seed libraries in the headlines: some grounding perspective, from ken greene

copyright SeedLibrary.orgSEED LIBRARIES are making headlines–and not in the usual happy way. A recent banner in “The Sentinel” in Cumberland County, Pennsylvania (followed by Associated Press and Grist.com stories and more) read as if a dragnet had been put over the fledgling Joseph T. Simpson Public Library’s new seed library in Mechanicsburg. Verbs like “busted” and “crack down” made things sound positively criminal.

Apparently letting people check out seed, then deposit new seed from their subsequent harvest, would violate Pennsylvania’s Seed Act of 2004. Words like “agri-terrorism” were uttered. I asked veteran seed-library insider Ken Greene of Hudson Valley Seed Library, who founded the first seed library in a public town library in the nation, to lend some perspective.

Our conversation helped me understand more about what happened; about what a seed library is, anyhow, and the challenges it can face–and why such regulations are in force, anyhow. My questions after I read that original Sentinel story, and Ken Greene’s answers:

copyright SeedLibrary.orgQ. So let’s start with what happened, Ken. 

A. A few months back I was forwarded an email from a seed library asking for advice. I get emails regularly from people who want to start some kind of community seed-saving project at a library. It’s usually at the stage when they are feeling inspired and ready to jump in, but not sure how to begin.

This was not quite the same, though. It was from Rebecca Diane Swanger, an Adult Services Librarian and Volunteer Coordinator at the Joseph T. Simpson Public Library in Mechanicsburg. Her email, which was sent to a group including seed libraries and seed organizations, started out like many of the others:

Our seed library has received such great publicity and feedback from the community and we are so delighted with the addition to our public library.”

SeedLogoSMALLBut she was asking for a different kind of advice than most. She had received a letter stating that they were not in compliance with Pennsylvania’s 2004 Seed Act, which regulates the sale and distribution of seeds. In addition to licensing seed distributors, the act requires that distributors only offer seeds that are tested using AOSA Rules for Testing Seed and are labeled with detailed testing and other data.

Her email ended with, “I feel underprepared and a bit defeated.”

Many seed folks CC’d in the email gave Rebecca advice. A representative from the Department of Agriculture and her local state representative were going to visit the library, talk with her, and make a determination about the project.

I honestly thought that once they met and saw the beautiful, grass-roots community effort that is a seed library in action, everything would be OK. I was surprised when we heard later that the library would not be allowed to accept or swap seeds saved by library users–only to swap commercially produced seeds. Although this was the first time the seed-library community had heard of a public library having this kind of issue, it was not unfamiliar territory for our us.

copyright Rich PomerantzQ. You operate a retail seed catalog called Hudson Valley Seed Library, and it has a membership option, where those who join receive special members-only seeds, and can also send in seeds at harvest time. And before HVSL, you started the first seed library in a public town library in the U.S., when you worked at the Gardiner (NY) library.

So is this Pennsylvania story a surprise—or is awareness of and adherence to state or perhaps federal seed laws all part of setting up a seed library?

A. In 2004 when I started the Hudson Valley Seed Library at the Gardiner Library, we were the first seed library in a public town library in the country. I was lucky that Sascha DeBrul, founder of BASIL (the Bay Area Interchange Seed Library), one of the earliest community-based independent seed libraries, was serendipitously interning at a nearby farm and regularly visiting our library.

With the support of Sascha and library director and expert gardener Peg Lotvin, I added seeds to the library catalog. Patrons could check out seeds, like a book, take them home, grow and enjoy the plants, and save seeds from the plants they grew to “return” to the library. The project seemed innocent enough, and then took over my life. I quit my day job in 2008 and along with my partner, Doug Muller [on left in above photo, with Ken], turned the Hudson Valley Seed Library into an online seed company and seed library.

As our seed gardens grew into a seed farm, and we began reaching thousands of gardeners instead of hundreds, we quickly learned that seed quality–including seed viability and vigor, seed coat- and seed- borne diseases–was something we had to pay closer attention to. We studied up on federal and state seed laws, not only to be in compliance as seed sellers, but to make sure we were sharing the highest-quality seeds with gardeners and farmers.

Q. I expect that (thanks to Google Alerts and social media) you heard from a lot of people fast when the first story broke. What was the general pulse?

A. So here’s where this story gets complicated. Even though much of the response to this story has been sensationalized into a government versus grassroots “crackdown” scenario (granted, when state officials throw around the term “agri-terrorism” in the same breath as “public library” they’re kind of asking for it), there are some very good reasons for seed regulations. Preventing the spread of agricultural diseases and ensuring that growers are working with quality seeds is extremely important.

The question is, where do seed libraries, as community organizations providing access to seed, fit in? It is in how these laws are applied, and, in some cases who is behind the authorship of the regulations, that can be a problem.

Despite some of the fear-based reactionary stories that have come out, responses from seed folks closest to the issue have been thoughtful, helpful, and pretty spot-on. Seed quality, disease, and how those factors play out in a community-based seed initiative have been part of conversations in our circles since the beginning.

