What does it mean to forage 'sustainably'?
At Lindera Farms, our goal is to take extremely high quality ingredients and turn them into some really unique and varied vinegars. That’s a pretty basic pitch; but the underlying principal at all times is sustainability. Now for farms, those practices can range from as straightforward as following USDA Organic Certification Guidelines to Beyond-Organic practices ranging from Biodynamism, Polyfaceted farming, Non-Interventionism, Low-Chem Use, Innovative Labor Policies, etc. But, what about foraging?
We see it every year now. Your hipster friend manages to find his way out into the wilderness and posts non-stop about how he’s #foraging #ramps and enjoying the #greatoutdoors. To a degree, that’s great; anything to get someone away from Twitter and out into nature is, overall, a good thing.
Look closely at that picture. Is the bulb attached to the Ramp? Do the other plants nearby look trampled? How many plants are being cut or uprooted? How loud are they playing that obscure early Jack White song you’ve never heard before? All these contribute to whether your foraging practices are sustainable. So, just to give an idea, here’s how I approach foraging ramps for our Ramp Vinegar at Lindera Farms.
Step 1: Site Check
I get to cheat a bit here; Lindera Farms isn’t really a farm, per se. It’s a 225-acre nature reserve that we built in conjunction with the Nature Conservancy to restore a tributary into the Chesapeake Bay Watershed. The restoration project encompassed turning an old cattle farm that had destroyed the stream, and part of that meant reintroducing native, edible flora to the property, including persimmons, paw-paw, mulberries, elderflowers, ramps, and others.
The other -and more important for foraging- part was that the property, as a nature reserve, cannot be cut, sprayed, or cultivated for any purpose other than light agricultural pursuits and combating invasive species (In other words, Foraging).
This means that we cover the things YOU should be looking for when you’re out foraging:
Dressing should be applied after picking; not before: Make sure the site isn’t being sprayed with pesticides or herbicides and that nearby areas aren’t contributing to the ground water that’s feeding the plants you're foraging. This goes double for livestock rearing; as they have a tendency to defecate and urinate which also impacts what you’re eating. How you get your daily dose of carcinogens is your business, but I’d avoid them here.
Anti-Agoraphobia, Or, how I learned to stop being afraid and love a large crowd: Make sure wherever you’re foraging has a lot of the plant you’re there for. If you walk into the woods somewhere and find 2 square foot of ramps; leave it alone, let it grow, and let your kids reap the benefits someday.
This is America; watch out: If the property you’re foraging on is private, figure out who the owner is and make a sincere effort to get their permission. No mushroom is worth getting shot. Besides, most people will say yes, particularly if you tell them you’re foraging sustainably….and possibly bring a signed liability waiver. Also; go ahead and memorize the banjo chords from Deliverance and listen for them. Just in case.
See the forest through the trees: be conscious of the overall state of the place you’re foraging. If you’re foraging on a piece of land badly damaged by nearby or current agricultural practices; your foraging there may further contribute to that damage. Finding what you want can be hard; but in the long run it’s better to do the right thing and only forage from areas that can handle the strain.
Step 2. Crop Check
If you’re spending a decent chunk of your day in a fluorescently lit kitchen, cubicle, or 200 square foot Flatbush apartment you’re inexplicably paying 2k per month for, it’s understandable why people go overkill at the first sighting of anything green and edible in the wild. It’s visceral, "paleo", and counter to a lot of what seems to govern our lives these days. Find your restraint and look for a few things (using, again, ramps as an example)
Do Not Open Until Christmas; All crops have a peak season, when their yield is going to be highest; that can mean a number of things; berries at full ripeness, flowers in full bloom, leaves at full size. That’s important because each plant is only going to generate so much of the part you intend to forage; and since even professional foragers have quantities they’re trying to meet; the most important element of foraging sustainably is making sure each plant contributes as much as it can by weight. In other words; don’t pick baby plants!
Don’t pick on the wallflowers; A good piece of advice both in foraging and in high school, small clusters or isolated plants should be left alone. If you see a large cluster of Ramps it’s fair game; the seeds from the surrounding plants don’t travel far, so damage you cause is more likely to be mitigated more quickly. If you pick that colony that somehow developed 200 yards away from the main grouping of plants; it may have taken 5-10 years just to grow that much, and it won’t be coming back anytime soon.
Has Anyone else been here? People suck. No two ways about it, and just because you’re on your best eco-behavior doesn’t mean the rest of the foraging community is. To that end; if you see a colony heavily damaged by someone who clearly didn’t know what they were doing, it’s no fun to say, but move on and try to forage elsewhere and let the crop recover.
Step 3: Picking
Perhaps the most important facet of foraging is the actual act of picking said Ramps (or whatever it is you’ve put on your best Plaid and skinny jeans for). So here goes;
If it grows in the ground; it should stay in the ground; Whenever you see someone selling a full ramp; root/bulb to leaf; don’t buy it, and definitely don’t be the one selling it! If you cut the leaves from Ramps (which have just as much flavor and are all we use in making our vinegar) and leave the bulbs in the ground, then you just went from having a crop that’s gone forever, to a spring ephemeral you can rely on being there again and again. This isn’t license to clear-cut whole fields of ramps, but it does ensure you’ll be able to come back year after year to a consistent crop.
You’re not a caveman, no matter what you call your diet; bring tools!: Look, I get it, you want to getdirty; have your hands in the mud and be covered in berry juice. Well, maybe skip that not-so-needed step and instead rely on such new and exciting tools as; gardening shears, knives, and box cutters. Personally, I prefer the latter as box cutters have a very sharp, thin edge making for a cleaner cut that plants are less likely to develop an infection from, and therefore are more likely to survive till next year.
Still, for the sake of illustration; above is how one should be picking ramps (top photo) versus how one should not be picking ramps (bottom photo). If you bend and break a leaf, twig, berry, etc., you’re making the plant more susceptible to infection.
The rule of thirds: As it was once put to me, a safe bet for sustainability is 1/3 of a colony, tree, or bush. In other words, if you see thirty square feet of ramps, 10 should be your absolute cap. Now, personally, I like even numbers so I go with fourths - that’s 25 percent. The point is; less is more. And lest you get worried, if you’re in an area with ramps (or morels, chanterelles, etc.) where there are some, there is likely more. Keep surveying the area and you may find that 1/4-1/3 goes much further than you anticipate once you find the full crop quantity in an area.
There! You now are a positive contributor to local ecology when foraging Ramps, and in everything else you ever do. There are lots of pieces of advice on sustainable foraging I could give you, and far more than I even know; practices pertinent to specific plants, regions, soil types, personal grooming/hygiene habits, etc, all of which can impact local ecology and the well-being of the plants you want to grab. I promise you this though; if you follow the practices I outlined, you’ll be at least making a step in the right direction this season.