Will Bonsall is my new hero, and I say that without exaggeration. Check out the short video clip at the top of the Links section below to see half of the reason why.
The other half of the reason take a bit longer to explain – hence this full-length podcast episode.
Will is the visionary gardener whose half-century of experimentation and iconoclasm can help us save human civilization from collapse. His method, which he refers to as “gardening without borders,” takes into account all the inputs and outputs of a garden or farm, in contrast to the usual methods of conventional, organic, and permaculture production.
In addition to gardening, teaching, and seed saving, Will is also a novelist. His 2010 work, Through the Eyes of a Stranger: Yaro Tales Book One, takes his philosophy and imagines it in practice in a working, sustainable civilization. And Will assures me that book 2 will be out soon 🙂
In our conversation, we covered:
- how organic gardening makes sense from an economic, but not ecologic perspective
- the problem with the “cake mix” gardening that dominates suburbia
- vegans are disconnected from the earth
- the paramount metric of eco-efficiency
- how can vegans be self-righteous about eating organic vegetables produced with animal manure?
- why tofu is so inexpensive (hint: it involves killing pigs)
- needing to take a hard look at inputs
- the ocean of petroleum that skews our whole civilization
- “there's no such thing as ‘away'”
- the promise and limitations of permaculture
- humans are parasites on the earth – at least be efficient about it
- why we grow “band-aid species” in our gardens
- the secret of sustainable food production: leaves and brush from hardwood forests
- trees eat rocks and give us minerals for the garden
- how veganic agriculture can accommodate large human populations on this planet
- the fictional, non-Utopian land of Esperia and its Vine Laws
- why our civilization should mandate hyper-local self-sufficiency
- the importance of seed saving, and the origins and current status of the Scatterseed Project
- Will is promiscuous with email, and here's the proof:
- never mind political elections – we get to vote every day at the checkout counter
- and much more…
Enjoy, add your voice to the conversation via the comment box below, and please share – that's how we spread our message and spread our roots.
Will Bonsall's Essential Guide to Radical, Self-Reliant Gardening
The Humanure Handbook (we didn't talk about it specifically, but you'll see how it's relevant)
A 3-hour veganic gardening workshop hosted by Amie Hamlin of The Coalition for Healthy School Food:
HOWARD: Will Bonsall, welcome to the Plant Yourself Podcast!
WILL: Hi Howard, it’s good to be here. Greetings to everyone.
HOWARD: Yeah, so I wanted to begin by just asking you to tell us your story. This is actually our second time recording. I had some technical difficulties, and I realized as I was biking from my little shed to a different office that the reason I wanted you to tell that story in particular is that your concepts and ideas and things you put together seemed to me so creative. They’re so far beyond anything that I thought about these topics that I’d thought about for a long time that I was really interested in what were the influences that allowed you to see things from such a broad perspective. Tell us how you got to where you are now.
WILL: Yeah, incidentally, that tends to be how I think for better or worse. I tend to be a great big-picture visionary sort of thing and not so good at nuts and bolts and details, and linking them together is often a problem for me. Well, when I was a teenager and first left home to… went away from home, my first job was in a mining business. I worked for a couple of mining companies prospecting for copper, lead, and zinc and so on, and it got old pretty fast. I decided I didn’t wanna have anything to do with it. I decided I was more interested in something that involved more recycling and was a little more sustainable. Of course, at that time, organic was becoming a big thing, and I got into that. As I got into it, I started hearing people talking a lot about how many tons per acre you needed for phosphate, greensand, and SoPoMag and lime and all these kinds of things, and I had to ask myself I thought I’d got out of that business and how organic or how sustainable was any kind of a system, a food system or anything which relied on these outsiders, outside inputs, and special things that required a huge carbon footprint.
Of course, we didn’t talk about that then. It just took awful lot of energies to move stuff around, and that wasn’t what I was looking for, so I started asking the kind of questions like you say that most of us don’t even ask, and one thing that helped me, too, for better or worse when I got into organic farming, I didn’t get into market gardening. I dabbled with that and wasn’t very good at it frankly. But growing stuff for myself – my own use – was my focus and because of that, that enabled me – in fact, forced me – to ask the kind of question that one doesn’t necessarily ask or even recognize to ask about organic systems. If you’re growing stuff to sell, then if the dollars in and dollars out matches okay, then you’d say you’re doing fine. But in fact, there are lots of things that make economic sense but don’t make ecological sense. When I was dealing with the whole circle, things going round and round, any kind of deficits, you couldn’t ignore them. They showed up. So, that’s how it affected my thinking. I think if I’d been successful as a market gardener, I would’ve been failure as whatever I am, an agriculture philosopher or something, whatever.
HOWARD: Great. You came to my attention through your book, Will Bonsall’s Essential Guide to Radical, Self-Reliant Gardening, and I know that in your blog post before the book was published, the working title was Gardens Without Borders.
HOWARD: So, what do you mean by gardens without borders? Because I have a garden in my backyard. It’s about a half to three quarters of an acre, and it’s got a fence all around it. How do I think of that piece of land and the inputs and outputs as something without borders?
WILL: That’s exactly… you fit right on it when you talk about three quarters and a fence around it and so on. The very first chapter of the book, which I originally titled that and the publisher decided, for some good reasons, that wasn’t clear enough what it was about until too late. Then they came up with this other suggestion, which I don’t like at all, but their reasoning was right on. In the very first paragraph of the book, I point out when you look beyond the edges of your garden, I assure you you’re seeing a mirage. You think that’s actually the boundary of it. Everything is connected to everything else. Then your garden is not much more than most things. The stuff you bring into your garden, your fertilizer, what you do with the food that comes out of it and on and on. The whole thing is part of… basically the garden is the center of a little pebble dropping into water; its ripples just keep going out, bigger and bigger and bouncing back and so on.
And it’s like everything, like light, sound, energy… any kind of thing in the universe is all integrated, and to ignore that is a great risk of… particularly if we were to presume or to say that this thing that we’re doing is organic, the very definition of organic is something for all the parts functioning together as an organism and as an integrated unit… and if they don’t do that, if these separate little pieces come in and out, then we really have to question if this is really organic gardening. What I often refer to, in kind of a facetious way, to more conventional gardening including organic farming is “cake mix farming” or “cake mix gardening” where you bring in some of this and something from there and they all come from somewhere else and you put it in your garden and stir and out comes some zucchini or some potatoes or whatever and that goes away somewhere. It’s not very organic. A real organic food system, an organic and sustainable life, an organic and sustainable civilization and so on should always be looking at the bottom line, should always be reckoning what all of the inputs, don’t ignore the externalities. Unless you do that and until you do it, you’re not really being organic, and you’re certainly not being sustainable.
HOWARD: Okay. One of the things you say a lot, and I got out of this wonderful YouTube video of a workshop you gave for Amie Hamlin, who’s been on this podcast a couple times, on veganic farming and gardening, and one of the things you say a lot in that talk is people are coming up with the right answers to the wrong questions, and one of the reasons I LOVE your work is that you build a bridge between two worlds that I love and kind of are always fighting with each other: the vegan world and the permaculture world.
