February 16

Maine farmer, seed curator forms new grass-roots group

After a rift in the community of seed-savers, Will Bonsall takes matters into his own hands to continue protecting hundreds of varieties of potatoes and other plants.

By Mary Pols mpols@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

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.

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Will Bonsall, 64, a farmer and seed curator in the Franklin County town of Industry, has long contributed seeds from potatoes and other vegetables to a national seed bank, but a rift with that organization has prompted him to establish a new group, the Grassroots Seed Network.

Photos by Tim Greenway/Staff Photographer

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These are just a few of the 300 varieties of potatoes that Will Bonsall has stored in the root cellar on his Industry farm. His work preserves the sustainability and genetic diversity of potatoes and other plants for future generations.

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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.

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Additional Photos

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Will Bonsall stands in the root cellar of his farm in Industry where he stores hundreds of varieties of potatoes in paper bags. Highly regarded by the growing international community of seed savers, the curator still believes in growing and harvesting the seed he preserves, saying a potato needs to live in the ground in order to keep living and evolving.

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This is a view outside Khadighar Farm in Industry, home to Will Bonsall, his wife, Molly, and their two sons. The Waterville native settled here more than four decades ago and in that time has earned a reputation as one of the foremost seed curators in the country.


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