Final report for GS20-232
Appalachia faces several economic and social challenges given losses in manufacturing, a waning coal industry and accompanying poverty and drug use. Although the region’s steep topography limits its use for traditional agricultural production, its natural beauty and unique plant resources could serve as springboards to a brighter future. Sustainable forest farming practices, in particular, could generate new economic opportunities for the region by leveraging its people’s long-standing connections to forest plants. While Appalachia’s people have a rich history of utilizing native non-timber forest products such as ramps, ginseng, goldenseal, and black cohosh, the primary means of supply has been through “wild harvest”. This extractive approach has long-term negative effects on product sustainability and economic potential. Sustainable forest farming can create greater product value while both reducing pressures on natural populations and meeting the demands of global markets. This project will expand economic opportunities in Appalachia by developing and expanding forest farming of ramps. We will collect ramp bulbs and seeds from five unique environments on private and public (including USFS) lands in Virginia and North Carolina and compare these ecotypes for above- and belowground productivity. We will also evaluate their response to inoculation with arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi. Along with these production measures, we will create a regional habitat suitability map for potential ramp farmers. This project will enhance ramps production and promote the sustainability and resilience of forest farming practices in Appalachia.
This project will compare the development and production of unique ramp ecotypes collected from several sites across Appalachia and determine if inoculation with AMF can improve ramp productivity. This project also will lead to the creation of site assessment tools, ramp production guides and development of planting stock to support forest-farmed ramp production in the Appalachian region of Virginia. To accomplish this, we will:
Evaluate diverse ramp lines (selections) collected from different woodland habitats in Virginia and North Carolina.
Determine whether and to what degree, inoculation with AMF supports ramp growth
Conduct outreach efforts to support adoption of sustainable ramp production practices and increase awareness of ramp economic potential. Extension efforts will include:
- A field day demonstrating ramp research to growers in the region.
- Development of a habitat suitability map for ramps and provide that as a tool to the producers.
To accomplish Objective 1:
Working in collaboration with the US Forest Service, a town municipality and with private landowners, we will harvest 50-100 bulbs, seed stalks and soil from each ramp site in the spring (bulb) and fall (seeds). Ramps will be sampled from a minimum of 5 sites spread throughout Appalachian Virginia and North Carolina. Collection sites represent different elevations, soil types, and aspects and other site conditions, which will be recorded.
Seeds will be planted in prepared beds in three forest sites at the Catawba Sustainability Center, Catawba, VA, representing different site conditions without soil amendments, and in prepared growing media in a raised bed with 70 percent artificial shade. Bulbs will be planted only in forest sites.
To accomplish Objective 2:
We will select commercial AMF with high colonization rates for tests of inoculum source. Half of the ramp samples (both seeds and bulbs) will be inoculated with commercial AMF and half uninoculated. The seeds will be inoculated with AMF during sowing in October 2020 and the bulbs will be inoculated with AMF during its planting in March 2021. The germination rate of seeds inoculated with AMF and without AMF will be measured after each 6 months from the date of sowing. On the other hand, the mean biomass growth of the blubs in a plot with AMF versus without AMF as well as the mean leaf area will be measured in the subsequent growing seasons. Similarly, the number of AMF colonization will be counted with in the sub sample of inoculated bulbs to see the relation between the colonization rate vs the size of the bulb. Percentage of mycorrhizal colonization will be determined by gridline intersect method .
To accomplish Objective 3:
Field days and on farm research: Potential farmers will be invited to a ramp production workshop in spring 2022 to demonstrate the existing plots at Catawba Sustainability Center (CSC, Catawba, VA) and Kentland farm (Blacksburg, VA) and also to demonstrate the current bulb and seed propagation methods at CSC farm.
In addition to these outreach efforts, we will build a ramps site/habitat suitability map to provide as a tool for producers. We will collect habitat data for ramps which will include variables that are important for the growth and production of ramps. Using the reliable sources and literature we will define the suitable range of these variables for the growth of ramps, give score to each range of variables, build suitability map for ramps with regards to each significant variable and finally build a final suitability map using final score for each variable.
In this project, we aimed to expand economic opportunities in Appalachia by developing sustainable production techniques to expand forest farming of ramps. For that, we collected ramp bulbs from eight unique environments on private and public (including USFS) lands in Virginia, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and West Virginia to determine if there are any difference in plant growth and production between different ecotypes. Ramp seeds were collected from 2 unique sites from Virginia and one from Minnesota for tests to determine if seeding can be a viable establishment method.
We created a “forest simulated” experimental site for this research, testing both above- and belowground productivity. Ramp seeds (which have two types of dormancy) were sown in the field in October 2020 and we anticipate that they will germinate within a year to 18 months. For the bulb ecotypes we measured leaf length, leaf width, and bulb diameter before planting; chlorophyll florescence (a measure of photosynthetic capacity) also was measured for each plant two weeks after planting. Because bulbs were planted in spring 2021, we will be able to observe growth differences in spring 2022.