WILL: Right on.
HOWARD: And I live in both worlds, and whoever I’m with ends up sort of making sense, so what are the wrong questions each of these different worlds is asking? Maybe we need to define, at least for this audience, permaculture a little bit because they’re much more familiar with vegan.
WILL: That’s a really good point, and that is by the way perhaps the first… one of the few or only presentations, uh events, that I’ve done in Ithaca, New York, where the audience was primarily vegan, not primarily organic. In other words, that was where they were coming from, and they were very interested in what I had to say about combining the two because… yes, to the detriment of both movements, they were often seen as being, if anything, mutually exclusive. You know, organic is all about cow manure, right? How else can you fertilize things? So, animals are somehow essential to the system, and the mother nature farms with animals and so on. All of these things are true and total lies at the same time and very very misleading. Yeah, I’m trying more and more to speak to the veganic movement. Most of what I have to say, the organic people already get, and I’m telling them. They’re very happy to hear it because it’s kind of like, “Gee, I always thought but I wondered” so I’m confirming some of their own doubts and giving them some alternative ways of dealing with it.
The veganic people, for the most part vegetarians and vegans are not that connected with the earth. They tend to be urbanites, suburbanites, have conventional jobs, and if they have gardens at all, the connection does not hit them quite as hard. For one thing, most people that are into veganism and vegetarianism are primarily into the compassion ethic, which is totally great. I’m all about that. It’s wonderful, but there’s… I suggest there is an even more profound motive or rational which drives both of those and doesn’t rely on the money hugging mentality. It is the very fact that… well, the word that has been coined for this, I believe, is ecoefficiency. In other words, whether there’s a profound practicality to the way that we produce food. On the one hand, if we’re producing our food with all these animal inputs, whether we ourselves are keeping and eating animals or not, if we’re relying on animals to maintain the system, then we’re not being very efficient. I’ll get back to that point. But basically, it has to do with the food energy chart we all had in our pyramid, we all had in our high school biology books or whatever, so that’s not the best way of maintaining and certainly not building soils with animals.
HOWARD: So, what you’re saying is that someone who’s an ethical vegan or even a health vegan or for whatever reason, they view themselves as doing the right thing because they’re not consuming animals as sort of first-order consumers. They’re still contributing to animal agriculture either through subsidies or through the way their crops are grown. I think one of the things you said was you can’t, if you’re just having conventional vegan food, you’re still supporting animal agriculture. Can you explain how that works?
WILL: Well, for one thing, virtually all organic food on the market is largely produced with animal manure, so if we want to feel self-righteous about the fact that we’re… our tofu doesn’t contain any animal products. It, in fact, contains lots of animal product. It totally relies on someone else keeping animals, castrating them, weaning them prematurely, and butchering them and so on. Blood is in our food just as much as in theirs. In fact, tofu is an excellent example. About the only reason tofu is as affordable as it is is because the okara, the pulp, the leftover, in most operations it’s fed to pigs or cattle or whatever, so you’re not eating the animal, your hand didn’t will the knife, but you support the one that did. It happened. You’re an enabler here. And this kind of thing… our life is fraught with those kinds of hypocrisies and inconsistencies, and about the only way to really resolve them in anything, even partially, is to look at the input, and again it’s hard to do when your food comes from the grocery store or health food coop or whatever, to know where the stuff… all the inputs involved in it are… again that’s why I had the great advantage when I started off of not being very good at market gardening but basically focusing on producing stuff for my own use, for my family use, and it became so patently obvious from the very beginning what worked and what didn’t work. The market gardener doesn’t necessarily see those because the market gardener basically sees, spend some money out to get certain things and get some money back from selling food and if those numbers line up ok, then this is a viable business.
But in fact, we know there are a lot of things which are economically viable but which are not ecologically viable. That’s especially true because of the ocean of petroleum that underlies the whole civilization, skews all of the facts, all of the calculating that we think we do is blown out of water by that. So, my system… it allowed me to have a certain wisdom which would probably have denied me if I had been buying and selling stuff. If anything, it was not viable ecologically. Even if it hit me in the head, I could miss it. I was dealing with the entire circle round and round and went back to the soil and so on. Anything that worked was very obvious. Anything that didn’t work was equally obvious.
HOWARD: So, if you have a garbage service that comes in a truck to take your stuff away, there’s something called away. If you had to keep it all on your land, you’d understand a great deal more about what biodegrades and what doesn’t.
WILL: Well, you hit it right here. It’s the right realization that there’s no such thing as “away.” There’s stuff that comes from “away” and goes away. It’s all integrated. As we said in our comments before the idea behind gardening without borders, there’s no “away.” You’d have to deal with all of those, whatever you think is the bottom line, there’s another one below it. You’d have to keep that in your accounting.
HOWARD: Right. So far, we’ve bummed out the vegans who are no longer able to maintain an attitude of purity, but the book is mostly about…
WILL: Well, hopefully at the same time, we’ve also enabled them. There’s a vision, and there’s a way of doing it that is sustainable and is truly vegan and so on, and in fact, it just happens to be a whole lot more efficient and practical than the other way of doing it. So, yeah, it’s good that you don’t make any progress with a problem until you recognize that there’s a problem.
HOWARD: Right, right. That was a tease because I want them to keep listening because there are solutions that are just beautiful. But I want to give equal time to the permaculturist who might discover… many years after I went plant-based, all of a sudden, permaculturists just seem to be making much more sense to me about their… you know, so many of these concepts are just so beautiful around slow flow, completing the circles, and stack use… and just elegance and cleverness in this idea of a sustainable agriculture in a sustainable civilization, and so when I started reading about those, I thought, gee, I need a cow, I’m gonna need chickens, you know, it’s started eroding some of the philosophical underpinnings of my veganism, my plant-based attitude, and yet your vision of radical self-reliant gardening takes the permaculturist to task as well for making some unfounded assumptions or maybe just doing sloppy math. Can you talk about the vision of permaculture and how they are not living up to ecoefficiency?
WILL: Yeah, I could hardly say it better than you just did, but I’ll try to because the basic concept underlying permaculture is so right on. All those things… such an elegant… even in more ways than you mentioned. For example, the idea of growing crops without disturbing the soil. What’s wrong with that? That’s great, and having a lot of food coming from plants with mainly prune and mulch and chip and things like that. You don’t ever have to actually dig them and you don’t have to do an ecosite to the ecosystem and start from scratch every time. Insofar as that works, that’s fantastic. The problem with it is most of the foods which permaculturaists have come up with for being suitable for permaculture are again not, as they are now, directly usable as sources of plant food for humans as they are now. So, the thing that they instinctively come up with because we’re looking back at our traditional society… oh, we’ve run some hogs to eat some acorns. If we feed these things to some chickens and some pigs and so on. Although in fact generations of farm extension agents have tried to convince farmers to keep the livestock out of the woods. It’s terrible for both, so they’re undoing a huge part of the advantage they get because every time we get to a different level of consumption, like going back to the food energy pyramid, you have very roughly 90 percent waste… loss every time you eat. You’d recoup maybe 10 percent of it.
