INDUSTRY — Will Bonsall is down to about 300 varieties of potatoes in the cold damp root cellar below his farmhouse in the Franklin County town of Industry. That may sound like an insanely high number. But among the growing community of people who have a passion for saving seeds in the name of sustainability and genetic diversity, the news that Bonsall suddenly has “only 300” kinds of potatoes is likely to draw gasps of horror.
The expectation is that Bonsall, 64, will always have at least 700 varieties of potatoes tucked away for posterity, and that every year he will faithfully grow them out, harvest them, share some with other avid growers across the country and put a sampling of each variety back in the cellar in anticipation of the next crop. But a philosophical and political rift with the Iowa-based Seed Savers Exchange, the national seed saving group that helped fund his curating career, has put Bonsall’s potatoes, some deeply obscure and ancient, in jeopardy.
“I have lost a huge amount of it,” Bonsall said of his collection. “From lack of funding, weed control, pest control. Last year there was a whole big section of stuff that we had no labor to collect, so they got frozen and turned to mush.”
With his monumental beard, propensity for wearing denim head to toe and recipes for “mayonnaise” that include neither eggs nor oil, Bonsall may seem more like an aging hippie than a trendsetter. But he is a leader, albeit not exactly intentionally, of a growing worldwide trend toward seed preservation – or, rather, a rebirth of something that humans always have had to do to survive up until commercial seed companies and big agriculture came along in the 20th century. Back-to-the-landers like Bonsall kept the practice alive through that period of dormancy, but in the 21st century, fears of climate change and genetic modifications have reawakened a passion for seed saving.
There are an estimated 1,500 seed banks worldwide – Seed Savers Exchange now has the biggest nongovernmental or academic seed bank in the United States – and communities across the country are opening up seed libraries so that gardeners can pass seeds back and forth the way their great-great-grandparents once did. The Millennium Seed Bank Project, an international effort, opened in 2000 in England and has more than a billion seed types in storage capable of surviving a nuclear war. It doesn’t stop there; in 2008 the Norwegian government built a fortress inside a sandstone mountain in Spitsbergen to house the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, a collection of well over a million different seed samples with room for a few million more.
But while there is a common goal – sustainability – the diminished state of Bonsall’s potato collection in Industry illustrates the disagreements that can spring up even among like-minded environmentalists. Witness Bonsall’s latest venture, the formation of an entirely new seed-saving group, the Grassroots Seed Network, born out of his issues with Seed Savers Exchange.
Introducing the new group at a seed-saving conference at the University of Maine at Farmington this month, Bonsall said Grassroots Seed Network intends to “slavishly copy” all that the Seed Savers Exchange has done right while avoiding what he and other organizers describe as problems in the way Seed Savers has evolved, in part because of its success.
For instance, every member of his network, regardless of whether they bring one variety of bean seed into the Grassroots Seeds Network or 100, will have a vote in how the group does business, its organizers say, and that won’t change, no matter how big the group gets. Nor will the group ever have headquarters except in a virtual sense; Seed Savers has an 890-acre farm, complete with big red barn, as its headquarters. The new group, Bonsall says with a wink, will be run on the DAFT principle – Democratic, Accountable, Frugal and Transparent.
It will be what Bonsall believed Seed Savers would be when he became a lifetime member in 1981, a community that functioned outside the traditional marketplace. That’s because its mission in getting people to preserve and share seeds – instead of buying hybrid seeds from cross-pollinated plants, which have to be repurchased each year – was so contrary to the expectations of any marketplace, and so in tune with Bonsall’s youthful dreams.
AN EFFORT AT SELF-SUFFICIENCY
Nationally and even internationally, Bonsall is known as the curator of a collection of both rare and common potato varieties. The U.S. Department of Agriculture sends him potatoes it thinks might interest him. Someone in Norway might send him a few samples. He worries that he is occasionally lionized in the seed community, although his neighbors in Maine, who he says know him by more prosaic terms than curator, keep him humble. “I’m known locally as the hippie out there who has got all the potatoes,” he laughed.
Bonsall was born in Waterville, went to the University of Maine at Orono, moved to San Francisco in the late 1960s, hitchhiked across the United States and Mexico, and then, in 1971, went back to the land in Industry, near Farmington. He built the farm he shares with his wife, Molly Thorkildsen, and their two sons, 22 and 18, over the course of five years, one foundation stone and one exquisitely harvested and finished piece of wood at a time. As neat and efficient as a ship’s cabin, Khadighar Farm rises up on a hillock in the midst of 85 acres. It’s heated by a Russian furnace, the toilet is composting, and when you ask for a glass of water you should really finish it, because every resource is carefully watched.
His and his wife’s goal was self-sufficiency, and until their boys arrived with various cravings that could not be met by crops of soybeans, those potatoes and Bonsall’s other specialties, like 1,200 varieties of peas and 70 or so varieties of Jerusalem artichokes, the couple mostly succeeded.
He started saving seeds in those first years of gardening. “I was just trying to be self-sufficient,” he said. “One of these things about genetic erosion – we love to blame it all on Monsanto, but this is just the latest trend or wave to what has been going on for the last 100 or even a thousand years. We have been abdicating responsibility for ourselves. We have been relying on the marketplace.”
