Seed Libraries: Keeping Seeds in the Hands of the People

Rebecca Newburn is a permaculturalist and math and science educator who, in 2010, began the Richmond Grows Seed Lending Library in Richmond, California, one of the first in the country. Seed libraries are a community resource that offer free seeds to gardeners with the understanding that they will grow the plants, save seeds and return some of them to the seed library. Rebecca is a national leader in promoting and supporting seed libraries; her “Create a Library” resources have been used to help hundreds of seed libraries open around the world. 

Several years ago, when legal challenges arose around people’s right to save and share seeds locally, Rebecca was a partner in the National Save Seed Sharing Campaign. The Campaign successfully pushed to pass legislation to protect seed sharing in key states and amend the Recommended Universal State Seed Law to exempt seed libraries from commercial regulations. In this interview with Arty Mangan of Bioneers, Rebecca shares her experience developing a seed library and why saving seeds at the community level is important.

ARTY MANGAN: What inspired you to get involved with seeds?  

REBECCA NEWBURN: I was sitting in a permaculture design class with Christopher Shein, (author of Vegetable Gardener’s Guide to Permaculture), realizing that there are so many amazing ideas in permaculture. I asked myself which one is mine to do, and the word “seeds”came into my head. It made sense to me on a fundamental level because if we don’t have access to food, we don’t have a community and we don’t have a culture. Christopher had been one of the people involved in the creation of the first seed library, BASIL at the Ecology Center in Berkeley. I connected with him and the other people that had co-founded that organization. I told them that I wanted to create a seed library in my hometown of Richmond, CA, and I wanted it to be a replicable model. I didn’t have any seed-saving experience at that point, but I was able to use the expertise at Seed Savers Exchange to figure out how to create a model that would work in my community and that I could share with people in other communities in a way that could be adapted or scaled up to suit their needs and their preferences and their cultures.  

ARTY: After that moment of clarity and inspiration that set you on the path of sharing seeds, how did you actually begin the process of starting a seed library?  

REBECCA: When I started to work on this in 2010, a friend of mine, Catalin Kase, who is a brilliant thought buddy, was taking some time off of work to do some creative projects. So, I asked her if she’d be able to help me for a while to get started. At the time, a friend of Catalin’s who was a very experienced seed saver was visiting from out of town. She said, “It’s good you don’t know anything about seed saving, because if you did, you’d never start this project.” We were just walking into it with love, wanting to share seeds and share stories, not really knowing what we were doing, but, fortunately, we had a lot of support from experienced seed savers along the way.  

ARTY: I imagine that in 2010 seed libraries were a little-known concept.  

REBECCA: At that time, we were the seventh seed library to open in the country, and all of them could be traced back to BASIL. Today there are over a thousand seed libraries in the country. We have a sister seed library list. It’s very self-reported, so our numbers are not very accurate. I had a Google alert for seed libraries and as things came up on my feed, I would reach out to the new startups and add them to the list. Within the first year, I think we were at 20, and then the next year we were at 100, and the next year 200. Now we’re talking about doing an inventory every five years so that we can keep that list properly updated and also reach out to communities to see if they need any support or can offer support to others. We are looking to figure out ways to use that list in more useful ways, and we offer resources on the Richmond Grows Seed Lending Library website on how to create a seed library.  

ARTY: What do you feel drove that kind of interest and growth in seed libraries?  

REBECCA: For many people, there’s an awakening or re-awakening of a traditional awareness and connection with seeds. But most people don’t have a connection with the whole lifecycle of the seed. But I think that’s gradually changing as people realize that that we’ve lost a lot of our connection to nature and to the cycle of life. There is also the increasing concern around climate change and biodiversity, as well as concerns about the impacts of big Ag and GMOs. A lot of convergent factors are bringing people to the realization that having your own seeds and having them stewarded by the community is super important, and a really wonderful way to do that is through a seed library, which is accessible to all.  

ARTY: What is the state of the global industrial seed industry and the consolidation of seed companies?  

