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One happy ramper: Grade-school dynamo makes business out of foraging rare wild onion for Fargo chefs

In addition to balancing the usual kid things like soccer, softball, music and theater, this diminutive dynamo already has launched two businesses. One of them, Ramp Girl, requires foraging and providing ramps — a coveted, hard-to-find wild onion — to Fargo's fancier eateries.

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Johanna shows off ramps from the Zinkes' latest foraging session, which occurred earlier this spring.
Contributed / Janet Zinke
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Editor's note: This is the latest in our Kid Bosses series, which spotlights teens and kids who have taken the initiative to start their own businesses.

FARGO — At times, Johanna Zinke seems like a 30-year-old entrepreneur trapped inside a 10-year-old’s body.

In addition to balancing the usual kid things like soccer, softball, music and school, the diminutive dynamo already has launched a business. Her venture, Ramp Girl, requires foraging and providing ramps — a coveted, hard-to-find wild onion — to Fargo's fancier chefs.

But that's just one part of this busy grade-schooler’s packed portfolio. She also holds lemonade stands and periodically assembles a drink wagon to bring frosty treats to people at outdoor events.

“It’s fun,” she says simply. “It helps me save for college and stuff.”

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On top of that, the Oak Grove student has launched a couple of charitable ventures, written books and plays, acted in local theater productions, loves to draw and is forever thinking of ways to design and engineer things.

All before fifth grade.

Ramping up a new business

It may seem odd for a kid to start collecting a rare and precious plant in the wild for chefs, but Johanna literally stumbled upon it.

The Zinkes are frequent hikers who love to explore the outdoors and like to study which plants are safe to forage.

A couple of years ago, while hiking on a friend's property somewhere ”within a 200-mile radius” of Fargo (Janet won’t share the location, lest inspiring a “ramp-age”), Johanna noticed an unusual clump of greenery.

“At first, I thought it was just grass, but then I thought, ‘No, it’s wide. And it smells like an onion. Wait, what?’”

She called out to her parents to get their opinion. “I tried to rush her along but when she said it smelled like onions, I went back to see and we did research on the spot,” Janet says.

After a little research, they identified the plants with the daffodil-like leaves as ramps, a wild leek with a garlicky, oniony, pungent flavor and just a hint of sweetness.

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Fine kitchens will pay dearly for ramps, because they only grow in the early spring and need to be foraged from wooded areas vs. cultivated in convenient garden rows.

“She literally found it on her own,” Janet says, pointing out that she and Johanna’s dad, James, walked right past it.

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Janet Zinke holds a ramp, which is a highly coveted type of wild leek. Some describe its taste as a fusion of onion and garlic.
Contributed / Janet Zinke

The family took a few leaves home and tried it in several recipes. The wild leeks lived up to their expectations.

The ramps impart their slightly sweet pungency to all sorts of dishes, from a chopped-up add-in to green beans to a ramp butter that perfectly enhances all kinds of fish.

“It’s very delicious,” Johanna says.

“It tastes like a milder green onion,” Janet adds.

The next year, the Zinkes returned to the same location to see if their ramp discovery was just a fluke. Again, ramps were sprouting up in the same spot, so again they harvested a part of each plant, taking care to leave the bulbs in the ground and some of the leaves untouched to preserve the plant.

This time, they reached out to a couple of local chefs, including Andrea Baumgardner of Bernbaum’s in downtown Fargo.

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Johanna reported they had found ramps; would they like some?

The restaurateurs didn’t have to think twice.

Absolutely, they said.

They also decided to approach a new upscale restaurant downtown, the Rosewild at the Jasper Hotel. In fact, Johanna’s business got its name after the hotel’s concierge was trying to get their attention to let them know the restaurant was definitely interested in Johanna’s ramps.

After telling hotel staff they had ramps available, they left and headed in the other direction for ice cream. They were just walking back when when the concierge came running out the door to catch them and tell them the Rosewild chef was interested in their ramps. She yelled, "Hey, ramp girl! "

And a business name was born.

This spring, the Zinkes again went looking for ramps, but found a smaller crop. Although the late onset of spring and flooding had taken their toll, Johanna was still able to provide some ramps for Bernbaum’s and Rosewild.

The easily disturbed and slow-growing nature of ramps — along with the steady increase in demand — is why a pound of ramps can command as much as $25 online. Ramps are considered an endangered species in parts of Canada and a commercially exploited species in Tennessee.