He said around 1981 he heard about Seed Savers and quickly became one of its most prolific contributors, offering hundreds of seeds in the annual yearbook. In 2010 the Seed Saver Exchange, which now has 13,000 members, offered about 19,000 varieties in its annual yearbook, and about 1,300 of them came from Bonsall, said John Torgrimson, Seed Savers Exchange’s executive director.
“He was a significant player,” Torgrimson said, “and a major contributor to the success of Seed Savers.”
Members could send a small amount of money to him – say, $6 – and Bonsall would mail them either seed or, in the case of a potato variety, a sprouted potato. He’d get dribs and drabs of money and a promise that his potatoes would be propagated. He served on the Seed Savers advisory board, although never on its board of directors.
‘THE KEEPER OF THE ARK’
Seed Savers Exchange itself began as a grass-roots group and is still a nonprofit. Since 1986 it has been headquartered in Decorah, Iowa. In 2000 the group started a commercial catalogue, separate from the yearbook Bonsall always participated in, and the general public now had access to about 600 varieties of seeds. That catalogue has helped fund an expansion of both gardening staff and researchers, Torgrimson said, including a seed historian. There’s an incubator on site, and that’s where potato cultures are kept – a modern equivalent of Bonsall’s cellar – with the key difference being they aren’t grown out every year. That’s one of the aspects of Seed Savers that bothers Bonsall, who believes that a potato is better kept alive in the ground than in storage. He’s disturbed that some varieties deemed redundant by Seed Savers have been dropped.
“I’m keeping these for you or your brother-in-law or your great-grandchildren and for whoever might want them, knowing full well that 80 percent of them aren’t worth crap anyway,” Bonsall said. “Some of them, maybe there’s a real reason why they have been abandoned. They may not be that great.”
But deciding that, he says, is not his job, nor should it be the job of Seed Savers.
“I’m Noah,” he said, “the keeper of the ark. I’m not God. The future farmers and gardeners will be God. They’ll look at this thing and maybe say, ‘I don’t know why Will kept that thing.’ My job is to bring them on the ark.”
PARTING COMPANY WITH EXCHANGE
The Seed Savers Exchange and Bonsall quit each other at roughly the same time, with the group no longer giving him what Torgrimson said was an annual stipend of between $13,000 and $15,000 to grow out his collection for them, and Bonsall no longer listing his vast collection of potatoes and seeds in the group’s annual yearbook. His mysterious absence from the pages of those books, and the possible cause of it, became a question bandied about on Seed Savers’ online forum throughout 2013. “If Will has completely broken ties with SSE, the impact to the cause of preservation would be undeniable,” wrote a member from Wisconsin.
Vermont seed saver Sylvia Davatz, who along with Bonsall and CR Lawn of Maine’s own seed company, FedCo, is part of a five-member steering committee for the Grassroots Seed Network, said she will keep up her membership in Seed Savers, even as she helps organize the new group, which should have a website in the next few weeks. “Their collection is so important,” she said. “I have no intention of abandoning them, even though I have had some less-than-perfect experiences with them.”
“It’s mostly that we want a very different model,” she added. “It seems to me that they are narrowing down the parameters of their collection to an extent that alarms me. It is not as broad; it is not as inclusive.”
What she and Bonsall both emphasize is that obscure varieties of plants, many of which lack the “glamorous” histories that up the chances of their being considered worthy of preservation – like, say, the potatoes that ended the Irish potato famine – may prove to have value in the future, a future full of the unknowns of climate change.
Torgrimson of Seed Savers doesn’t argue with that principle. “We have over 4,000 varieties of tomatoes,” he said. “Not everyone is a bestseller. But we agree with him (Bonsall) that you maintain them for diversity’s sake because 100 years from now one of them might be important.”
What has changed at Seed Savers is the group’s methods, which have been formalized, Torgrimson said. Twenty-five years ago “we pretty much took in anything that people sent to us,” he said, but no longer. It’s too expensive, for one thing. “We’re not any less committed to maintaining diversity than Will is,” he said. “But we feel we need to maintain them in a way that makes scientific sense.”
That means germ testing to evaluate a variety’s potential, establishing databases, making U.S. heirlooms the priority of the collection (Bonsall has potatoes from all around the world) and using technology to preserve some varieties as cultures, like those potatoes. “The more often you grow them out, the more you expose them to disease,” Torgrimson said. “It doesn’t make sense to do that anymore.”
Bonsall believes it does, that a potato needs to live in the ground in order to keep living, and evolving. And he hopes to rebuild that potato collection with the help of the new group.
Torgrimson wishes the Grassroots Seed Network well. “More power to him,” he said of Bonsall. The Grassroots Seed Network is not the competition, as he sees it.
“We look at this as a success of the whole seed-saving movement,” Torgrimson said.
If there is one matter about which members of the longtime group and the fledgling one agree completely, it is that the core mission of saving seeds has never been more important.
“I feel like we are in a watershed generation right now,” Davatz said. “We still have people around who know how to save seeds and we have a whole generation coming up that has no idea how to do it. I think young people who are in their 20s now really need to have access to this knowledge and I feel there is a rising tide of interest in this skill.”
Mary Pols can be contacted at 791-6456 or at: [email protected]