Progress report for ONE21-383
Our project seeks to quantify potential return on investment of ramps as a specialty crop with multiple market entry and exit points for ramps that can be integrated with existing operations to create additional revenue opportunities. Our objectives will answer: can we develop a propagation and management model that can create an opportunity for farms to boost income? This partnership will demonstrate a viable plan to create revenue that will encourage farms to add ramps to their portfolio of offerings, and in turn alleviate pressure on wild populations.
This project seeks to capture the labor and financial resources needed to prepare both ramp transplants and mature ramp bulbs for market by comparing two methods of seeding to generate transplant bulbs (designated greenhouse space and direct seeding), and two methods of planting transplant bulbs to mature ramp plants (for harvest or seed collection). These comparisons will be integrated into outreach programming, specifically Beginner Farmer Training Program, to educate farmers on avenues to profitability in producing ramps. While this funding cycle is too short to evaluate all aspects of ramp production for market, this project will provide baseline financials to spur additional cooperative investment (grant or private dollars) for ramp cultivation.
Research suggests wild ramps are in decline (Baumflek and Chamberlain 2019), but the posts from West Virginia Ramp Diggers Facebook® group (especially since COVID-19) demonstrate a thriving demand for foraged ramps (and tips to establish ramps); with posts reflecting some yields in the hundreds of pounds and buyers looking to purchase in bulk. This represents an opportunity for West Virginia farms, which have the lowest average economic output of any state ($38,000), with ¾ of them selling less than $10,000 annually. There are 23,000 farms in WV averaging 157 acres, commonly relying on seasonal differentiation and niche markets (Christmas trees, maple syrup, asparagus, berries, medicinal herbs, cut flowers, mushrooms) to increase agricultural income.
Sprouting Farms was developed to grow the economic output of farms by providing technical advice and resources needed to create opportunities to grow the agriculture economy. Ramps are an ideal long-term investment to those enrolled in the beginning farmer training programs, as well as the e-modules offered. They are perennial, cannot over-mature; and continue to multiply, via bulb-splitting and seeding, indefinitely. They can be part of a multi-stage agroforestry model that works over generations, that practices whole farm diversification as a pathway to sustainability in both good land stewardship and business practices. However, despite a consistent demand, there is no ‘start-up’ model for initiating ramp cultivation for commercial production. The distribution partner of SF, Turnrow has seen ramp demand outpace supply since first offering them in 2017. To facilitate adoption of ramps on farms, the partnership between WVU and SF will compare and document the start-up resources needed to produce nursery stock from seed and establishing mature ramp plots for harvest with transplant bulbs. Sprouting Farms is dedicated to the exploration of a sustainable supply of ramps to meet market demand and currently sees multiple market entry and exit points (transplant bulbs vs. greens vs. mature plants vs seed) that allow farmers options in establishing revenue-producing operations to serve the various markets for ramp production.
To educate farmers, specifically those enrolling in Beginning Farmers Training Programs (BFTPs), this partnership will evaluate: 1) seed to nursery stock comparisons between a controlled environment (greenhouse) with direct seeding in forest plots, and 2) planting of nursery stock using a novel mechanized, forest planting technique meant to facilitate harvest versus traditional ‘Extension’ raised bed-style forest plantings to finish these bulbs to market size. By demonstrating the ability to increase start-up efficiencies for entering a market via multiple entry points, the BFTP will promote ramps as an ancillary income stream suitable for operations with standing timber. Our partnership will quantify differences in survival, growth, and labor reductions in cultivation techniques, broken down by these two stages (seed to nursery stock, transplant bulb to mature plant) to evaluate the effectiveness in terms of farm effort cost-efficiencies. The aim is to create opportunities for additional on-farm revenue and protect wild ramps in the future by cultivating an agricultural economic opportunity, as an alternative to regulation.
- - Producer
The partnership with our innovative farming partner will enhance the methodologies used to cultivate ramps systematically and in a cost-effective manner. Sprouting Farms will integrate plantings within the space of existing operations, and be responsible for the long-term care of these crops. The ramp seeding and bulb transplanting densities and spacing will be based on Dion et al. (2016b) and ramp farmer Glen Facemire’s (2009) recommendations.
