Check it out: Seed sharing is sprouting at the library

Black Mountain librarian Denise King. Photo by Carrie Eidson
Black Mountain librarian Denise King. Photo by Carrie Eidson

Amid growing concerns around the origins of seed stock and genetic modification, “seed libraries” are sprouting up all over the country — allowing neighbors to connect with one another and their local food systems by sharing the seeds from their own garden.

The premise of a seed library is relatively simple — patrons of the library “check out” their selections to grow the season’s crops and then return usable seeds from their harvest at the end of the season. The goal is to provide a free source of locally adapted crops and contribute to the biodiversity of local agriculture. Ideally, as the seed library continues to operate, the number of seeds and varieties available will continue to increase.

In many communities, including a few in Western North Carolina, seed libraries have found a natural home in public libraries — serving as an expansion of existing library services. Black Mountain Public Library opened its seed library in April — making it the first in Buncombe County — and librarian Denise King estimates that there are over 200 seed libraries operating out of public libraries throughout the country.

“The mission of the library includes supporting ‘creative endeavor,’ in whatever format, to all citizens, and we believe our seed library does just that,” says King. “Libraries are a place where people can still get things for free — books in all formats, music and movies — so why not healthy seeds?”

The initiative was started after Carl Franklin, owner of Black Mountain Books, encountered the concept during his travels and approached the library with the idea. So far, 32 patrons have used the resource.

Seed-lending libraries are available in other WNC public libraries as well, including Haywood County’s library in Waynesville and, in the near future, Jackson County’s library in Sylva.

The Jackson County program, called Sylva Sprouts, was started in early 2012 by Jackson County Farmers Market manager Jenny McPherson. Though it will soon be moved to the public library, it is currently housed in the Jackson County Cooperative Extension office, with a portable version brought to the Jackson County Farmers Market every Saturday.

“The mobile seed library is definitely a must,” McPherson says. “It gets the word out and gets people asking questions.”

Haywood County’s seed library uses the former card catalogs to house its seeds. Kathy Olsen, the adult services coordinator for the library, got the idea from an NPR story called “How to Save a Library” and felt that the community featured in the story sounded similar enough to Haywood County for the idea to work.

Planning for the library took about four months, and Olsen says she consulted with McPherson for help. She notes that since its grand opening in March 2014, the seed library has been in constant use.

“It has slowed down a little lately, but in the spring or early summer, someone was using it every single day without fail,” Olsen says. “I counted up all the seed packets, and we’ve had 650 rented out.”

Though the WNC seed libraries are reporting success, nationally, supporters of seed libraries are expressing concerns about a recent event in Pennsylvania. In late July, the public library of Mechanicsburg saw its seed library shut down by the state’s Department of Agriculture, which cited a violation of the state’s 2004 Seed Act. Under the act, the seeds circulated by the library would not only have to be clearly labeled, but also tested for viability and germination rates. Cumberland County, Pa., Commissioner Barbara Cross has since been quoted for her support of the shutdown, when she compared the seed library to “agri-terrorism.”

Pennsylvania’s Department of Agriculture is working with the Mechanicsburg library to find a way to conform to the Seed Act. But the incident sparked concern among seed-library supporters around the county who are questioning whether similar legislation in other states could be used to the same effect.

During the 2013 session, under Session Law 2013-345, the N.C. General Assembly passed stiffer penalties for “cases involving the unlawful sale of seed protected under the federal Plant Variety Protection Act.” However, at this time, the legislation does not appear to impact North Carolina seed libraries because the language only references seed sales.

Chris Smith, community coordinator for Sow True Seed, says he is unaware of any legislation in North Carolina similar to Pennsylvania’s Seed Act. However, he notes, requirements for germination testing could impair seed donation programs, including those of Sow True Seed, which has aided seed library programs by providing donations of seeds to help jump-start the programs.

Smith says he supports seed libraries, as he feels “food security is meaningless without some type of seed security.” However, he cautions that maintaining genetic purity, which keeps seeds true to their variety, will be a challenge for seed libraries, which will also need to find a way to make sure the seeds being used are only sourced from open-pollinated plants.

Looking to the future, King is optimistic in her vision for the Black Mountain seed library. She hopes to see it become self-sustaining, with a good variety and no need to purchase additional seeds. But she notes that the library staff is concerned about potential legislation that would threaten the program. King adds that she hopes the public will become more aware of legislation that would restrict seed sharing.

“It has been lots of fun to see the excitement our little seed library has generated,” King says. “I would also love to see other libraries in Buncombe County start their own seed libraries.”

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About Josh O'Conner
Josh O’Conner is an urban/land use planner with a passion for urban agriculture. He can be reached at @kalepiracy or @joshoconner on Twitter or e-mailed at josh.oconner@gmail.com.

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