Ramp-foraging is a delicate business, as the plant needs to be harvested carefully so as not to kill off the plant. And foragers need to know what they’re doing, as the plant looks remarkably like its poisonous relative, lily-of-the-valley.

Janet and Johanna say they always do their homework before foraging any plants from the wild.

“We have enough experience to forage sustainably,” Janet says. “You never eat anything in the wild if you don’t know what it is.”

From fiddlehead ferns to frosty treats

A forward-thinker, Johanna is already planning ways in which she could extend the availability of those precious ramps. This past year, she learned how to pickle them. She has even talked of renting a commercial kitchen so she could preserve more of them.

“Then I can sell them longer and for more money,” she told her mom.

They also have discussed pickling another precious foraging find, fiddlehead ferns . Foodies eat the tightly coiled tips of these early spring ferns, which possess a delicate, tender, nutty flavor and can sell for as much as $13 for eight to 10 fiddleheads.

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Johanna shows off a batch of fiddlehead ferns which her family foraged from a friend's private land.
Contributed / Janet Zinke

Johanna’s second business deals with a more accessible type of snack. At last year’s Fargo AirSho —which can be blisteringly hot for onlookers — she fixed up a Red Flier wagon so she could sell Popsicles and lemonade to spectators lined up along the 12th Avenue North Bridge leading to NDSU.

She not only sold out, her dad had to be summoned to bring more inventory.

This year, when Johanna learned another girl in the neighborhood had started a lemonade stand, she viewed the newcomer not as competition — but as a partner.

"She said, 'She has a good location,'" Janet says. "Her thinking is, 'If we work together we can make even more.'"

Janet, whose day job is as director of impactful giving with the Plains Art Museum, often finds herself moonlighting as her daughter’s right-hand woman.

“I’m her hardest-working unpaid employee,” Janet says, with a laugh. “I’m very proud of her.”

She's a renaissance girl

Beyond her burgeoning entrepreneurship, Johanna is a budding philanthropist. She donates items to women’s shelters, volunteers at church and gives proceeds from her lemonade stands to disabled veterans. She organized neighborhood kids into a Super Citizens group which does things like write inspiring messages in chalk on the sidewalks and clean plugged drains in front of people’s houses.

The mini-renaissance kid earnestly ticks off her financial formula for business success: “One third should go to charity, one-third should go to saving and one-third should go to spending.”

Her mom says her daughter's philanthropic bent seems to work. “The more she gives, the more she tends to do and prosper,” Janet says.

Back in 2016, Johanna became concerned when they saw a homeless man with ice on his beard out in the cold. “We should carry pizza in our back seat for people,” she remarked to her mom.

For a while, they bought and brought food to people who seemed to need it. That idea eventually morphed into the Good to Go project, in which Johanna and her mom put together bags containing essentials like non-perishable foods, socks, toothpaste and toothbrushes to give to people in need.

That endeavor was eventually taken over by First Lutheran Church of Fargo, which gives out about 40 Good to Go bags per year.

In case her own business and charities aren’t quite enough, Johanna has hobbies and interests galore. She has written seven plays and numerous books. She loves art. She has participated in nine local theater performances, including the FMCT's upcoming production of "The Descendants."

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Johanna, who also loves art, drew this quick sketch to show what ramps and fiddlehead ferns look like.
Tammy Swift / The Forum

And her artistic side seems to be balanced by a mechanical side.

Janet says their back yard is filled with a series of ropes, pulleys and tires as Johanna's curious mind works out ways to concoct various contraptions.

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At age 3, after watching how a pulley worked on a PBS program, she asked her parents for one. She then rigged up a system of ropes, pulleys, air floaties and egg crates for her doll's tree swing "so in case the branch breaks, the baby won't get hurt."

Janet figures this engineering bent stems from Johanna’s grandfather, Flip Miller of Valley City, as he builds airplanes.

"She always has a plan and a dream, yet she also wants to help others," Janet says. "She's smart yet kind. She amazes me."

Tammy has been a storyteller most of her life. Before she learned the alphabet, she told stories by drawing pictures and then dictated the narrative to her ever-patient mother. A graduate of North Dakota State University, she has worked as a Dickinson, N.D., bureau reporter, a Bismarck Tribune feature writer/columnist, a Forum feature reporter, columnist and editor, a writer in NDSU's Publications Services, a marketing/social media specialist, an education associate in public broadcasting and a communications specialist at a nonprofit.
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