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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Seed Saver

Air Date: Week of

The U.S. government maintains a large stockpile of seeds, to be used if disease threatens the nation's food supply. But informal networks of farmers are also saving seeds to preserve exotic crop varieties that the government does not. NPR's Andrea DeLeon (day-lee-OWN) visits one of the country's biggest seed savers, in central Maine.


CURWOOD: Although the U.S. government collects thousands of types of seeds to preserve genetic material, seed saving also goes on among several private networks. These groups aren't interested in big-time agribusiness and developing the next strain of super-broccoli. No, instead they're saving old-time garden varieties. NPR's Andrea DeLeon traveled up a rutted dirt road in central Maine to visit one of America's most prolific seed savers, a man named Will Bonsall.


BONSALL: Okay, I'll start by showing you, I'm going to try to show you some things about sex your mom and dad never told you.

DE LEON: You might dub him a prophet of plants, with his wiry white beard and bare feet that appear to be unfamiliar with shoes. Several times each month Will Bonsall preaches the gospel of seed saving to gardeners who make the pilgrimage to his rustic farmstead near the town of Industry, Maine.

BONSALL: See this flower here? Can anyone tell me the gender of this flower?

WOMAN: Female.


WOMAN: Because the fruit's already there.

BONSALL: There we go. Well, not only the fruit but the ovary is there...

DE LEON: Dressed in an Amish-looking pair of suspendered denim pants, Mr. Bonsall is on his hands and knees in a patch of melons. He's teaching today's half dozen visitors how to make like the birds and bees. He shows them how to tell when female flowers are ready to open, and how to prevent insects from fertilizing them with unwanted pollen from undesirable melon varieties growing nearby. That would create seeds for a sort of “mutt” melon plant, different than the strain Mr. Bonsall wants to preserve.

BONSALL: I would cloister this thing. In other words I would take a paper bag, ideally, a little candy bag, kind of put it over this and paper-clip it. Keep it shut.

DE LEON: Preventing insects from getting into the female blossom before Mr. Bonsall dusts it with pollen from a male flower of the same variety. Farmers and gardeners have relied on these low-tech techniques for generations. And for more than twenty years Will Bonsall's been demonstrating the methods to anyone who will listen. He jokes with visitors about their prurient interest in the sex lives of rutabagas. But the message he hopes they will take home is serious:

BONSALL: All life depends on food. And all food depends on seeds. Whoever controls seeds controls our lives. Only by saving our own seeds can we assert any kind of control over our own lives. Especially if we're gardeners.

DE LEON: Mr. Bonsall doesn't like what is happening in the commercial seed business: the concentration of seed production in the hands of a small number of corporations. That, he complains, is creating a limited genetic base, because the seed companies abandon unprofitable varieties. Take broccoli, for example. There certainly seems to be plenty of it in the grocery store -- evenly green with tight heads and uniform stems.

BONSALL: But that's a little misleading, even though you may see a lot of broccoli in the store. We're losing the genetic base in broccoli that keeps broccoli resistant to various problems. So the limited diversity, genetic diversity in broccoli, endangers broccoli itself, and your ability to go into the Safeway and buy broccoli off the shelf.

DE LEON: This concern led Mr. Bonsall and his wife to start The Scatterseed Project.

(A door opens)

DE LEON: It's headquartered up a creaky set of wooden stairs in the couple's hand-made house. Preserved here in paper packets and old cardboard boxes are more than a thousand varieties of peas. There’s a hundred kinds of radishes, dozens and dozens of potatoes in every color you can think of, and what may be the world's largest collection of Jerusalem artichokes. The storeroom is insulated with wood shavings to ensure a constant temperature.

BONSALL: This is inventories crop by crop. Starts off the actinidia, our varieties of kiwis. We have about ten or a dozen varieties of kiwis and goes on through amblo presium, or leeks, alium sepia and so on all the way up through zia maize corn...

DE LEON: There is no electricity, and so no computer, to help Mr. Bonsall keep track of his collection.

BONSALL: If I ever lost this sheaf of papers I would just slit my throat right off. There would be no point in continuing.

DE LEON: When the dog-eared notes indicate some of his seed is getting too old to germinate well, he plants a patch to ensure its continued existence.

WHALEY: I wish that there were a dozen other people like Will.

DE LEON: Ken Whaley directs the Seed Savers Exchange in Decorah, Iowa, a national network of seed savers. Unlike government repositories, which focus on core crops like corn, soybeans and grain, Mr. Whaley's exchange welcomes all sorts of vegetables. He says most members cultivate just one or two rare varieties that may have been passed down in their families.

WHALEY: The United States is a nation of immigrants, and each of those gardeners and farmers brought the best of their family's seeds with them when the immigrated. And that's the genetic and cultural history that we're trying to save.

(Crickets and bird song)

DE LEON: Will Bonsall is perhaps the largest private collector.

BONSALL: What do you think this is?

WOMAN 1: Beet.

WOMAN 2: Chard.

BONSALL: Yes, here's a chard.

DE LEON: And it isn't enough to till his own plot. He's spreading the word and spreading seed wherever he can.

BONSALL: We have these little gardens scattered all over our land, our neighbor's land, all over the county, all over the state. We've got about forty of them altogether now.

DE LEON: Forty gardens, all dedicated to preserving varieties that might otherwise disappear. Will Bonsall hopes the hundreds of people who tour his farm each year will plant even more. For Living on Earth, I'm Andrea de Leon in central Maine.



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