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  • Writer's pictureAnneliese Abbott

Foraging and Farming: Are They Mutually Exclusive?

Ramps in the forest
It's ramp season in Michigan! And I'm going to find some way to connect it to organic farming...

As I write this, the wild pin cherry trees are just finishing blooming, white petals drifting down to the ground in a fragrant snow. The tips of the maple branches are green with baby seed pods, and the woods that have been bare and brown for months are now covered with a fuzzy coat of pale green. Spring beauties, Dutchman’s breeches, trout lilies, and the first trilliums speckle the forest floor with white, yellow, and pink. And in a special patch of woods not far from my home, round green patches of ramps are finally ready to harvest. Foraging season has begun!


I’ve been digging ramps and picking wild black raspberries for years, but I never realized that there was much connection between foraging and organic farming. Like most other Americans, I put the “wild” nature of the woods and the cultivated nature of a farm in two different categories. Wild nature was a landscape that thrived only in the absence of humans, and gardening—even organically—was a necessary but regrettable invasion of nature. But that dichotomy, I’ve come to realize, is a modern Western construct. Most Indigenous American cultures drew no such distinction between foraging and farming.


As far as I’m aware, the first person to connect organic farming and foraging was Euell Gibbons. From boyhood, Euell learned much of his foraging knowledge from Indigenous people, who were surprised and pleased that a white boy was interested in learning how to find and harvest wild foods. In his 1973 book, Stalking the Faraway Places, Euell wrote about the Native Americans:


“Their approach to agriculture was so different from ours that we find their viewpoint hard to grasp. They did not draw the clear line between domesticated and undomesticated plants that we do between crops and weeds. Even in their fields and gardens they not only allowed but actually encouraged certain volunteer food plants to grow, and harvested and used them with the same care that they rendered the planted crops…Being agriculturalists, they understood seeds and planting and knew about transplanting. Using these methods they were able to induce many wild food plants to grow at convenient locations.... Thus they were partially responsible for the distribution and composition of the flora of North America.”


I’ve always wondered why there are so many lush patches of ramps in the woods down the road, but hardly any on my own farm, despite the fact that we also have a nice hardwood forest with similar species of trees. The old-timers around here say that there used to be a Potawatomi village by a spring just a short walk from the ramp patch. And so I wonder if the profusion of ramps there might possibly be because some of the women who gardened there transplanted ramps to that convenient hillside, maybe moving bulbs around so that there would be even more to harvest in future years. No one knows, but it’s an intriguing possibility.


When I dig ramps, I’m still very careful not to overharvest, making sure not to dig up more than ten percent of any one patch because I know they reproduce slowly. But I no longer worry that careful harvesting is going to destroy wild nature. I’ve realized that my relationship with nature can be a mutually beneficial one, that harvesting is not always destructive, that there doesn’t have to be a sharp dividing line between foraging and farming, between wild and cultivated. And I thank Euell Gibbons, Rob in Wall Kimmerer, and others who have written about Indigenous farming and foraging for helping me understand that.

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Apr 25

Very good.. and we too rely on a lot of wild fruits and berries. Just finished plowing with the horses in the cool morning. Remember that Organic Farming was not just in the USA but here in Canada too. My Great uncle farmed organically back in the 1940's and knew a lot about organic farming. We discovered a very small crab apple growing on our property last fall and made wonderful Apple Jelly!


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