HOWARD: So, let’s… we don’t have a picture in front of us, but basically the bottom of the pyramid is the producers of energy, anything that can photosynthesize?
WILL: Right, anything with chlorophyll, which we don’t have. So, we’re not producing it however productive we may think we are. We’re parasites on the earth. We’re consumers. That’s okay. There’s room for parasites and consumers. Things have to be consumed as well as produced. But we’re at best on the second tier of the pyramid. We’re eating the plants. That’s the best we can do. We could do a lot worse; we could be eating the animals that eat the plants and so on. But that’s the best we can do.
HOWARD: So, at each level of that, there’s 90 percent loss… waste of energy, so when we eat the plants, we’re wasting 90 percent of the energy they produce, and when we eat the animals that eat the plants, we’re living on chickens and hogs and cows and sheep and goats, then we’re getting one percent of that energy instead of 10 percent.
WILL: Exactly. Again, those are very rough numbers, but the people that have studied the levels of organic life have come up with very general numbers in the order of 10 percent. Some things are more efficient than others. So, given that, we’d be better to eat directly from the plant. Insofar as we can do that, that takes away any objections. There’s nothing negative we can say about permaculture things. It’s all good. But again, that would limit our diet by a huge amount. A lot of things we feed to the animals, we can’t eat directly ourselves. So, there are a couple of ways of dealing with that. One, which is very problematic but has an enormous long-term potential, is if we were to take some of these cool niche, exotic semi-plants that permaculturists make so much of and breed them, select them for many generations so those particular nuts or berries or leaves or whatever would be edible for humans. After all, it took many many centuries to domesticate wheat, cultivate wheat from wild wheat. And it would take many times that to do with most permaculture, most woody trees and shrubs and so on just because they have a much longer reproductive cycle. But still, doing it could be enormously profitable in the long-run. We can come up with things like, oh… acorns would be an excellent line of pursuit… come up with acorns which are more productive and are more… lower in tannin or whatever…. more edible, so there’d be a place for them on our plates, not just as jellies and condiments, you know, wine and things we do with a lot of tree crops now, so they’d be an entrée, they’d be the thing in the middle where the roast or lamb would be in the middle of the table.
HOWARD: Right, and you’re basically talking about calories. Right? Because the big problem is like my vegetable garden, until I read your book, I was growing almost no calories. I was growing desserts, you know, berries… and I was growing nutrients, you know, leafy greens…
WILL: Yeah, they’re very important nutrients, I’d point out, but yeah. Not just calories, but particularly in the form of proteins, fats, and starches and so on. Carbohydrates. Most of our diet things maybe except potatoes are mainly succulent, what I call band-aid species, which maybe I’ll get to discuss later, but they are not very eco-efficient plants relatively speaking, and they don’t… we basically go to the grocery store to get our bread and our peanut butter, you know, the fats and proteins come from somewhere else. In my case, they don’t because I’m able to be as self-sufficient as I can, not completely by any means, and therefore, my garden includes soy beans and barley and wheat and sunflowers and so on. Yes, most gardens do not contain those in them, and as such that’s perhaps one of the differences between the garden and the farm. In a garden, we don’t necessarily expect to produce staple foods. A farm, we’re more likely to look at them that way... So, did we finish the last point you were making? I’m not sure if we did.
HOWARD: Yes, so that the permaculture ethos that runs all those animals through to kind of be middle men, or middle pigs, between the chlorophyll sources that humans can’t eat or we find really unpalatable, like that’s one solution.
WILL: Oh, okay, and the second one, thank you. That was the point I was getting to. One is to simply take all the same crops and spend the time it takes, which will be many centuries to sustain breeding effort to make those… some are quicker than others. For example, the people at the Land Institute in Kansas where I’ve been working with are trying to come up with not just perennial crops but perennial wheats and perennial legumes and stuff, and again that’s in the same direction. I shudder to think what agribusiness would do with the same technology once they are able to coopt it. But the potential, the way that they’re able to do at the Land Institute is nothing but good. And if we could do that with tree crops in some way with modern genetic knowledge so we could speed it up, perhaps, that’s one way of getting these things so we can eat from the forest directly without having to send pigs and cattle in there.
The other way, which I’m doing very much now, is indirectly. Instead of eating directly from the forest, eating indirectly from the forest in the sense of… we have to use some kind of organic matter and preferably not animal manure, but let’s say plant matter compost, mulches and whatever, to build the soil and sustain the soil, and we can make compost from garbage and all those industrial residues and cannery waste and grass clippings and all that kind of stuff. That’s all great, but to get the amounts we need to sustain the system, we need vast amounts. We need tonnage, not just to maintain soil fertility but actually to build it because the way we got it even with organic farming is we’ve taken it back from where it naturally was, natural forest or grassland. We’ve reduced it… we’ve more or less destroyed it. We need to not just maintain the fertility, we need to rebuild it back toward that.
HOWARD: So, when you say fertility, can you define that?
WILL: Yeah, that’s a really good point. That’s a really good point because it means several things. The main thing I’m talking about, I’m obsessing over here is humus. Fertility typically would mean nitrogen, but all the minerals and all the things that make the soil a convivial habitat for living things, whether it be soybeans or centipedes or human beings, need stuff from the soil. We all come from the dirt, from the soil. Where that comes from, how it gets there, some of it is already there, but if you’ve been taking it away for generations in the form of stuff going to market, then, well what to do? So anyway, my point, in this particular case, I’m saying if you were to use stuff from the land to build the land from nearby land, not from thousands of miles away. For example, you talked about your garden three quarters of an acre or so, around that is either lawn or hayfield. Well, the stuff from the lawn or hayfield could be and should be going into the garden, should be built in the garden.
Much more so, to carry it a little further direction getting toward the permaculture thing is… as wonderful as grassland, prairie, lawn or whatever is for producing surplus biomass to build, nourish our crops and cultivate our land, far better than that are forests, particularly mixed hardwood forest. They produce vast amounts of stuff in proportion to what they themselves need, particularly we’d think of things like tree leaves, but also eventually chipped up brush or twigs or all the stuff from it. So, insofar as we can use THAT to fertilize our cropland, then we have a real no brainer here. We have a system that is very very sustainable, very eco-efficient. I’m doing that as much as I can now, using frankly leaves and ramial chips are the mainstay. They’re what runs my farm. You can take away my chainsaw and a lot of other things but take away my chipper or shredder, then I would be very hard-pressed to farm. I’d have to find some other ways to do the same thing.
HOWARD: Right. So…
WILL: … if I’m not eating directly from the forest, I am indirectly because I’m using this stuff from the forest to feed the crops that would end up on my table.