REBECCA: If you look at the data around what’s happened with seeds, there used to be a lot of local seed companies that had regionally adapted seeds, seeds that were special to that area and those communities, but, over time, we’ve lost a lot of those regional seed companies. Even some of the remaining ones are actually owned by larger companies. The statistics of the percentage of the seed that is owned by just a handful of seed companies is alarming [four companies control 60 % of global commercial seed sales]. I love the idea of keeping seeds in the hands of the people, and a seed library is a wonderful way to do that. It’s a local repository; it’s available for free; it’s accessible to the community. And while I think it’s also important to have seed banks, those are often more closed collections that are not nearly as accessible. They’re in storage and are not being grown out every year and responding to whatever changing climate we have in different places. With seed libraries, seeds are planted each year and are able to respond to what’s happening weather-wise in our communities,  

ARTY: How do you do quality control in terms of seeds’ purity when dealing with home gardeners returning seeds to the library? How do you know what you’re getting has been accurately identified?  

REBECCA: That’s a very good question. There is a lot of diversity in the skill levels of different seed savers. Communities need to decide for themselves how they want to approach that. We have some best practices and guidelines to ensure seed quality, and those are available on our website, but there are some new questions we’re asking ourselves. First off, we’re not seed companies. We’re not going to have the isolation distances for things like brassicas. The brassicas that come into the seed collection, we automatically label them “crossed” because we have no idea if that plant cross-pollinated with another variety and its seed may be a mix of the genetics of the two. We have signage that says we’re not a seed company. We are sharing seeds that we are growing in our community as has been done for tens of thousands of years.

The concept of purity is a much more recent concept because historically nature is diverse. The idea that everything is going to germinate within 14 days and be ready to harvest in 65 is not something you find in nature, and it’s not necessarily safe or desirable. If all of my seed germinates in 14 days and we have a heat wave at that time and everything dies, then I’ve lost my entire crop, but if some seeds germinate a little bit later and I miss that heat bubble, then I might actually have a crop, so I think we need to reexamine that question of purity and examine if it’s really important in our food crops. Quality is important, but we don’t equate quality with purity.

In the past, if squash seeds, for example, were donated and weren’t labeled “hand-pollinated,” and we didn’t know the grower, we would compost it. Now we’re looking at being more proactive. Let’s actually take some genetically diverse seed, let it promiscuously pollinate and see what happens.   

Now that we’re having much more diversity and extremes in our weather, we need to have more diversity in the seeds we’re offering. So, we are beginning to look at land races, [locally-adapted seeds with a wider genetic diversity than modern varieties] so that we can accelerate climate adaptation within our collection. I’m at a point where I’m asking questions about what I really value in terms of what my garden looks like and what I’m growing and offering, so I’m much more up for an adventure than I was before. I think the most important thing, though, regardless of whether you want to maintain varietal purity or if you want to have more diverse genetics, is that you need to label things well. Some of the labels we use for seeds are: “genetically diverse mix,” “hand pollinated,” or just the variety name if the isolation distances have been maintained. Sharing that kind of information by proper labeling is an important part of a seed library’s mission.

ARTY: I imagine that with crosses and mixes you will get some pleasant surprises and some disappointments  

REBECCA: I love what [seed expert and author] Bill McDormand said: “Let us eat our mistakes.” When I was first getting into seed saving, and something didn’t come out as I expected, Bill’s advice was, “Just eat it.” You don’t need to save the seeds, but it can still provide food for your family. And sometimes we may be surprised by something that’s uniquely delicious. In this era of a bottleneck of food crop genetics in which large seed companies offer fewer varieties, one way we can honor our ancestors is by offering something to the future. We can be a bridge from the past into the future by taking traditional seeds and being in partnership with them, listening to what they have to tell us to help us bring more genetic diversity into the foods that are going to feed future generations. I’m personally interested in looking at what can I do in my garden and in my community and with other people to offer something valuable that’s going to feed my community well into the future.  

ARTY: You gave the example of genetic diversity within one variety that results in germination in a scattered fashion as a hedge against a very specific weather event. How else is biodiversity important in this work?  

REBECCA: In my own home collection, I have, for example, an apple tree that has 15 varieties grafted onto it. Not only does it provide food over a longer period of time, but sometimes if there’s a heavy rain and the insects can’t come out to pollinate when one particular variety is flowering, I know that I have a backup because other things are flowering later, so I’m going to have an apple crop. Historically, people grew lots and lots of different foods, but now we’re reliant on just very few handfuls of crops to feed ourselves, and even those are very limited in terms of the varieties that are grown. So, plant what you like, but also plant a lot of different types of what you like to balance it out, whether it’s several different types of tomatoes or lots of different types of vegetables. I have so many different types of vegetables there’s always something growing. It provides for a rich diet.  I’m hoping that more and more people will become interested in expanding what they eat for their health and for the health of the planet.  

