In 1971 Will Bonsall moved to Industry, Maine, to live simply and self-sufficiently. From the beginning, he realized one of the cornerstones of self-reliance was saving his own seed. He discovered that older farmers and gardeners in his area grew varieties of their own that had never been in any seed catalog. Some of these varieties were in danger of extinction as their keepers died and no one else grew the seed. Will became the guardian of these heirloom varieties, among them Cowhorn potato, Orange Sweet apple, Orlando’s Horticultural pole bean, Boothby’s Blonde cucumber, Waldoboro rutabaga and Byron flint corn. The genetic diversity he encountered inspired him to start saving plants such as biennial outcrossers that are more difficult to propagate.
Naturally, Will became involved with the Seed Savers Exchange; his Scatterseed Project is now by far the largest member. In addition to serving on SSE’s Advisory Board, he is also its central curator for potatoes, peas, jerusalem artichokes, fava beans, runner beans, radishes, turnips, rutabagas, leeks, parsleys, parsnips, carrots, beets, chards and brussels sprouts. In addition to the varieties he curates, Will saves and reoffers seed for most everything that comes his way including hundreds of beans and tomatoes. His collections comprise 3-4000 varieties; he’s lost track of the total.
The Scatterseed potato collection requires a complete grow-out of all 700-800 varieties every single year. Biennial crops such as parsnips, carrots, leeks and turnips need to be stored over winter in a protected cellar and then replanted. Will keeps each variety pure by a combination of caging and planting in isolated plots. All of this is very labor intensive and demands attention to details like introducing pollinators into the cages or controlling pest infestations.