HOWARD: Right, so one of the challenges in talking to you is that I have to admit I was planning on reading your novel Through the Eyes of a Stranger. I didn’t get to it because I’m going through the first book so slowly…
HOWARD: Because there is not a page where I don’t have to take like ten pages of notes and think about what you said because it’s so rich in the details, so I’m gonna recommend to anyone who gardens or farms or cares about it to get the book. But I wanna begin with the assumption that people may need the big picture stuff, so just… when you were talking about fertility, like one of the points you make is that anyone who sells anything from their garden or their farm is essentially eroding the fertility. If I go to my garden and pick a tomato and I give it to a friend, I’ve just removed fertility from the garden. I haven’t put anything back in, and if I keep doing that, it’s eventually going to become sterile or it’s gonna die, or it’s gonna produce very poorly, so I have to continually put inputs back in to any sort of agriculture…
WILL: Well, in any existing kind of agriculture, you have to basically import those from somewhere else, from mine or whatever, and the problem with that is, see, originally a mankind had a link with the soil. We were part of a cycle, and up until a couple of centuries ago, if you ate that tomato and you went to the bathroom and you pooped out what was left of that tomato minus the energy your body used to live and so forth, even if you lived in town, there’d be some farmer out in the country, out on the edge of town, that would come into town whose job was to empty out the toilets and latrines and stuff, it would be composted and it would go back to the land. Therefore, we had a sustainable system completely. It didn’t necessary go back to the land in which begot it, but more or less. Ever since the invention of the marvelous flush toilet, we’ve basically severed that connection. Something that you eat goes into the bathroom, yes, nowadays at least ideally, goes to a sewage treatment plant, but the sewage sludge is not organic, and if it could be, if it could go back in the soil, that’d be great. But in fact, it’s being mixed with oil runoff and the pavement of the town, and antibiotics that someone flushed down or whatever, all the chemicals and things that went in with it, so it’s not useful. So, at best, it typically ends up being used on the golf course, or some of it actually gets composted for the sake of taking up less space in the landfill. So, we have not solved the problem with that. That’s not a solution.
Um, so given that, yeah, we have to find some other ways… there are some ways we can minimize that problem. If a farmer, for example, does not have access to the manure that its food generated and would like to minimize bringing minerals in from somewhere else, that’s another very, very important aspect of permaculture end of the trees. The tree roots, big old hardwood trees, especially their roots reach down, in some cases, dozens of feet into the subsoil, into a place which otherwise would not be part of the biosphere. In my areas, that’s where the glaciers dropped them, and those minerals are right there and would never ever end in cabbage up on my plate if it weren’t for the trees that pump up those minerals, and it can do it fairly sustainably. It’s such a thing as sustainable mining. That’s not a complete oxymoron. I would suggest that would be a large hardwood tree, which not only reaches down and brings up the minerals that are there but actually they exude chemicals or exudates in their roots which further break down the soil particles that are there. In other words, eat the rocks and bring those parts up to where they eventually end up on my plate and into my body. So, that’s not a complete panacea, but that goes a long way toward making up for those crops that you send off to a market.
I’d maintain there are two forms of fertility… excuse me, two forms of erosion. The one we all think about is, you know, stuff leaching away or blowing away or washing away with water, but the second major form of erosion, perhaps the biggest one, is the marketplace. And we don’t think of the marketplace as… how can it be a form of erosion, but it absolutely is, just as leaching away of the minerals.
HOWARD: Right, and one of the key factors there is this… invisible externalities. So, we decided that we’re gonna do a chicken sanctuary. We’re gonna rescue old birds from local farmers where they had stopped laying enough eggs to justify their feed and well, they’d eat the tics and they’d be helpful, and we can sell the eggs to pay for the feed. You know, it’s not totally kosher vegan, but they’re living out their lives pretty well, but then, buying the feed… like it’s 10 dollars to buy a 15-pound bag of scratch or grain feed. It’s negligible. It’s almost nothing. But since I read your book, I was thinking how many acres would it take me….
HOWARD: … if I was growing that, so that feed has to be growing somewhere. So, that’s when I really started understanding this idea of the garden without borders. It is… my garden has to extend…
WILL: that land… also occupying the petroleum, the fuel that the tractor that they ran, and so on and so forth, everything all the way from the farm to the marketplace to your chicken sanctuary, a huge carbon footprint all the way just to keep those birds alive. And one of the things that bugs me about all these places that keep downer cattle and stuff… yeah, what’s in the heart behind it may be great, but there’s often a huge amount of hypocrisy in it sometimes where it is contributing to the problems. Making the places where these things need to go, takes the pressure off… all they need to do is shutting them down altogether, and of course, that means you gotta convince everyone else to stop buying them and eating them.
HOWARD: Right. So, let’s talk a little bit about what your form of veganic gardening looks like. I don’t wanna spend too much time on it because there are so many details, and people can get them all in your book and in this YouTube video. But just give a picture, and especially for folks… you know, I have a fair amount of land. I am on six acres, about two thirds of it is not old growth, but it’s woods, so I can do a bunch of things. But I’m also thinking about listeners who may have a suburban plot, and obviously they are not going to be able to become radically self-sufficient. So, what does it look like to be doing self-reliant gardening, eco-efficient as possible at any level, whether it’s your 85 acres or my six or someone else’s 20 x 20?
WILL: Of course, my 85 acres or so, most of that is forest, so the area I’m actually cultivating is… well, for my own use, it’s probably an acre and a half if that, so it’s a lot less than your six. But my key strategy in all that is intensive methods and things in beds, not raised beds, which I hate, but in intensively spaced beds, wide row beds, and also using vertical dimensions a lot, having things climbing up and growing supported in trellis, which allows me to get a lot more space. But the basic idea behind that… I remember many years ago, my dad who did have a little lot in town was looking to do what I’m doing, so how could it make sense when you got acres, you got all the land you need and why would you go to all the trouble of crowding these things together? And here’s where your urban suburbanites come in. It’s not just space that your crop takes to grow. It also takes water, labor, fertility. There’s a lot of inputs that go into them. And if you could put those same amounts of inputs into a paltry amount of space and still get the same amount of food, doesn’t that make sense? Particularly in my case, it’s every acre I plow out to put crops in, it’s the acre that’s not producing hay and so forth to feed the crops, so I wanna keep a fairly high proportion of my land not in cultivating crops but enough to feed the cultivated crops, and so that and like I said, the three-dimensional element works with some things. Companion cropping allows me to put certain things closer together than they would if they were by themselves.