In separate experiments, we inoculated seeds and bulbs with arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi (AMF) to evaluate response. Plant measure will be collected after emergence in 2022. In order to expedite the cycle, we also tested inoculation with AMF under controlled conditions in a growth chamber experiment. Although our understanding is that ramp top growth senesces with the advent of factors related to increased day length, the plants inside the chamber behaved exactly like the plants outside. This suggests ramp senesce is programed to time, not environmental cues.
Similarly, to hasten seed germination, we kept seeds in sealed plastic bags with vermiculite for 3 months at room temperature and 3 months in a refrigerator (4 degree Celsius) for seed stratification. Ecotypes responded differently, with seed from Minnesota beginning to germinate after that 6-month period of refrigeration. To validate this faster germination, we repeated the same process with another set of the same seeds which are expected to be ready mid-November, 2021. Among ramp samples collected, about 50% had AMF associations. Therefore, to test the effect of commercial AMF on ramp growth as well as with natural AMF, we imposed 3 treatments on ramp bulbs. For positive control treatments, bulbs were planted as they came from their native environment, negative controls were treated with fungicide before planting to kill existing AMF in roots, and the test group was inoculated with commercial AMF.
To further characterize ramp-fungal relationships, we sent soil samples from each of the eight ramp sampling sites to a commercial lab for AMF analysis. Using 16 rRNA and the ITS method for fungal identification, the lab identified 963 species of fungi present in these soil samples. Among them, only 7 species of fungi were endomycorrhizal fungi (that is fungi that grow within the root). Each of these 7 different species were found in different soil sampling sites, and the data are insufficient to determine if ramps in different locations are associated with different AMF species.
Our intent (and sampling method) was designed to determine ectomycorrhizal species in our soil samples. However, the identification of endomycorrhizal species using collection methods designed for ectomycorrhizae suggests there may be more endomycorrhizal species present in association with ramps. To further study the issue, we will collect another set of soil samples in 2022, using a different sampling technique.
Along with these production and ecological studies, we created 8 different habitat suitability maps for 8 different counties in 4 different states with in Appalachian region for potential ramp farmers. Comparison of site suitability maps with GPS locations for ramps patches indicates that most of the ramps patches fall within the moderate to high suitability range of the maps.
Educational & Outreach Activities
Field days and on farm research:
We have planned to invite potential farmers to a ramp production workshop in spring 2022 (due to COVID situation) to demonstrate the existing plots at Catawba Sustainability Center (CSC, Catawba, VA) and Kentland farm (Blacksburg, VA) and also to demonstrate the current bulb and seed propagation methods at CSC farm.
Habitat suitability tool:
We will provide the habitat suitability map of ramps for this area that we developed to the ramp producers during those field days that they can use as a tool.
Growing ramps in a forest farming system will benefit farmers by providing extra income. The idea of mycorrhizal inoculation coupled with planting better varieties (ecotypic) of ramps would benefit the farmers economically. The habitat suitability model we are developing will work as a tool for farmers and help them identify if their land is suitable for ramps production (and other woodland crops that grows in the similar habitat) and benefit farmers in terms of time and resources. The biggest and most important environmental benefit of this project is that growing ramps decreases the pressure on wild populations which improves conservation. Applying sustainable harvesting techniques in conjunction with efficiency-improving methods from this research will provide trained with the tools needed to ensure the future sustainability of ramps and their enterprise. Farmers who practice sustainable production will positively impact other growers/farmers in society, many of whom may be motivated to replicate said strategies.
Though the final result of the project is yet determined, several new ideas regarding how to grow ramps sustainably have emerged. During the course of this project, we observed that the sustainability for ramps production is possible at several stages - growth, harvest, and use. In terms of growing, the idea that ramps can be grown via seeds is one of the best examples. To study germination rates, we applied a new seed stratification technique involving seed and bulb inoculation. Results are not final as of the writing of this report. In terms of harvesting, extracting leaves of ramps instead of bulb is a possible technique. Bulb response following aerial harvest is of interest. During harvester interviews, we learned that many growers do not solely grow ramps, but they also grow other woodland botanicals too (ginseng, goldenseal, black cohosh, etc.) in a polyculture. This multi-cropping system is another good example of sustainable agriculture we learned in the context of forest farming during the course of this project.
Only a few studies have been completed on growing ramps in a forest farming setting. Further study on post-harvest experiences should be done and shared to recruit additional farmers. Confirmation studies on these kind of agroforestry practices will help farmers/growers initiate or improve production and inform the general public about forest farming. Following information on ecotypic variation on the ramps planted on our experimental site, we recommend future research assess some bioassay techniques to determine if there are nutritional or chemical differences in ramps grown in different regions of Appalachia. This insight would help farmers choose the best ramps to grow and promote value in the market.