The Seed Library Movement from Roots to Bloom
“If you have a garden and a library you have everything you need.” Cicero penned this phrase many ages ago, but over the last decade his words have started to become a reality. In places as disparate as Alaska, Hawaii, New York and New Mexico, a movement to build lending libraries of seeds has brought together librarians and gardeners, farmers and teachers in a diverse effort to preserve the genetic and cultural diversity of many the plants on which we depend.
It’s hard to say when the community seed library movement began. Historically speaking, informal seed exchanges are nothing new. Seeds were shared between neighbors, within communities, across great distances, and over generations. Saving seeds was as practiced and understood as harvesting a tomato when it was ripe. Over time, as the landscape of seeds changed from the intimate to the industrial, growers became so used to purchasing seed that communities began to lose the diversity of their varieties, the skills needed to save seeds, and the motivation to share them.
Just ten years ago seed libraries were almost non-existent; today there are at least 50, with more sprouting up across the country. Much like the shrouded dawn of agriculture, it seems that the idea was seeded in many places at once, many similar efforts germinating at around the same time. Sometimes the idea traveled from place to place and at other times grew up independently. Luckily, saving and sharing seeds never disappeared entirely, but the age-old tradition has a new modern imperative. And more and more communities are using the age-old institution of the library to address it.
Seed Library; Not in the Dictionary
My journey from gardener to seed saver, and librarian to seed farmer, has led me to a deeper appreciation for everyone involved in the seed library movement. Eight years ago, when I started the Hudson Valley Seed Library, one of the main questions I got was, “What’s a Seed Library?” At that time, there were no seed libraries on the east coast and I didn’t know of any public libraries lending out seeds. In trying to answer this question for myself and our patrons, and with the support of our library director and local garden guru Peg Lotvin, I searched for other kinds of community seed-saving efforts.
There were a few, scattered across the country. I joined Seed Savers Exchange, with its 30 year old verdant yearbook model for connecting seed savers nationally; I corresponded with Native Seeds Search with its unique cultural focus, and met Rowen White, with her inspiring thesis on community seed preservation. It was moving to see each of these different ways of addressing the loss of genetic diversity and increasingly corporate control of seeds. There were other models as well: seed banks, vaults, exchanges and swaps, but no one I reached out to had heard of a seed library. Well, almost no one. Serendipity had brought Sascha DeBrul to intern at a local CSA.
Sascha visited our library often and generously joined in the conversation, sharing his experiences starting one of the first seed libraries in the country: BASIL, the Bay Area Seed Interchange Library. It turned out that one of our common inspirations was the book Enduring Seeds by Gary Nabhan. In it, Nabhan suggested a link between seeds and libraries, “When pooled together, these microcosms of life called germ plasm contain more information than is contained in Library of Congress.”
“We started the project in the aftermath of the WTO protests and the rise of the dialog around genetic engineering and the corporate control of agriculture that was happening at the time,” says DeBrul. “At its heart, a seed library is a community attempt to control the local agricultural resources and the stories that go with them. The idea is that people save and trade seeds with each other and the library provides the opportunity and education to make it happen.” Sascha brought his personal collection of seeds into the library and shared his enthusiasm and knowledge for community seed saving. Sasha inspired me to think even more about the power of the library system and what it could mean for keeping seeds and their stories alive. Through conversations and encouragement, I began implementing our idea for a seed library.
Seeds and Books
I found that seeds and books have much in common. But a simple collection of seeds or books does not encompass what I’ve come to believe is the heart of any library: its community. Because of Peg’s renowned gardening knowledge, and our proximity to many small farms, we were already a hub for gardeners and farmers. I was inspired by their hard work growing healthy food, and wanted to help in some way. As I was learning global seed issues, including genetic engineering, I felt the need to take action. I realized I could do something in my own backyard about these overwhelming problems. I could learn how to save my own seeds. But as I learned more, I felt that saving seeds on my own wasn’t enough. I wanted to find a way to share seeds with other local gardeners and farmers.
My deep appreciation for libraries and new-found passion for seeds were starting to become one. I began to see every seed was a story and felt the stories were meant to be shared. Growing a seed meant growing its story and keeping it alive. I saw that libraries keep stories alive by sharing them. So, adding seeds to the library catalog seemed logical, necessary, and important.
Just as our library was making out-of-print books available to the community, we could also make heirloom seeds, many under the threat of extinction, continually available. Just as we were keeping ideas, imagination, and stories alive by sharing them in print, we could keep the genetics and the cultural stories of seeds alive by sharing them. Just as we trusted our patrons to bring back the books they checked out so that they could continue to be shared, I wondered if we could count on gardeners to save some seeds from the plants they grew to return to the library, keeping the seeds alive and creating regionally adapted varieties.
What’s a Seed Library?
Over the next four years as our seed library grew my awareness of other community seed saving groups began to grow as well. I started to get emails for others who wanted to start seed libraries in their communities. The question I was getting had changed from, “What’s a seed library?” to “How do I start a seed library?” Now, eight years later, the little seed library I started has grown into a region wide seed library, farm, and heirloom seed company while the community seed saving movement has blossomed all over the country. In 2011, the National Heirloom Expo created a rare opportunity for representatives from a diversity of community seed saving groups across the country to come together, share what we were doing, and get inspired to continue our work.
