Seed Libraries: Challenges and Opportunities

Reader Contribution by Cindy Conner

I have spent the past year studying seed libraries; researching every one I could find in the US and Canada in the process of writing Seed Libraries and Other Means of Keeping Seeds in the Hands of the People. Published by New Society, the release date is February 1, 2015. These local seed-sharing efforts have sprouted in response to the grassroots movement of people wanting to be closer to the source of their food. In saving seeds and sharing them with others they are truly investing in their community’s future and celebrating its past. You can imagine my surprise when I found out that a new seed library in Pennsylvania was told that by operating as most other seed libraries were doing, they were violating the Pennsylvania seed laws. You can read their story here.

How Do Seed Libraries Work?

It is too bad that happened, but at the same time, things like that show that there needs to be more understanding about the issues involved. The Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture felt that any distribution of seeds should be regulated according to their seed laws, which were put in place to protect consumers from unscrupulous seed companies. However, there is no money involved when seeds change hands through a seed library. Patrons are free to take seeds or not. In fact, they often count their seeds out themselves, so they are their own inspector of what they are getting.

People in the seed library world are wondering if other seed libraries will be challenged. I imagine if they are, the issue will eventually end up in court. The Simpson Seed Library in Pennsylvania is still operating on the condition that they only supply seeds that are commercially packaged for the current year. One of the attractions of seed libraries is that you might find something not easily available commercially—something that grows especially well in your region, but not everywhere. Another attraction is that you can find seeds that have been grown by someone in your neighborhood. It is that personal connection that makes the difference. The Simpson Seed Library encourages their patrons to save seeds themselves and share them through a seed swap that will be held at the library. Apparently seed swaps are still legal.

Seed Swaps

Seed swaps are great. In fact, I think that if a public library was considering starting a seed library, but was hesitant to delve into storing and packaging seeds themselves; hosting annual or seasonal seed swaps would be the way to go. Regular seed swaps could evolve into having seeds permanently at a library with the replenishment coming from seeds donated from the swaps. Seed swaps can be anywhere and combine with other community activities. Besides the how-to of starting a seed library, my book also covers seed swaps.

If you were interested in promoting seed saving and sharing there are lots of things you can do that don’t actually involve seeds being exchanged. I’ve talked about some of those possibilities at Homeplace Earth and in my book. Anything we can do as communities to celebrate seeds and inform the public will help to create better understanding for all. We can read, sing, and dance about them. We can draw and photograph them and watch them grow in gardens. The more we have seed related activities in public, the more the public will be aware of the importance of seeds and recognize the difference between things such as a seed library and a seed company. People traded seeds long before there were seed companies and governments that regulated them. I invite you to make seed saving and sharing a part of your life.

Learn more about Cindy Conner and what she is up to