Preparation of Amended Ramp Soil for Propagation: To maximize the likelihood of successful ramp plantings (as well as other plantings), Sprouting Farms amends plantings by fertigating soil based on Korean Farming Techniques (Keliikuli et al. 2019) to develop micro-organisms likely to facilitate growth response in their plantings based on a symbiotic relationship. Preparations include collecting two, five-gallon buckets of leaf mold and soil base from a known productive, wild ramp patch and depositing them into a 55-gallon drum. Then, the SF team makes a potato starch concentrate from organically grown potatoes in a blender with water. The soil (microbe load) in the collected soil/leaf debris is then fed in the drum by combining it with the concentrate and topping off with water and mixing occasionally. After three weeks, the solution will be divided to fertigate ramp growing mediums with the solution. Five gallons will be applied over time during initial watering to the seed flats in greenhouses and seed beds prepared through direct seeding (equal volume for each treatment). Similarly, as transplant bulbs are set into forest plots, both the traditional and the mechanically assisted beds, the remaining 40 gallons of solution will be equally applied to both treatments initially to encourage microbial activity.
Seed to Nursery Stock Trials: The Partnership team between WVU and SF will cultivate the seeds in container flats, and direct seed into the soil under shade conditions with the intention to transplant bulbs after three years. Although density may vary by size of container, each container in a greenhouse is expected to hold 200 ramp seeds based on planting densities resulting in approximately 25 flats of ramp seed to bulb. Outdoor direct seeding will take place in demonstration areas under natural shade conditions. Seeds will be placed approximately ½-inch under the soil layer in plots marked with flagging and stakes. The 5,000 seeds planted outdoors are anticipated to be in a series of raised bed rows totaling around 100 linear feet with three rows of seeds planted in each bed for a total of 30 seeds planted per square foot. Seeding will be deliberate and counted for each plot, as Spring 2022 and Spring 2023 will require survival estimates of seeds based on leaf out; but no other morphological data on these ramps are collected for these first two sampling periods. In Spring of 2024, a total of 25% of the prepared beds will be dug up for comparison to a random sample of 25% of the bulbs grown in container plots. Samples will be weighed and evaluated for appropriate sizing to determine if the three-year cycle successfully enabled the growth of ramp transplants from seeds, and to evaluate any differences in bulb life-history attributed to the seed planting methodology.
Nursey Stock to Mature Plant Trials: Using the existing nursery stock cultivated by SF over the past two seasons, SF will follow two methodologies for planting transplant bulbs for mature harvest. One half of the transplant bulbs (approximately 85 plants) will be propagated in an agroforestry context featuring raised beds consisting of logs and leaf litter consistent with bed preparation described by Chamberlain et al. (2014). In brief, under the shade of deciduous trees, SF staff will make a series of low raised beds edged with lumber or logs and cover the soil with lots of well-rotted leaves. Transplants will be planted in these beds, and like seedlings, monitored during Spring of 2022 and 2023 for survival. These ‘traditionally’ planted ramp beds will be compared to an alternative planting featuring bulb bed preparation using a mechanized trencher to loosen and rip the ‘duff’ layer of soil on contoured rows within the forest instead of building up raised beds. These trenches will be approximately 6” wide and up to 8” deep and a strip of burlap will line the bottom and sides, forming a “U” in the trench before being backfilled and stocked with the other half of prepared nursery stock bulbs. To recap, these transplanted bulbs were selected for independent evaluation due to the long maturation process of these plants, and to an additional set of transferable results with regards to the ramp market during the funding cycle for this award. The burlap was added to determine if there might be any efficiencies associated with harvest of ramps in beds prepared in this manner.
Plots will be planted and tended by Sprouting Farms staff, as they will be responsible for quantifying the level of resources needed to develop and grow ramps in stages, as well the long-term management and care of these ramp patches after this funding expires. Trench end points will be plotted with GPS and marked with wood stakes. Colored line, representing treatments, will be stretched between rebar to visually represent plot treatments during data collection. Annual monitoring will require survival estimates based on leaf-out during Spring of 2022 and 2023, while similar to seed trials, 25% of ramps will be dug up on the last year of the funding cycle (2024) to evaluate any differences in growth vigor as well as year to year survival.
Statistical Evaluation and Outreach:
WVU will compare treatment data among seed and transplant bulb treatments using simple Chi-square tests for germination and year-to-year survival, and t-tests for weight differences between harvested products. Quantitative data for the maintenance of these beds, including money invested, time required to tend each operation, and the results yields will be gathered and presented in Sprouting Farms farmer education programming.
Statistical results are critical to document in a Final Report for the standard research format. However, the true measure of success will be in promoting visually stimulating results, and audience engagement exploring ramp production opportunities. The ramp patches and results will be part of the new farmer education program, and highlighted in outreach and e-modules, should these cost-efficiencies provide additional profitability compared to existing methods that are touted, it would further the likelihood of adoption by others.
