Thursday, May 19, 2011

Ramps - The Case for Sustainability

Ramps are one of the first foraged spring vegetables. My father picked these wild leeks that he found in our yard.  He would only pick a little bit and leave some for next year.  They would be eaten raw and my father smelled faintly of garlic for days.  When we moved into that house, the yard had only a small patch but by the time my parents moved, it was a decent patch that was always mowed around and cared for by leaving it alone.

Lately, there has been debate around the foodieness of this small vegetable. There is a good article in Time about the overly zealous and almost breathless catechism of seasonal foodies that even drops a dig about fiddleheads and the book, "The United States of Arugula", both which I would recommend trying.  A rebuttal, on Serious Eats gives all the right reasons to be seasonal and defends the placement of ramps in the pantheon of the gods of locavores and foodies.

On a more serious side, I am always torn about ramps.  I did have the privilege of eating them when I was young. They were eaten only in the spring because that is the only time they were around.  Every year, there is always an issue of sustainability in any of the foraged or hunted foods.  In Quebec, it has been illegal to harvest these alliums for a while (BTW, day lilies are in the same family and are supposedly edible.  Who knew?).   There are concerns about wild patches being foraged to extinction.   Often, the theory of the Tragedy of the Commons is used to show how any common or shared area will eventually be depleted by self interested individuals.  Studies show that common goods are treated more shabbily than individual goods.

The ideas around commons sharing allowed for farmer's lands to be enclosed in England creating winners and losers in land use and ownership often ignoring the management of lands that existed before the enacted legislation.  I am more interested in extended metaphors that may be a better one than all people are inherently greedy and will try to put one past you.  Let's talk about the tragedy of the rhubarb.

I have a patch of rhubarb in my backyard.  My backyard is owned by me but I am not super vigilant in ensuring that no one goes there.  The rhubarb is some new delicious variety that defies transplanting and cultivating.  I share this rhubarb with some friends of mine and over time we have a yearly ritual of getting together for a rhubarb social. Every year the circle expands and the event becomes a thing.

I am a careful steward but eventually the supply outstrips the demand so I start selling some and only keep a little bit for myself ensuring that I don't overtax this little patch. The socials stop. Some people are willing to spend quite a bit of money for a few sticks of rhubarb and I sell.  Some of my friends know about my patch and felt as if it was something that I should continue to share.  After all, they were part of the rhubarb social before.  So, they think who will know...and take a few stalks from my backyard.

Eventually, someone offers them some money and they take a few more stalks; a few more won't hurt... and you can see how this goes. 

At this point in time in North America most land is claimed.  This is not a case of the commons but rather of private property and the owners requirements of good stewardship.  I am not sure of the answer to the complicated issue of who owns wild nature products but to treat nature as a common good is a bit of a straw man.  Unless rights to nature somehow morphs into a specific right like water rights, right of ways and endangered species, there is very little recourse for those who consider that the whole of nature is a common good over private rights.  The issue remains to be one about the management of the land regardless of ownership. It isn't really that common goods are inherently mistreated by greedy people. Read the criticisms of the commons and decide for yourself. 

There is much more to say on this issue but I am sure that it will come up in the coming weeks as new wild goods comes to the farmer's market.  I hope to develop this argument as I am sure that it is still a little facile and this article is becoming overly long.

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