Preserving `heirloom' crops Down East

When Will Bonsall talks, he talks fast. You get the impression that life just may not be long enough for him to say all he has to say - and all he has to say is based on an amazing amount of first-hand experience.

As one of the people behind Scatterseed Project, a nonprofit program whose aim is to ``seek out, preserve, and redistribute seeds of unusual or endangered crop varieties,'' Mr. Bonsall is an enthusiastic spokesman.

Bonsall's wide-ranging and intense interest in crop varieties began simply enough when he and his wife, Molly Thorkildsen, started their farm called Khadighar (``homespun farm'') with an emphasis on being self-reliant, on growing and preserving all of their own food. Then the self-reliance evolved so that they began growing their own seeds as well as their own food.

``And finally we came to realize how many varieties were around,'' says Bonsall. ``We started picking up stuff - mainly heirloom beans and apples and all of the crops that grow here.''

Potatoes are certainly one crop that grows near their Industry, Maine homestead, and Bonsall has collected an impressive array of varieties: big and small; red, purple, yellow, and white-skinned; straight and pretzel-shaped; weak and hearty growers.

``King of Prussia,'' for example, ``has rugged, heavy stems and purple skin - and it's decent eating,'' says Bonsall. ``And `Acadia russet' is the biggest tuber we grew this year,'' he adds as he points to a potato that averages eight inches long by 3 inches in diameter.

Although many of Bonsall's potatoes are heirloom varieties found in Maine, his search has extended from the Canadian west to Sweden and Peru as well. ``I've picked up several potatoes from Estonian, Finnish, and Ukranian immigrants in the Canadian west and in the prairies. And `Congo' is a variety that I've imported from Sweden, from a group ... that preserves old varieties.

``And this is `Blue Pretzel,' which I bred myself.'' He points to a bluish-skinned, small spud that does indeed curl just like a pretzel, and he says that the variety has no commercial importance. It's just something he grows.

Bonsall's search also takes him from door-to-door in Maine. He asks people what old varieties they have, and many - especially in farming country - come up with something. ``It's very fruitful,'' he quips.

``The Waldoboro area has been most productive,'' he continues. As an example, Bonsall cites the ``Waldoboro greenneck turnip,'' which has been grown by a few local families since the seed survived the shipwreck off the coast of the town in the 1800s. He also collected an unusual Jerusalem artichoke from Waldoboro.

And he goes to the federal government's door, both to obtain new varieties and to have heirloom varieties from other countries imported. Currently some of the potatoes that he requested from Sweden are in quarantine in Maryland at a United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) facility. ``They have to go through the quarantine to be tested for viruses for a couple of years,'' he explains. ``It will probably take a decade before we get the entire selection'' from the Swedish group.

Potatoes aren't Bonsall's only project: parsnips are another. ``The world collection of parsnips at Ames, Iowa, [where the USDA preserves germ plasm] is smaller than ours. We have about 20 varieties.

``We focus especially on minor crops, things that are being neglected by others. We have 10 or 12 varieties of Jerusalem artichoke. We grow a naked-seeded oat called `Terra' - you can thresh the oat kernel right out and eat it. We grow flax for fiber and for oil seed. Maine is good flax country; it's cool and wet.''

It's hard to think of something that the Bonsalls don't grow. They have apples, a small plum collection, wheat, barley, oats, peas, fava beans, chicory, and endive. They grow apricots, cherries, pears, filberts, American chestnuts, and Saskatoon berries (Amelanchier alnifolia).

``Here in Maine, irreplacable varieties that were nurtured by our forebears are being lost every year with the passing of our elders, and many of these varieties are better adapted to Maine's climate than the off-the-shelf stuff. My job is to collect and preserve, to have these plants available for others.''

Most of Bonsall's collection is distributed through the Seed Savers' Exchange. He does not distribute a separate catalog from his own farm, so you cannot write to him to request a listing. But if you know that he has a particular variety that you want - his potatoes, for example, are exhibited every September at the Common Ground Country Fair in Windsor, Maine - you can request it directly from him.

For more information, write Seed Savers' Exchange, Box 70, Decorah, IA 52101, or Will Bonsall at Khadighar, Box 1167, Farmington, ME 04938.

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