Seed Libraries and the Law

Reader Contribution by Cindy Conner and Homeplace Earth
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Seed libraries are community seed sharing programs that can take many forms, but generally the one thing they have in common is to freely distribute seeds. Many hope that the recipients of those seeds will grow them out, save seeds, and donate some back to the program. It all sounds pretty innocent.

However, in 2014, some seed libraries came to the attention of their state departments of agriculture and were told they would have to follow the state seed laws, just as seed companies do. Well, that threw the seed library world into a dither and a lot has happened between then and now. You can read more about that at Homeplace Earth.

Knowing Your Seed Laws

Due to the diligence of seed library activists, the American Association of Seed Control Officials (AASCO) adopted an amendment to the Recommended Uniform State Seed Law (RUSSL) in July 2016 that would exempt seed libraries from state seed laws. This doesn’t automatically mean that now seed libraries are exempt in all the states. Each state sets its own seed laws, but looks to the RUSSL for guidance.

If seed libraries in your state haven’t been approached by your department of agriculture it could be that seed libraries already are excluded by definition in your state seed laws. Or, it could mean that the department of agriculture has other things to worry about. Seed libraries are giving seeds away for free and no money is changing hands, making them distinctly different than seed companies.

No exchange for money is an important aspect of the AASCO non-commercial seed sharing amendment that applies to seed libraries. In fact, you can’t require anything back if you give out seeds — even seeds!

That might seem contrary to how some seed libraries are set up. You can do everything you can to encourage and allow people to bring back seeds, you just can’t have that as a requirement to receive seeds. In my book Seed Libraries and Other Means of Keeping Seeds in the Hands of the People, I wrote about all types of seedy activities that a seed library could participate in besides the distribution of seeds.

Since, as a culture, seed saving is not a way of life anymore, people need knowledge and encouragement in order to save seeds. Even those who will never save seeds need to know why it is important to do so. I like to think that, besides engaging in educational activities about seed saving for their patrons, seed libraries would have programs that celebrate seeds in many ways. Since it may be difficult to get patrons to bring back seeds, at least in the initial stages of your seed library, I suggest that you find seed stewards of certain varieties to keep your library supplied.

Why Seed Laws?

Seed laws are a good thing. They require seeds bought from commercial seed companies to meet minimum germination rates and to be what the label says they are, without contamination from other seeds or material.

According to the AASCO amendment, even non-commercial seeds that are shared need to have a label with many of the things you would want to know about seeds. A germination test is not required, however, I would recommend that if you have held seeds for over two years, you would want to do a germination test anyway, just not as extensive as one that is required of seed companies. My book explains how to do a simple germination test. Once you start receiving seeds into your seed library, you need to decide what to do with the leftovers from year to year. A simple germination test will help you determine the viability of old seed when you feel the need to remove some from your inventory.

Seed libraries are wonderful programs. If you have any questions about seed libraries in your state, check with your state department of agriculture about their legality under their current seed laws. Most likely you won’t meet resistance, but if so, I’m sure it can be resolved in light of the recent AASCO ruling. I hope you have a mission statement — another thing I mention in my book.

A mission statement can define your purpose and align your project with other needs in your community. It will explain your project to others, such as the department of agriculture. Every seed library is unique. I look forward to seeing seed share programs in every community.

Cindy Conner is the author of Seed Libraries and Grow a Sustainable Diet (available in the MOTHER EARTH NEWS Store) and has produced DVDs about garden planning and managing cover crops with hand tools. Learn more about what she is up to at Homeplace Earth. Read all of Cindy’s MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

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