But one thing I want to point out by the way… I’m not completely a bunny hugger. I’m totally into the compassion thing. I don’t wanna be a hypocrite about it. But I do kill animals. I kill lots and lots of potato bugs, and all kinds of bugs I kill. When I can, I always prefer as much as possible to exclude, if I can. Sometimes people feel really fine about squashing bugs or something though they’d be horrified with the idea of shooing a deer because of their two little Bambi eyes and so forth. Well, I do either one if I have to, but as much as possible, I do neither of them. I’ve killed several deer in my life even though I don’t eat any of it. I don’t value them as food, but I do value the food that they were stealing from me. But I go to much greater extent now as much as I can to simply keep them out by electric fencing and things like that. Even when it comes to a slug or whatever, something like that, it’s still a sentient being, I assume, never asked it, but anything I can do to avoid killing it, I try to do anything reasonable. I’m not as obsessive about the avoidance of bloodshed, but I do everything I can. What I can do overall, I can avoid far less violence, not only killing but simply… I’m trying to think of the word, basically forcing animals out of the habitat by simply using less space, which first of all, veganism itself does that to a huge extent but then even further by intensive food production. So, I own a whole lot of land out there that animals can do whatever they want in, interact, and I don’t feel like I have to console them so as not to kill them.
HOWARD: Yeah, there’s one thing I have thought about with vegans who are extremely purists about “we do no harm,” and when I see them eating cupcakes, so every calorie you eat is robbing some Peter.
WILL: Well, that is true. Also, any time I have ever been to any meeting of vegans or animal rights people or whatever, and when you walk by their cars, look at the windshield. It never fails, particularly if they’re driving in evening. They’ve always got stuff, dead things. Can’t avoid it. You can’t get on the road going 60 or 75 miles an hour without hitting something, killing sentient beings. It’s like this absurd thing that the Jains apparently in India have a tradition. If a Jain goes out at night, I guess they’d be a priest or something, frankly they usually don’t go out at night because they might step on a bug in the dark, but some of them are so pure and self-righteous that they have a certain go-ahead [person] sweeping walk in front of them so they don’t actually step on something. Well, they don’t actually step on something, but I have a feeling that a lot more cooties and bugs get wiped out by that broom.
WILL: Yeah, it’s really good to be careful of straining gnats and swallowing camels…
WILL: We have to keep an eye on the whole picture.
HOWARD: Right, and I’m pretty sure that cars run on dead dinosaurs, which is a…
WILL: That’s another thing that I try to… Those are already dead dinosaurs, so I’m not worried about the harm to the dinosaur, but I’m worried about the sustainability of it. That’s one of the points I make in the book and on my talk. If we’re not only trying to be not invasive to plants but also trying to have a system which is overall sustainable, then we should not be running all of our equipment, should not be running off and burning dinosaur parts which basically it is. When we use black plastic mulch, all those things are made of dinosaur parts, and it doesn’t grow on my land. So that’s another thing is to try to find solutions, workable, practical solutions, affordable, doable solutions, but which do not involve dinosaur parts or killing creatures unnecessarily or wasting space. There’s quite a few hoops to jump through here. We’re kidding ourselves if we think we’re gonna be so pure. Inevitably, a few people I’ve known who try to be high level of purity typically end up wanting out altogether and going back to doing something whatever much much worse. You always gotta do… Do what you can do. There’s a saying, “Don’t let the ideal be the enemy of the good.” That certainly is true.
HOWARD: Right, and in this day and age, in this political climate, particularly which has nothing to do with biology or farming or ecosystems, I’m talking to a lot of people who have very different ideas about progress, whether Hillary is better than Trump, or we should’ve gone for Bernie, or Bernie was too much, or any of that stuff, or should we even be supporting capitalism, and I kind of get dizzy in the midst of all the conversations, but I love the way you talk about it based on natural systems and biology that we’re really…
WILL: To continue the thought, I would take great exception to the very first statement that you said that all this politics has nothing to do with gardening and all that. It has everything to do with it, everything about our larger society goes. Maybe it doesn’t seem much to do with your three-quarter acre garden but everything to do with the overall system because we have to look at not only sustainable farming but sustainable military, defense, sustainable education, sustainable healthcare, so all of these things… it has everything to do with Donald and Hillary and Bernie and so on and that’s where it all fits. In fact, a point I make in my book is not only those politicians, but the Pope and the CEO of General Motors or whatever, all those people are sitting right there in the middle of your garden and you gotta deal with them.
HOWARD: Huh, fair enough. Fair enough. That was kind of a different topic, but maybe this is a good segue into Esperia…
HOWARD: … into the currently fictional civilization that you write about in Through the Eyes of a Stranger. Can you talk about your vision and how it differs from what we have now because in listening to you describe it, and again I’m calling myself out, I haven’t read it, which I’m a little bit ashamed of, but hearing you describe it in your talk, it’s radically different from what most of us could imagine civilization just because it’s outside of what we know.
WILL: Otherwise, of course there’d be no point in writing just another Ursula Le Guin story, in fact her likewise. There is a vision obviously underlying it. In fact, that’s one thing in this fictional land of Esperia, you might almost say, it’s their religion. It’s this thing they call their vision, their keepers of the vision. Even though my Esperians are in fact atheists like Zion, they still have something that you might call a religion, basically this view of a sustainable society, and it manifests itself in many details, in fact every aspect of their lives.
You shouldn’t be ashamed of not having read it because for one thing, the book we were talking about before was quite a job just getting through that, but it would be helpful if your readers had, just to know to be sort of on the same page figuratively and literally. But basically, Esperia is a society which is, I keep emphasizing, not utopia. People take an exception to that. But it’s not meant to be utopia. Its main claim to fame is that it is sustainable. And a sustainable society can screw up, can do something very wrong, try again to get it right, get that wrong. Every solution begets problems and every problem begets solutions. This is the definition of life. This is the definition of evolution. So, a society can evolve and live and thrive if it is sustainable. It can do all kinds of very important things wrong, keep working to get it right and screwing up, working again to get it right. A quote “utopia,” if it is not sustainable, in fact is doomed. It doesn’t matter how much they get right or wrong.
If our current society, for example, if we had totally resolved issues of gender equity and racial harmony and all these things. Even if we totally, which of course we haven’t, even if we have totally resolved all those, as long as we are not sustainable, then we are, as someone described it, rearranging the deck furniture on Titanic. Unless we deal with that iceberg ahead of us, you can worry a lot about poor people down in steerage about not getting good enough air, good enough food, we’re all gonna be bottoming out anyway. So, we’ve really got to, not that we can’t deal with all of these issues at the same time, they’re all totally linked to our garden. But we really have to look at the big one: are we sustainable? Can we buy ourselves time to keep navigating, keep looking for new passages through the ice?
HOWARD: Right, and I LOVE that definition of life and evolution of every solution begetting new problems and every problem begetting new solutions. I think, for the first time, I understand Hegel’s dialectic, like it’s okay to screw up as long as we’re navigating toward sustainability and we have processes to try again and do better. So, sustainability kind of gives us the space to be willing to try things that may not work as opposed to pretending that we have the answers that we don’t.
WILL: Yeah, we need context in order to screw up and we need context to tinker and fix it up. Without context, doesn’t matter; it’s all moot. You know, it’s all over.
