Increasing the Product Supply of Ramps via Enhanced Plantings and Educational Farm Programming

Progress report for ONE21-383

Project Type: Partnership
Funds awarded in 2021: $29,876.00
Projected End Date: 09/30/2024
Grant Recipient: West Virginia University
Region: Northeast
State: West Virginia
Project Leader:
Dr. David McGill
WVU Appalachian Hardwood Center
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Project Information

Project Objectives:

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.

Introduction:

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.

Cooperators

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  • April Koenig - Producer

Research

Materials and methods:
 

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 Stratification to Improve Germination: One-half pound of seeds (~10, 000 seeds) will be ordered for anticipated arrival at SF in August 2021.  To speed germination, seeds will be mixed in moist vermiculite and stored in a Ziploc bag for 60 days at room temperature to speed germination. After seeds ripen in September, the embryo is still immature and needs a couple of months more of warmth to continue developing. In the South this happens naturally after seed ripening with a warmer fall. However, in cooler areas, embryos typically do not mature until the next summer, so germination takes an extra year. After simulating this warmer period artificially, seeds will be sown in container flats or directly into soil to produce transplant bulbs.

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.

Research results and discussion:

Fall 2021 

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

A look at the open trench and disturbed soil prior to placing burlap
Transplant Bulbs
Active planting of sugar bush site
Single bulb of nice transplant quality from Gates Hill Farm
Transplant bulbs arrive en masse via USPA
Separating transplant bulbs into groups of five prior to planting

Trenching Video

Installing burlap in the trench to faciliate lining when transplants are harvested
Demonstration Plot installed at WVU Research Forest
A completed trench about 6" deep prior to burlap lining
Pulling trencher to sugarbush

Participation Summary
1 Farmer participating in research

Education & Outreach Activities and Participation Summary

2 Consultations
2 Tours

Participation Summary:

1 Farmers
1 Number of agricultural educator or service providers reached through education and outreach activities
Education/outreach description:

The project team has a comprehensive recruitment plan that will engage in transferring results to Beginner Farmer Training Program (BFTP) participants, that will be available in a variety of mediums – including experiential learning demonstration areas on Sprouting Farms and e-modules for a broader audience.

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. Additionally, project partners and supporters in West Virginia will help recruit participants by sharing postings, notices, and news through their social media accounts. The project team has relationships with local and statewide news organizations and local TV and radio stations. All project workshops, events, and training information will be distributed through these contacts as well as through the West Virginia Department of Agriculture’s monthly Market Bulletin.

After data collection, and analysis of at least one harvest testing our model, SF would include ramp production as part of its offerings taking place through national and regional list serves and internship/apprenticeship posting sites including but not limited to ComFoodjobs Listserv, Good Food Jobs, Sustainable Ag Jobs, Sustainable Ag Ed, ATTRA, beginningfarmers.org, National Young Farmers Coalition, and Sustainable Food Jobs. Specifically, both WVU and SF would collaborate and present at the WV Extension Service Small Farms Conference to attract other farmers in the region.  In addition, 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 will produce at least one peer-reviewed journal article and several popular articles focused on project outcomes.

Learning Outcomes

1 Farmers reported changes in knowledge, attitudes, skills and/or awareness as a result of their participation
Key areas in which farmers reported changes in knowledge, attitude, skills and/or awareness:

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. 

Project Outcomes

1 New working collaboration
Project outcomes:

Pending, but currently Sprouting Farms staff are optimistic these methods will yield ramps for harvest with reduced labor needs.

Assessment of Project Approach and Areas of Further Study:

We are on track to answer all research questions.  

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.