ARTY: Can you describe the community that you’re serving with the seed library?  

REBECCA: We have a very diverse community that’s evolving. There are lots of immigrants from Asia and Latin America, mostly working-class families. The local seed library is in the Richmond Public Library. Now there are 25 seed libraries in the East Bay, and there are more in the San Francisco Bay Area. We’re doing more collaborative work. We’re doing a seed-saving project with Going to Seed, a group that focuses on land-race gardening. We came together as a community to decide which plants we wanted to steward and work with to help create delicious, locally-grown, genetically diverse food. It’s so exciting to work with people in the community and to see what people are interested in doing. Within the larger community, there is a robust community of seed savers in the East Bay working together.  

ARTY: What is the response you get from people using the seed library?  

REBECCA: What I’ve heard from most people is how it’s connected them with a family member. I was out in my front yard where I have a little seed library for my neighbors, and a guy driving by slammed on his brakes and jumped out of his van, and said “Oh my gosh, I found your seed library and I started planting, and it reminded me of my grandfather who was a farmer and who passed away a couple of years ago. It made me feel super connected with him.” I’ve heard so many stories like that from people. They got seeds from the seed library and by planting them, they felt really connected with someone who’s passed away recently who was a gardener or farmer. And now they’re inspired to save seeds. I ‘ve also heard from a number of people who said that growing their own food has been important to help them put a little bit more food on their table. Those stories of how it’s helped make a difference in people’s lives have been really rewarding.  

ARTY: What advice would you give someone interested in starting a seed library?  

REBECCA:  It’s really nice to know that there’s no one model. There isn’t a one-size-fits-all model. Some seed libraries are a shoe box at a reference desk. Others are beautiful cabinets that have been painted by a local artist. There’s no one way that it needs to look. The other thing is do it in stages. The first year, the first couple of years even, you might just be able to offer donated seeds from seed companies or maybe even purchase some. It’s important to get the word out that the seed library is a new community resource. Then, over time, you might try something like a “Grow a Row” program, or a “One Seed, One Community,” where you’re trying to get people to actually save seeds by offering a seed-saving class. Be patient. It takes time to get people to start saving seeds and returning some to the library. And you need to figure out what your standards and practices are about accepting the seeds. Are you going to be accepting anything or are you only going to accept better varieties? What practices and policies make the most sense for your community? Giving yourself some grace and giving yourself some time is super important.  

ARTY: What is the “One Seed, One Community” project?  

REBECCA: The idea behind the “One Seed, One Community” projects is that you chose something that is interesting to grow or maybe has some cultural relevance to your community or is so beautiful that when you open up that pod you get excited to become a seed-saver.   People are afraid to make mistakes. A lot of people don’t want to save seeds because they’re afraid they’re not going to do it right. That’s why examining that question of varietal purity is important. People are so afraid that they’re not going to do it right that they don’t do it at all. That approach allows people to have more freedom around planting and saving seeds.   It’s a learning process, and that’s why I like initiatives such as “One Seed, One Community” because it helps people get their toes in the water. We always do something that’s extremely self-pollinating like a bean. It’s pretty when you open it, and it’s easy to see the seeds, so start with something that’s easy to do, and then, as you get excited about it, you can go onto things that are more complicated such as hand-pollinating squash.  

ARTY: Hearing you talk, it just dawned on me that the library concept is even broader than just taking out seeds and bringing some back. As with a book library, there is also an exchange of information.  

REBECCA: When I created the structure for the seed library, the cabinets were labeled: “super easy,” “easy” and “difficult.” We try to embed education about the seeds, explaining why these seeds are easy to grow and save, these others are difficult, etc., as well as helping people understand that things that are self-pollinating are going to come out like you would expect without any work on your part. The seed library being in a library makes sense because seeds are our commons and libraries are our commons, and being able to connect those two, in my mind, was a natural fit.    

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