Rebecca Newburn, from the Richmond Grows Seed Lending Library in California, stated: “We want to be proactive in explaining what we do as seed libraries and why we provide a valuable service that needs to be preserved and encouraged.” She’s putting together some crowd-sourced protocols from different libraries, including us, and talking points to help other libraries discuss and answer questions about this issue.

An excellent article explaining the legal side of the issue just came out. I think this (so far) isolated incident will bring more attention to the differences between community seed and commercial seed, and help seed libraries refine their programs.

copyright SeedLibrary.orgQ. So let’s back up: Why is there such an interest in creating seed libraries today—and what’s the basic idea of a seed library?

Over the last five years, we’ve gone from just a handful of seed libraries to over 200 countrywide. Food consciousness, which led people to start asking questions like who grows my food, where is it grown, and how is it grown, has led to seed consciousness.

Gardeners, farmers, and eaters are starting to ask these questions about the invisible industry behind food: seeds. In particular, awareness of genetically engineered foods has caused more people to think about diversity and the importance of seed saving. This has led to more interest from gardeners and farmers in saving and sharing seed.

For me, it meant starting a farm-based, mission-driven seed company committed to producing organic seed, fostering a seed-saving community, and celebrating seeds through art.

Q. Is there a one-size-fits-all template for creating a seed library—or is each one a little different in mission or structure?

It’s important to point out that even though we talk about “seed libraries” in general, no two are alike. As I wrote in my 2012 article in “Heirloom Gardener Magazine,” libraries are almost as diverse as seeds. Some are as simple as a seed swap box, while others require in-depth seed-saving courses or included grower-breeders.

This diversity is part of what gives me hope. If seed libraries were all the same, it would be easier to wipe them out with one law, the way a modern bred plant variety, being grown in monocrop, can be wiped out by a single disease. Our seed-library program is online and focuses on one “community seed” per year so that we can give our members a thorough education and have enough seed stock to test it before sharing back with our communities.

Q. Even when its primary mandate is something as positive-minded as saving seed, every legal entity or business runs into the colder reality of conforming to statutes. What are some of the challenges a seed library has to reckon with?

A. Long before there were regulations, or laws, or seed companies, there were seed savers. What’s left of the diversity of plants that we inherited from our global ancestors was repeatedly selected, bred consciously and unconsciously through thoughtful co-evolution and happy accidents, by communities of individual people and plants.

Large-scale agriculture feeding larger and larger populations through monocropping, chemicals, hybrids, and now GMOs necessitated many of these laws. But that doesn’t mean we need to apply all of them to small-scale efforts. In fact, if we want to increase the diversity of seeds, we need to be careful of over-regulation.

It’s very important for seed libraries, banks and exchanges sharing home garden- or farm-saved seeds to understand the federal and state regulations. First, these regulations can be used to define seed-saving protocols and choose what kinds of seeds will be accepted.

Having clear guidelines and setting expectations about how seed will be shared builds trust. This includes understanding that there may be mix-ups, cross-pollinated crops, or poor quality–and how that information gets shared back to the organization. Additionally, knowing these regulations can help us understand which ones don’t apply, so we can be prepared when they are unfairly foisted upon us.

copyright SeedLibrary.orgQ. You actually do trainings with groups that want to set up a seed library. What are some of the key points of your message to them?

A. I lead with one of my favorite quotes, from Cicero: “If you have a garden and a library you have everything you need.”

But my main message is start small–as small as a seed, and let it grow. I love starting with the big ideas of what a seed library can be.

The “seed libraries are so cool, let’s do it” energy is awesome, but not always rooted. I help groups focus that enthusiasm into a kernel to plant and develop into a unique seed-saving project that is ideally suited to their skill sets, region, and community.

We cover everything from the historical context of saving seeds; first steps for developing a seed community; to the how-to of seed saving and organizing the library.

I usually end the workshops with one of the quotes that never ceases to inspire me the same way a sprouting seed never ceases to amaze me no matter how many seasons I’ve been growing:

“Seed is created to renew, to multiply, to be shared and to spread. Seed is life itself,” said Vandana Shiva.

(All photos courtesy of SeedLibrary.org; portrait of Ken Greene and Doug Muller by Rich Pomerantz.)

  1. Julie @ Southern Wild Design says:

    Margaret, thank you. I saw the article to which you refer…there was great wailing and gnashing of teeth. ;) Would you mind if I share this post on my FB page and blog? I think it does a good job looking behind the scenes…of sorts. Thanks. ~Julie

  2. Beverly, zone 6, eastern PA says:

    Both images at the top of the article are wonderful. This issue is a new one for me, I have not heard a thing about it. Makes me wonder more about the PA Seed Act of 2004.

    I love saving my own seeds and often share them with other gardeners. Just now I was bagging up Dolichos seeds to hand out as bonuses at my upcoming backyard Plant Swap. Vandana’s quote at the end rings true.

    I really appreciate your efforts to keep us all informed. Thanks Margaret.

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