HOWARD: Okay, so what are some things that a visitor to Esperia would be surprised by that makes it sustainable?
WILL: Well, okay… I’d point out that again it’s not utopia. I try to make it clear to people. It’s AN example of a sustainable society. The Esperians themselves would be the first one to point out that there could be any number of other things. One doesn’t need to be an atheist. They happen to be for historical reasons or whatever. One doesn’t have to be vegan. You don’t have to be vegan to be sustainable although it helps to be. Okay, interestingly enough and in Book Two, which is near completion as a sequel to the Esperian story. One of the main assets or advantages to their veganism is it enables them to have a very dense population on a given footprint of land, benignly without messing up the land. A lot of people can live a high-quality lifestyle and yet without destroying their land base, and this becomes particularly important in Book Two. This is an example of sustainable descents. In Book Two, they are invaded by this other society to their south which is not sustainable, which keeps on leaching out and you know, very imperialistic trying to take over other land because it needs to feed its own population, because it doesn’t make good use of the land, and it’s got to keep taking more. And at some point, they invade Esperia, and one of the main defenses these Esperians have is that they have a very high density of population in proportion to their borders and so on and moreover population which are very healthy, very prosperous and very rich in resources, and the people are very very loyal to their government. They know what they have. They know what they stand to lose, so you don’t have any… treason is unthinkable, for example. You don’t have grudging people that are ready to turn to help the enemy.
But anyway, so they are vegan. They have a thing called the Vine Laws there, which basically mandates a high level of self-reliance. In particular, there’s a subset of the Vine Laws called the Staples Rule, which mandates that every stead, which is to say household, that also incidentally, they don’t have nuclear household like we do. A stead is like anywhere from 15 to 35 people, some related families, parts of families, individuals living under one very large house almost like a chateau kind of big thing. Every one of those steads is mandated by the Staples Rules of the Vine Laws to be self-reliant for two things. Their staple foods. It doesn’t mean that you can’t buy cinnamon or something rather, but staple foods are producing, which means fruit or seeds, starches, proteins and so on. And also their domestic fuel. So, all their firewood or charcoal or lamp oil, all the things that they need for that are produced on the stead.
Now, some steads happen to have, let’s say a brickyard or something, where they need lots and lots of fuel, more than they need themselves. They might bring that in from further afield. It’s all a very elaborate body of legislation that basically determines at what layer – what level – each stead or land area is to be self-reliant. Because of that, it has total impact on the map of Esperia. For example, there are no industrial zones, there’s no rust belt or whatever. Their industries are all over the place. There are mini papermills, most of which are not much bigger than my house. There are three or four bicycle factories, all kinds of manufacturing all over the country, but it’s not centered in certain areas. It’s scattered all over. There is no grain belt. Grain is produced everywhere. Fruit is produced everywhere. And the forest. The whole country is a patchwork quilt of various land uses from industrial to agricultural to forest and so forth. That would look very different to us. Because of the Vine Laws, there are no population centers. It’s a very densely populated country, but there are no urban areas. The banner, which is the most equivalent we have to a town, the center of it is a banner house, which is sort of like a town office. But there is no cluster of buildings around it. There’s no urbanization at all, and again it has to do with the Vine Laws. They can’t very well be if each household has to be responsible for their things, so it’s a very dispersed society and yet very dense. Those are the things...
HOWARD: Yeah, one of the things you point out, and you point this out in terms of our worlds as well as Esperia, is that the marketplace itself tends to enslave people and make them extremely insecure. So, you talk about the soybean farmer or the corn farmer in America who has no influence over the cost or quality of their inputs and no influence over how much someone is gonna pay for their outputs, and then you talk about the marketplace in Esperia where because people are self-sufficient, they are not in the position to be screwed.
WILL: Yeah, and to the degree that they are self-sufficient, which is very high. On the other hand, people are manufacturing all kinds of things to sell. Incidentally, officially, Esperian economy is a barter-based economy. The Esperian government does not produce any currency, so it’s sort of like if we, for example, no one is telling us we can’t buy and sell things although we are mandated to be self-reliant for those basic things. If I want to manufacture typewriters, no one is going to stop me from doing it, and I can sell them to whoever wants to buy them or wherever I want to. But because a typical stead would produce a number of things, generally not food products for exports because the numbers demand for them, but let’s say industrial things and perhaps crafts and things like that, I guess that’s also industrial. I wanna sell them, but I’m not absolutely bound to… it’s not do or die, sell or starve situation, so therefore, if you try to offer me some enslaving price for my typewriters, you know, I can say, “buzz off.” I don’t have to sell them. And conversely, I got something you want, there’s a certain justice, equity built into the whole system by the fact that we do not have to buy or sell those things to the degree that we don’t.
Therefore, it means that you can demand and get a more fair price for what you’re buying and you do not have to pay more than a fair price for what you are buying. The degree to which you have to have it, let’s say you’re manufacturing knitting needles, then that’s the only thing you got, and how many of those knitting needles can you use yourself, so you have to sell them or starve. If you’re growing corn or soybeans, you have to sell them or starve, you have no control over those things. Most farmers nowadays do not even produce any of their own vegetables. It all comes from the store. Even a farmer that grows wheat, his wife goes to the store and buys bread. So again, the marketplace could be a very liberating thing. I mean I’m far from envisioning everyone staying in their own place. I mean, the marketplace and forum, these are places where we share our civilization, where we make decisions, where we become wiser. We should be mixing it up as much as possible, including buying and selling things. It makes our lives richer in so many ways. It is the degree to which we’re indebted or bonded or enslaved to that, that’s where the problem begins.
HOWARD: Right, because when I think about the history of how third world poverty came to be. It’s largely a case of western corporations coming in and with the help of oligarchy in the country stopping people from being self-sufficient so now these countries are producing tea or cacao or coffee beans or bananas or pineapples that they can’t live on, but they have to sell it to the west. And if they were self-sufficient, if they could grow their own food crops, they could… you know, my grandfather was a musician, and he used to say you know what a conductor can do with a baton if the orchestra doesn’t show up…
WILL: Right. Let’s say those countries that are now, let’s say producing pineapples for us and having to buy everything else in from us at the price we dictate. If they were more self-reliant for not just food but for industrial things and so on, at least within their country and ideally within their communities to some extent, within their household, to the extent that they would, they would still grow pineapples to sell, and we would still buy pineapples from them. But we might pay a lot more for them, as perhaps we should. We’re producing our staple foods, but if we wanted these extra foods as treats or luxuries, then we would pay enough for them to be worth their while and vice versa.
HOWARD: Yeah, when I was in graduate school, I took a course in international health and my professor posed this question to us one day that stumped me for years. It was, “Why are bananas cheaper per pound than apples” when an apple… I was living in New Jersey at the time where apples were grown locally and bananas were shipped thousands of miles.
HOWARD: It’s because of power imbalances.