In late fall of 2021, we received 6,000 seeds, 950 transplant bulbs, and 300 mature bulbs from Gates Hill Farm in Vermont. On November 16th, we planted 300 mature bulbs for non-consumptive evaluation, and 600 transplant bulbs with our partner, Sprouting Farms, in Talcott, WV. The remaining 350 transplant bulbs were planted at the WVU Research Forest two days after on November 18th.
The seeds were placed in cold storage, and then planted 5 to a group in greenhouse trays and placed outside anticipating a spring 2022 germination.
Doing some measuring before planting
Germination tray at Sprouting Farms
Dormant ramp plant among maple trees at Sprouting Farm.
Spring 2022 Results
Ramps are known to be notoriously slow-growing and challenging to establish cultivated beds, especially considering they were planted the preceding fall. The prepared beds were not harvested, only observed to evaluate the survival of the two-year old bulbs and the 'ramplets'. Seeds were sown both in the ground, but also in prepared greenhouse trays. Based on visual estimates, the two-year old ramp transplants had a survival rate of approximately 85% , while ramplets were estimated to be approximately 65%. Seeds germination rate was abysmal. Annual monitoring results are tabulated below (Table 1) and will be updated annually up to harvest on 25% of the sample in Spring of 2024 to measure growth.
|Sprouting Farms||Planted||Weighed Sample Size||Lots of 25 plants||Average per lot||Average weight per Two-year old bulb||Price per Bulb||Survival Estimate|
|Two-year old ramp bulbs||250||100||4||5.275||0.211||$1.79||85%|
|Two-year old ramp bulbs||150||$1.79||85%|
Monitoring Year 2022 Discussion
Results were disappointing - especially with regards to seeds - but not all together unexpected. The first year of cultivation of a traditionally grow 'wild' foraging crop was not expected to be easy. Two year transplant bulbs met general expectations, however the 'ramplets' survival were less than one would have hoped. As noted, seed germination was abysmal. Researchers called Devin Bachelder of Gates Hill Farm, who supplied our stocking. He suggested the ramplets may have been planted slightly too deep, but urged us not to give up hope on them or the seconds for the second year. He suggests that sometimes seeds will take up to two years to germinate, matching the literature. He considered his technique to get seeds to germinate en masse that enables him to see ramplets is intellectual property and gives his farm a competitive advantage. We are inclined to agree with him based on our results.
Two year old ramp transplants emerging in Spring of 2022
Our research is on-going, but suggest the germination of seeds consistently could be considered a 'farmer's secret.' However, we are excited to evaluate our harvesting technique in terms of time-savings in two years. Currently, we see an production market with easiest point of entry to purchase ramplets and grow them out as being a better return on investment than two-year old transplant bulbs.
Education & Outreach Activities and Participation Summary
Currently, SF onsite program participants include aspiring and beginning farmers, area schools, colleges, workforce programs, veterans to agriculture programs, workforce development centers, general community events, and through local nonprofits and organizations and host a growing 500 visitors annually onsite that would learn about opportunities in ramp cultivation.
The SF website provides program information including a digital application form. Beginning farmer training and workshops are promoted through two social media platforms managed by SF and through an email list. The following is a link to the distributed ListServe that educated other producers on the planting and status of the project. This link was distributed to 400 regional farmers and producers.
Additional updates and pictures will be posted during Spring of 2023 to updates.
Based on the results of our upcoming Spring growing season, our outreach will feature a digital campaign to publish the resulting content on WVU Extension-approved platforms to promote the applied techniques and emerging ramp markets. This includes any failures in estimating the ramp transplant, non-consumptive use market, as well as our research approach. Analytics will target audiences, tracking interested parties, and feature a ‘call to action’ command prompting follow-up requests, ensuring interested parties receive the information they desire from the project team. WVU still plans to produce at least one peer-reviewed journal article and several popular articles focused on project outcomes.
Currently have not consulted outside farmers beyond our partner, Sprouting Farm. However, farmers were cautiously optimistic at the ease of planting and look forward to seeing germination and transplants sprout this spring.
Pending, but currently Sprouting Farms staff are optimistic these methods will yield ramps for harvest with reduced labor needs. Most important aspect of this is realizing that the 'sweet spot' for producer may be in the production of ramps from ramplets; not in the production of seeds or growing from seeds - nor growing from two-year old transplants.
We are on track to answer all research questions; however need to coordinate better with partner farm - Sprouting Farms - as they are now under new management and need to improve communication to ensure continuity of the project.