alternative approach to harvesting. It could change the way ramps are harvested, across the range. This is a tremendous opportunity.”
Jim’s team will be engaging in a pre-harvest inventory of our forest, followed by observing and documenting our harvest.
They intend to do this over years to monitor impact with the goal in the end: 1) examine post-harvest recovery of plant populations; 2) monitor harvest impacts over a long time frame, and; 3) assess replanting potential.
Thanks to this group, we’ll eventually have an opportunity to put some science behind all the different methods, theories and opinions. That’s good for our foraging culture and our planet.
For a primer in leek harvesting see my video here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lAl6ZL0hiBk