WILL: Exactly, and along with that goes, “Why are the people in New Jersey so wealthy and why are the people in Honduras so hungry?” and so forth.
HOWARD: Right. Uh, okay. So, the last thing I want to talk to you about is, and we can go on all day. I’d love to just ask you all these questions about my garden, but in fairness to you and all the other listeners, you’ve also been involved in the project that to me is so inspiring and heroic and necessary that I hardly have words for it, and I’m referring to the Scatter Seed Project. Could you talk about that and how you started and what it means to you and what it should mean to all of us to get involved?
WILL: Yeah, thanks for that. Way back 30 something years ago, well, actually way back when I started gardening, farming in fact, it actually grew out of my obsession with self-reliance. I didn’t wanna just grow my own vegetables or my own food, but I also wanted to produce the fertility for the food and also the seeds for the food. I was determined. If I was gonna go to Burpee’s, let’s say for some tomato seed, that was fine. But I didn’t wanna go back the next year for the same variety. I wanted to keep them from year to year. So, I learned how to save seeds, not only tomatoes but basically any crop. If I was gonna grow kohlrabi, if I was gonna have kohlrabi in my diet, then I had to learn how to save kohlrabi seeds, which is a little more challenging, so I gained experience in saving a whole lot of seeds for all kinds of things.
But also, I gradually came to realize that there are a lot of things that are not available off the shelf, just for example, the old man that worked at… a dairy farmer. He had a very interesting kind of a… he called it a lima bean, turned out it was actually a white runner bean he grew in his garden, and he was maintaining it for years and years. He also had a Cowan potato, a local regional heirloom variety that he grew. That’s when it first hit me. There are a lot of things out there that people have that are not in any catalog anywhere. That’s not available off the shelf. And a lot of it I can get if I can access it, but I can only get it once. Once I get it, I have to keep growing it myself. So that’s about the same time I learned about Seed Savers Exchange, and I became a very active member of that.
And so, I started the Scatter Seed Project which is twofold focus, one is to promote and teach skills to people about saving their own seeds and encourage them to and teach them how to do so but also maintaining a variety of things, many of which are rare and endangered. So yeah, I’ve had in the past over 5,000 varieties of various crops including beans and flax and grain and vegetables and so on that I’d maintained and offered to people. As of a few years ago, my Scattered Seed Project was more or less shut down because of some doings of another organization which basically cut off funding and left me high and dry, so some of the things in my collections are lost. Some of them I’m struggling to keep going, and some of them are in the process of getting reobtaining basically hoping to get some more sustainable source of funding year in and year out, so that I can do a better job of keeping these. But most of the stuff that I haven’t lost are still in some other collection, like some of them are varieties that are in the USDA collection, which I may have gotten from them or they may have gotten from me, in which case, they are happy to repatriate them to me, so…
HOWARD: So, when I first heard about Scatter Seed and about saving seeds, I thought the implications were, okay I can save like 30 bucks a year by not going back to the catalogs and maybe I can get some slightly different variety of bean. But once I started reading about it and learning more, it feels like it’s sort of the Noah’s Ark of our civilization that the given our fragility in terms of population, in term of what we’re doing to the environment and in terms of global climate destabilization that every variety that’s lost is a HUGE risk, a huge danger to our future sustainability. Can you talk about…
WILL: You’re right on with all of that.
HOWARD: … the global implications of saving these seeds?
WILL: Yeah. I mean, all of those things are totally valid. It’s totally a good reason to grow your own seeds so you can save 50 bucks or whatever in your seed bill. That’s a great reason for doing it. And because there are certain things that are available. For example, some of the things that I offer in my Scattered Seed Project are not available anywhere. If you do get them from me, I don’t want you to come back next year and get them again. I want you to know how to do it yourself. So, in other words, it gives you access to, like I said, a whole lot of neat things that you otherwise might not be able to. But yeah, in terms of the latter situation, we are in the last century or so, more than ever before, we’re at a devastating trend of losing or abandoning our genetic heritage. Even though many new varieties are being bred, developed, and put on the market every year, they tend to not be sustainable. For one thing, most of them are F1 hybrids, which are not sustainable. You cannot save true seeds from them year after year. Some of them are patented. Even those that are quote “new,” typically they’re reshufflings of the older ones. So, we are actually losing some of the intrinsic diversity that we had before, not just the number of varieties but actual germ plasm, the gene pool content of those things is being lost.
So, one of the objects of my project is in fact to do that. What I focus a lot on even more than… what people talk a lot about in the seed saving community is preserving rare and endangered varieties, which is obviously number one priority. A lot of that is being well done, some of it isn’t, but some of that is being well done. The thing that I focus awful a lot on is having these on the shelf. Many of the varieties that I get… just as an example, many of the varieties I get from the Department of Agriculture are not generally available to the general public. They don’t want you using them as a seed company. They are generally happy to do it with me because for one thing, if I put something in my collection and I offer it, they can’t charge you for this sample. I can. And so, in fact, it becomes a marketplace, and eventually many of the varieties I’ve gotten do end up in the marketplace that some other seed company will pick up and carry.
But my object is to keep as many varieties, as many things accessible to gardeners and especially gardeners who plan to maintain their own stock even it’s not particularly rare or endangered. It’s just so that there’d be a lot of diversity manifest there at any time, and of course some of that… you mentioned the Noah’s Ark… some of these may survive the current genetic crises we’re facing right now, our whole civilization is facing. The more of it that’s out there, the better. I always maintain that in the long run, the safest way of maintaining genetic diversity is not in gene banks, but basically is in the horticulture or landscape and in the fields and gardens and farmers and gardeners all over the country and all over the word, actively used and actively put on people’s tables and being eaten.
HOWARD: Right. Because we don’t know what’s gonna happen, right? We don’t have any models predicting what the earth is going to be like, what kind of pests are gonna migrate where, you know, so the only thing that we have that could possibly save us is having enough options that something might work.
WILL: That’s right. We have to have a lot of things up on our sleeve. We need to have a lot of possibility, and that’s the trick with not knowing which one of them is going to be relevant. That’s why I’m trying to keep as many, I’m like a juggler, I’m trying to keep as many balls in the air as I can without letting any of them fall on the floor because we don’t know which ones. There may be something which is kind of mediocre today, nothing special, which may have within its genes some resistant to some, let’s say a fungal or virus, disease which is just evolving, which ten years from now may decimate all of our crops. It may be very critical, maybe like another Irish potato famine. And this variety, which is hitherto another thing, might become either of itself or may have within it genes we can develop other varieties which have some resilience to them.
HOWARD: Right, so… sort of wrapping up. You raise so many issues and a lot of them as you say are sort of political. We need to change our entire civilization. We need to wean ourselves off of fossil fuels and find a sustainable energy source. We need sustainable forms of economics, and that’s sort of the work of political and social engagement. But there is also the very personal work you and I do and many people do on their own land. What will you recommend if someone comes to you and they’re suddenly aware, based on your writing, of the magnitude of the crisis and opportunity in front of us? Do you have any general guidance for folks who are listening to this, like what’s the first thing or one thing or couple of things that they can do to begin to feel powerful, to begin to feel like they can make a difference and contribute to a good direction?
