On the 23-hour Sunday that kicked off daylight saving time, about two dozen Chicagoans rose early and drove two hours south for the privilege of doing some old-fashioned labor. They were headed to a farm in Livingston County to dig and clean hundreds of wild onions to benefit the nonprofit organic-farming group the Land Connection.
Scientifically known as Allium tricoccum, these wild onions were called chicagoua by the Indians around the southern end of Lake Michigan 300 years ago, and are the source of our city’s name. In England they were ramson; in these parts they’re called ramps. Found in woodlands and fine restaurants for one short month every year–mid-March to mid-April–the leafy, aromatic plants taste like green onions crossed with garlic and when cooked take on a slightly nutty flavor. Except for lacking substantial bulbs, they’re as versatile as their domesticated cousins–onions, leeks, chives, and garlic–plus their leaves are broad enough to wrap around fish for baking.
Kris and Marty Travis hosted Sunday’s ramp dig at Spence Farm, which has been in Marty’s family for seven generations. The ramps we dug were in woodland a mile away that belongs to an elderly cousin. The Travises’ 160-acre farm has an organic, “heirloom varieties” slant, which includes the harvesting and selling of ramps to farmers’ markets, restaurants, and national wholesalers each spring. Last year Spence Farm hosted about 1,000 visitors looking to learn more about heirloom plants and sustainable agriculture. The Travises have a $23,000 specialty growers grant from the state Department of Agriculture to expand their educational mission, a process that will be jump-started later this month with the relocation of a one-room schoolhouse from about a mile east to the farm, where it will serve as a classroom and reception area.
On Sunday many of the plants harvested were going not to the usual markets but to the restaurants many of the diggers represented (several chefs came along), and to “Ramping Up for Spring,” a benefit for the Land Connection this Saturday night at the West Loop event space Prairie Productions. Besides a fairly elaborate ramp-centered tasting menu, attendees will get drinks, dessert, and a live auction of dinners, B & B stays, and Arts and Crafts items. Participating in the benefit will be chefs Paul Kahan (Blackbird), Amalea Tshilds and Jason Hammel (Lula Cafe), Dean Zanella (312 Chicago), John Bubala (Thyme), and Greg Christian (Greg Christian Catering). Creations will include Kahan’s duck liver terrine with grilled ramps, Tshilds and Hammel’s chevre panna cotta with slow-roasted ramps, and Bubala’s gravlax with wild-ramp pesto. Proceeds go to the Land Connection’s three-pronged mission of buying farmland threatened by development, training organic farmers, and connecting farmers and consumers.
The Travises’ ramps were a lucky accident. A few years ago, Marty Travis’s cousin complained that the wild plants were crowding wildflowers out of his woods. Neither chemicals nor mowing fazed them. Then Marty discovered they were crops, not weeds: these days, he says, they sell for $4 a pound wholesale, $8 a pound retail. Since then the Travises have sold all they can dig every spring. They make more money from a few acres of ramps than from 100 acres of corn and soybeans. The Travises favor organic farming on principle, but they’re happy about the economic benefits; they point out that a neighbor who farms 5,000 acres of corn and soybeans conventionally is being forced to sell his house and much of his farming equipment.
At the edge of the woods, the crowd was ready to start digging when Marty spoke up. “Let’s just stop and look and listen for a moment,” he said. Below the robin’s-egg blue sky and the narrow gray tree trunks lay an intermittent green carpet of leafy plants that a novice might mistake for lilies of the valley.
The leaves are flavorful with a kick at the end, but the ramps’ best parts are found underground: a characteristic green-and-white onion stalk attached to a network of roots. Kris demonstrated proper digging technique: insert a spade next to a clump, pry the ground loose, pull the plant out without breaking it off, and stack it in a cardboard produce box leafy side up.
This grove looks like it will last forever. But ramps’ biology remains mysterious. Transplanted to a garden, they grow but don’t flourish as in the woods. While they spread in Livingston County, they’re dying in the Appalachians; the U.S. Forest Service is trying to figure out why.
The group broke spontaneously into digging teams, one person to wield the spade and one or two to pull and box the ramps. After a half hour’s workout had filled a dozen or so boxes, Marty called everyone back to the turn-of-the-century farmhouse. Groups of three or four formed in the yard around buckets of warm water, where they doused the ramps to remove mud and the slimy outermost skin, but left the roots, which helps the ramps keep up to a week. Lunch included fresh-picked ramps sauteed with mushrooms prepared by Blackbird sous-chefs Dylan Fultineer and Jared Van Camp and Paul Virant from Vie in Western Springs.
The Land Connection, the Travises, and most of their Sunday visitors are dedicated to the notion that people in Illinois–and, ideally, the whole country–will one day know the pleasure and value of eating fresh, uncontaminated food produced on local farms. They’d like to turn the factory fields along I-57 into a patchwork of small farms–and to create, as Joel Smith, coleader of a group known as the Slow Food Chicago Convivium, said over lunch, a world in which that farmland would be so valued for the food it grew that it would be impossible to develop as anything else.
That vision remains distant. The Travises sell some ramps locally, to a store and restaurant in the nearby town of Fairbury. But most of what they dig travels to farmers’ markets, restaurants, and wholesalers farther away. In an average week they send not quite 100 pounds to Champaign, about 250 pounds to Chicago, another 250 pounds to an Oregon distributor, and 800 pounds to a Michigan distributor.
In the summertime, the Travises keep a farmstand out front. Marty tells of a woman who pulled in one day and exclaimed, “Thank god I found you! I moved down from Chicago a year ago. I thought I could stop at any farm and find something to eat. You’re the first farm I’ve found that actually sells food!”
Ramping Up for Spring
When: Sat 4/9, 6 PM-9 PM
Where: Prairie Productions, 1314 W. Randolph
Info: 773-761-2957, email@example.com
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Yvette Marie Dostatni, Mari Coyne.