Individuals generally don’t lobby for a MacArthur genius grant. Will Bonsall, a subsistence farmer from Industry, is not an ordinary individual.

“That’s what we really need, or some other philanthropic thing,” said Bonsall, 70, of the no-strings attached grant, given annually in recognition of original thinking and singular dedication to a field. “That is what I am angling for. You can’t apply for it. They have to discover you, and the odds of that happening are like getting struck by lightning. But if you want to get struck by lightning, you stand on a very high hill with a tall umbrella. So that’s what I am doing.”

In a manner of speaking, of course.

Will Bonsall in a drying and storage room at his farm in Industry. Bonsall is the winner of the Seed Saver Award from the 2020 Source Sustainability Awards. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Bonsall is waving every umbrella he can find these days to call attention, and funding, to his Scatterseed Project, which he founded in 1981 to preserve endangered crop diversity. He has one more banner to raise. Bonsall is a winner of a 2020 Source Seed Saver award for his work as a master seed saver. It doesn’t come with the financial clout of the MacArthur genius grant, which pays north of $600,000 over five years, but the Source award recognizes Bonsall’s dedication to plant-based, self-reliant gardening and farming and his unique place in the world of seed saving, where he has achieved exalted status.

Mountaineer pepper seedlings growing at Bonsall’s farm. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

At one time, he had seeds for 700 varieties of potatoes, though that number is below 200 now. He has 1,100 varieties of peas and other legumes, including chickpeas, favas and runner beans. He has one of the largest Jerusalem artichoke seed collections in North America, and has more varieties of parsnip seeds than just about anybody anywhere. He has told his own story in the aptly titled book “Will Bonsall’s Essential Guide to Radical, Self-Reliant Gardening,” and PBS profiled the Scatterseed Project in the 2016 documentary “Seed.”

He’s made for himself a self-sufficient, homestead-based life, earning income from selling seeds, speaking engagements and writing. A native Mainer, he has lived mostly quietly on a small, hilly farm since 1971.

In her letter nominating Bonsall for the Source award, Jean English, editor of the Maine Organic Farmer & Gardener, said Bonsall’s work to preserve crop diversity and horticultural heritage deserves special recognition. Through Scatterseed, he collects, maintains and distributes thousands of crop varieties, many rare or endangered because so many have been lost to the production of global food and seed supplies, she said. “These heritage varieties connect us with our past and may hold solutions for our future,” English wrote.

A key aspect of Bonsall’s work is his willingness to share. He’s distributed tens of thousands of seeds over the years, and helped start the Grassroots Seed Network to share seeds. Bonsall passes on his expertise by offering at least one apprenticeship each year. With a touch of Maine humor, he has promoted ecological farming and gardening through his talks at the Common Ground Country Fair and his quarterly column in the Maine Organic Farmer & Gardener.

English has known Bonsall for 34 years and been his editor for a dozen. “He puts out so much information, but he has this humility to his writing, always coming back to the fact that these are his observations and this is his experience,” English said. The hardest part about being his editor, she added, is trimming his column to fit the available space. “He talks fast, he writes fast and he writes voluminously. He’s got so much to say and such a fun way of saying things,” she said.

Bonsall calls his tasks these days “daunting.” As he gets older, he finds it harder to keep up with the work. He’s got people in place to take over when he’s gone – “I can croak any day and things will keep going” – but it would be a lot easier if he didn’t always worry about money. “We’ve got to do some serious fundraising,” he said, raising that umbrella high to sky in search of a bolt of lightning. “When people ask if they can help, I paraphrase the Maine Forest Service: Keep Maine Green. Send money.”


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