Ramping it up

After a fortuitous find, South Central Power Company members David and Jane Kunkler specialize in aromatic agriculture.

The pursuit of fortune often leads people far from home. Sometimes, however, Lady Luck shows up unannounced literally right in your own backyard.

In 1976, David and Jane Kunkler purchased 40 rural acres in Perry County at a sheriff’s sale, built a home, and moved in. “The land had been uninhabited since 1888,” David Kunkler says. “A family by the name of Elder last lived on it. The husband and wife raised 13 children here.”

The Kunklers, members of South Central Power Company, enjoyed their picturesque property immensely, but they were often curious about the small, green plants that emerged from the forest floor during late winter each year. Growing in profusion, the plants covered 5 acres or more.

“It wasn’t until 2008, while reading an issue of Bon Appetit magazine, that I discovered the plants were ramps,” Kunkler says. “I learned that some people were paying big money for them — $13 per pound on the East Coast.”

Also known as spring onions, wild leek, wood leek, or wild garlic, ramps grow wild throughout much of the eastern U.S. and north into eastern Canada. According to the Kunklers, the epicenter of ramps in North America is West Virginia. Huntington’s annual April ramp party — April 27 this year — is known as Stink Fest.

Ramps smell and taste much like a crisp, garlicky onion. The Kunklers prefer them minced into sauces or chopped up and cooked with rice and a little butter. Sliced and fried with potatoes and eggs is also tasty. During spring, the entire plant is edible, including bulb, stem, and slim leaves that measure about 10 to 12 inches long.

The Kunklers sell ramp seeds (60 seeds for $4) and bulbs ($10 per pound) year-round. They sell whole plants (also $10 per pound) during spring.

“People buy whole plants to eat, but they buy the seeds and bulbs to begin growing their own ramp gardens,” Kunkler says. “It takes five years for seeds to develop into a harvestable ramp patch, but much less time if you plant bulbs.”

The Kunklers are split about how the ramps came to be growing on their property and not on those of any of their neighbors. “I believe it was the Elder family who planted them years ago,” Kunkler says. “Winter vitamin deficiencies were common during the 1800s, and eating spring ramps literally saved people’s lives.”

His wife disagrees, however. “I think that ramps have always grown here naturally, as our land is too steep and rocky for farming. As a result, it has never been plowed or even timbered,” she says.

Jane and David first began selling their ramps to a market in Columbus’s Short North District, as well as to a few high-end restaurants in central Ohio. Today, they sell mainly online, shipping 500 to 600 pounds of ramps annually to gourmets in every state except Alaska and Hawaii.

“Our local postmistress in Somerset tells us she knows exactly when one of our boxes arrives for shipping,” Jane Kunkler says. “She can tell by the smell.”