WILL: Well, what I always tell my workers, and this specifically relates to the Scatter Seed Project, but it also relates to everything else we’ve been talking about in this conversation. There’s two sides… two ways of looking at this, and you need to simultaneously look at both of them. One is no matter how much you do, how many seeds you save, however pure you get, whatever you do, what you do is not enough. The problem is so huge, so far reaching that whatever you do is not going to be enough. The other side is that however little you do, it’s critical, and you have to do it. So, you’re the only one who can decide with your life, with your resources, with your time, with your money, or whatever, which of these things you’re gonna buy into, but it’s critical to take that one or as many as you can of them and do them. So, the fact that you can’t save the world is not an excuse for sitting back and saying while there isn’t anything I can do, I’ll have another beer.
HOWARD: Okay, great, so the folks who can grow gardens will get your book and learn how to use ramial chips and leaves and mowing, you know, grass clippings, and all that and become far more sustainable. For those people who aren’t gonna be able to do that, do you have any advice about how to have an effect with your pocket book, so you know, if you’re still buying from your local farm stand while they are still exporting fertility, are there better things to do than others in terms of procuring your food to be a positive influence?
WILL: Yeah, very much. First of all, if you’re talking about your own little garden, your little backyard in the middle of a city garden, one is to squeeze more out of it by learning to do things more intensively. Perhaps, we have to live in the real world where we have money or don’t have it, so I wouldn’t think too seriously about trying to grow your own wheat in your little postage stamp garden. You can buy a lot of organic wheat pretty cheaply. You might want to focus on the things that you are also going to buy which cost a lot more, like tomatoes and so forth, carrots, and whatever. If you are not gardening at all, and if you have no option for gardening at all, then you’re buying all of your food. There’s a huge control you have over that. Keep in mind that basically every year or every four years or whatever when you get to vote at the poll and sometimes it doesn’t feel like it makes any difference at all and nobody is paying any attention. Every day when you stand at the checkout counter, you get to vote, and believe me, someone is listening. So, the choices that you make at the marketplace, what food you get… Know your farmer. Don’t just go to Safeway or IGA or whatever and get something off the shelf. Take the effort that takes to find out who in your area is producing this or where you can buy it organically or where you can buy it locally grown. Just do some research. Don’t assume that everything has to be perfect. Find something that’s better than something else, and go with that as much as you can afford to.
HOWARD: Right, so I live in the area where there’s a lot of farm to table. It’s kind of renaissance. Most of the people here are devotees of Polyface Farm and Joel Salatin who is very much into the permaculture that uses all the animals. You know, for vegans, plant-based people, what do you think about buying your produce from a local farm that has an animal-based permacultural ethic to it but they also sell vegetables? Is that better than Safeway and IGA?
WILL: Yeah, quite probably. I mean, it’s hard to know how we weigh something which is, like the farms that grow poultry and so on, they have that downside to them from your and my point of view. Of course, he would see that as a plus. But on the other hand, at its worst is perhaps it’s better than something from IGA. In some cases, perhaps not. Maybe the swap off is too great. Again, the best way you can know that is by asking questions. Joel will probably give you lot of answers. If you go to IGA and Safeway or whatever, they probably won’t give you a lot of answers. They probably don’t have the answers. They’ve never been asked those questions before. So, yeah, look around. Shop. Put a whole different meaning to shopping, finding out what’s available and deciding in your own head… which you gotta balance these things, not only try to do the best you can, but try to do the least harm you can do.
HOWARD: Right. So, I think of Paleo as sort of a gateway drug to a healthy plant-based diet, sort of a half-way house. So maybe this animal-based permaculture is a half-way house to truly eco-efficient, sustainable farming and gardening.
WILL: I would thoroughly agree with that. That’s one place Joel Salatin and I would be on exactly the same side arm and arm. Yes, it’s on the way. We mainly disagree in thinking that it’s an ideal.
HOWARD: Right. So, if people want to find out more about you and follow you, do you have an online presence, or how can people reach you?
WILL: I don’t have my own website. I’m told that I’m on lots of other people’s websites. I’m very free. I’m very promiscuous with my email. If anyone has particular questions or something that they want to ask me, they can write at . Whenever this gets swamped, you may not get a quick response, but if you have some serious thing you want to share or ask, I do the best I can to help people in that respect.
HOWARD: Great, so one of my fantasies was to put my life on hold for three months and come and be an intern and learn how to do all the things that you talk about. Do you have… do you do teaching in kind of hands-on sharing of your wisdom?
WILL: Yeah, for the last few years, I’ve been… we used to have apprentices all the time, but the last few years we haven’t been able to do so. I’m hoping perhaps next summer we may start again. I want to get back to having one or more apprentices. I’ve gotta get my bunkhouse repaired. It’s falling off from its foundation and so forth. But there are lots of opportunities for people who want to learn things. I also do for particularly anyone in the northeast or New England who is wanting to attend one of the finest educational and amusing events that you can find anywhere, the Common Ground Country Fair in Unity, Maine the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association puts out every, I think, third… it’s usually around the summer solstice, I mean the equinox, through the third weekend of September, and you can find it online. I’m there all three days of the fair in the agricultural demonstration area giving nonstop talks, if you can imagine, and so I’m there. So, yeah, those are all opportunities that people can learn.
HOWARD: Great. Again, I’ll repeat the name of the book. Will Bonsall’s Essential Guide to Radical, Self-Reliant Gardening. I understand why you wouldn’t be crazy about the title because I wouldn’t be either, but I have to admit that it was the title that got me to buy it. So, there was something in the… the marketing department knew me.
HOWARD: That was sort of the bribe that got me into this world that opened my eyes to so much more than my own garden but to really how we can really bring out a more just, peaceful, sustainable, happy world.
WILL: I think they were assuming that Will Bonsall was a household name, just having that would sell it, and they are doing everything they can to make that the case. But I think there’s very much of an exaggeration, and in case if you missed it in the title, down at the corner, there is the author “by Will Bonsall,” and in case you miss that, look at the binding “by Will Bonsall.” This book is all about Will Bonsall. That would be the perfect title, but hopefully it’s a lot more than that.
HOWARD: Well, you’re a household name in my household.
HOWARD: So, Will Bonsall, thank you so much for all the work you do and for taking the time to share with us today.
WILL: Thank you. It’s been great joining you Howard and everyone.
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The Plant Yourself Podcast theme music, “Dance of Peace (Sabali Don),” is generously provided by Will Ridenour, a kora player from North Carolina who has trained with top Senegalese musicians.
It can be found on his first CD, titled Will Ridenour.
You can learn about Will, listen to more tracks, and buy music on his website, WillRidenour.com.
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