At that meeting I discovered newfound seed solidarity. I had never been around so many other seed people who cared as much about seeds as I do. There were well organized and established organizations like the Organic Seed Alliance, small dedicated groups like SeedFolks, large public libraries, seed activists, and fledgling organizers. Surrounded by this incredible diversity of seedy people, the question I had been seeking to define changed from, “What’s a seed library?” to “What can a seed library be?”
A few other seed obsessed people I’ve met are also exploring this question and adding their own innovations. “Seed Libraries just make sense,” says Bill McDorman from Native Seeds Search and founder of Seed School. “They offer regular folks the opportunity to take matters back into their own hands in their own local communities. No one owns the seeds in a seed library. It is an open source collaboration. Each community can grow the enterprise to fit its own needs.”
Every seed library that gets started faces its own challenges but many are shared. Sara McCamant, from the West County Community Seed Exchange has been developing a more encompassing Community Seed Saving Toolkit through her work with Seed Matters. “I think the biggest challenges are getting people to bring in seed and to bring in quality seed,” she says.
These concerns were echoed by everyone in our gathering at the National Heirloom Expo. In a way, seed libraries are an experiment in participatory seed breeding. The idea is that the more people save seeds in a specific community, the more adapted to that area the seed become. Unlike returning a book, seeds change over time depending on human and environmental interactions. But if members are not saving and returning seed, that won’t happen. Seed libraries are asking consumers to become cooperative producers. They are asking gardeners to take more responsibility for where their seeds come from and actively help create local seed independence. These are tall orders!
These goals also depend on seed quality. While the honor system is an important part of making seed libraries work, Sara also believes that to have healthy and viable seed people need to have basic knowledge about seed production. “I think one of the most important things we can do is teach people to grow good quality seed. We don't want to have hundreds of seed libraries and seed banks distributing seed that has lost its vigor, is diseased or cross pollinated and is no longer what it says.”
Forming connections between seed saving groups is starting to help address these challenges. Rebecca Newburn, who founded the Richmond Grows Seed Library, has begun surveying seed libraries while working on a toolkit of her own. “In the last two years, the seed library idea has gone fungal,” she says. “We wrote the survey to gather information and resources to support existing libraries and support other communities interested in starting a seed lending library in their own community.” Her advice to those who want to start their own version of a seed library is, “People can start small and create something powerful and meaningful in their community. There are a wide range of models out there that can be used or adapted.”
The survey found that each library is striving to create a seed focused collection that fits with their community, growing conditions, abilities, and interests. Some seed libraries, like the one in East Palo Alto, don’t have to worry about seed quality because members are not asked to return seeds, while at others, like the Jenkinstown Library in Pensylvania, patrons can only borrow seeds if they intend to return saved seeds. Here at the Hudson Valley Seed Library we offer incentives to our members who return seeds in the form of seed credits and we have our own seed farm where we can trial, grow out, and germination test seeds before they go out to the public. The SPROUT Seed Library in California sees seed quality concerns as both learning opportunities and the responsibility of members who are encouraged to report any issues and pull seeds from the collection when necessary. Many seed libraries, like Richmond Grows, also in California, label seeds to be checked out as easy, moderate, or difficult, so that patrons can be sure to choose seeds they can successfully save and almost all seed libraries provide ongoing trainings and meetings to keep seed savers on track.
Part of what any version of a seed library does is raise awareness about the importance of genetic diversity, regional adaptation, and seed stories. In the spirit of cooperative community on which libraries are based, seed libraries are creating connections with a myriad of other groups including master gardener groups, local garden clubs, land trusts, transition towns, school gardens, and universities—raising seed consciousness in their region. For us, even if one of our members tries their hand at saving seeds but is not entirely successful, something important has been achieved. They’ve gained a deeper understanding about where seeds come from along with an appreciation for the full lifecycle of their plants. Seed libraries bring the essential importance of seeds to light.
Gone to Seed
Just as agricultural practices have changed over time, and continue to, community seed saving groups will also evolve over time. Bill believes that “the emergence of new regional seed solution models will in the end include land grant colleges, farmer/breeders, small seed companies and regional seed banks along with seed libraries. Each region will craft its own combination of resources as we transition to a more sustainable agriculture. Seed libraries offer one of the best grass roots strategies to promote a return to the historical norm of the past 10,000 years when every gardener and farmer saved their own seeds.”
Seed libraries have already begun to evolve in this way. BASIL is experiencing a renaissance and hosting regular seed swaps and conferences, Native Seeds Search has helped launch five new seed library branches in New Mexico, and the Hudson Valley Seed Library has become an online seed library for the entire northeast as well as a full seed company. Just in the last year since this article was published there have been at least 10 new community seed saving groups formed.
It’s hard to say what this movement will become. Rowen White from the Sierra Seed Co-op, who organized one of the first seed gatherings I ever attended, sums up our common goals. “Our goal is to preserve genetic diversity, empowering our local farmers and gardeners to take back the power of the seed stewardship. We need to work with our plants and seeds to create a new revolution and evolution of local foods, which better fit our lands, our growing methods, and our tastes and imaginations.”
Whether you start a seed library, swap, exchange, bank, CSA or choose to participate in one, you are helping to keep seeds where they belong: in the dirty hands of caring gardeners.
If you would like your seed library, seed bank, seed exchange or other community seed saving group to be added to the timeline, please put the name of your group, date formed, location and link in the comments below. Thanks!