Ever wonder what would happen if our independent vegetable seed companies that sell ‘Open Pollinated’ heirloom seeds suddenly went out of business? We would either have to start buying hybrid and GMO seeds from subsidiaries of companies like Monsanto, year after year, or hope that our neighbors have a stockpile of good seeds that they could share with us- in that situation, having a local seed library would be vital!
Last month we talked about the dark side of the seed industry, including GMOs and anti seed-sharing laws. This month we’ll show you a couple of projects trying to increase our seed resiliency and maintain our vegetable genetic diversity.
Seed libraries are a lot like regular libraries (in fact, many reside in libraries!). You can ‘check out’ a seed variety, and replace what you took, once you’ve grown the plant to maturity. Seed libraries rely on the honor system, and assume that people will replenish the library from time to time. To ensure a seed library’s integrity and resilience, a care-taker/organizer is needed. Our local seed library lives in the East Palo Alto Library and was founded by members of Collective Roots in 2011. It is still supported by them and is continually being updated and maintained.
Maintaining a seed library takes a bit of work. At a minimum, you need to make sure that the seed stock is being replenished, the labels are accurate, the information on how to borrow/return seeds is adequate, and to make sure people know about it. So if a seed library requires all of this upkeep, why do it?
For one thing, buying quality seed packets every season can be expensive (as much as $4-6/packet), while seed-library seeds are made available for free. Seed companies may decide that a given tomato variety, (while delicious and useful) is not economically viable, and drop it from their catalogs; a seed library could save this tomato from disappearing. Consider the relative number of vegetable varieties available now, compared to a century ago. Another point is that different regions have differing climates and each vegetable variety will perform differently depending on where it is grown; seed libraries offer an opportunity to select seeds that will work well locally. Lastly, seed libraries are fun and they offer many ways for the community to collaborate and build bonds.
Matt Drewno, an Ecology Action mini-farmer working the Green-Belt Mini-Farm at the Stanford Inn, recently started the RhythmicWater SeedBank. He is working with the community to build up a seed stock for people gardening and farming near Mendocino County (an earlier article about it). Here is Matt talking about the project on a local radio station. And here is what he had to say to us about the new seed saving project…
Why did you decide to start the RhythmicWater SeedBank?
I decided to give it a go because I felt like it was needed. I call it a seed bank because unlike most other seed libraries, I am not located in a library. But really, there isn’t much difference, the idea is the same. One of the main reasons I started it up was because I wanted to meet more of the people who are growing food and work together to accelerate a shift in Mendocino County towards a more empowered community. The springing-up of seed libraries has also inspired me politically. I see this movement as going viral, of helping decentralize our food dependence and engage communities in the re-establishment of local resilience. Overall, its just fun!
Why is it important to have a local seed library for every region?
Well, seed libraries and seed banks are hubs. They are hubs for accessing seed, of sharing information and education, and of keeping people informed of the movements and news around seeds. Seeds are the basis of our food system and our biological diversity. Working with people and seeds, we can start to rebuild the biodiversity, food security and relationships which make our communities strong.
How can people in the community get involved with your seed library?
They can either just show up at the garden- where we grow and keep the seeds- or visit the website: www.rhythmicwater.wordpress.com. We host events throughout the year to help people save seeds and know what is new at the seed bank. For example, right now we are working to gather support for California Assembly Bill 1810 (AB1810). This bill helps protect seed savers and sharers from the costly regulations required for the seed industry. It also protects small seed enterprises which sell less than $5,000 of seed annually from the industry regulations which would otherwise make their small business near impossible. We are always looking to share, trade or preserve seed varieties that might do well in our bioregion. If you would like to get in touch with me personally, feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
What are some of the most interesting and tasty vegetable seeds that you offer?
(I.e., what are some cool seeds people will be excited about)
Well, we have been gathering seeds from all over! My favorite seeds include a variety of Quinoa from the sacred valley in Peru which grows 6-9′ tall and is covered in beautiful pink and purple crystals. It yields high and provides us great biomass for our compost piles. Other great seeds for the coastal climate of Northern California include Giant Bulgarian Leeks (grown by a friend and seed saver 10 miles away), Hungarian Pink Lettuce, and the lovely Banner Fava Bean- which has grown over 12′ tall in our garden! Its hard to pick favorites, but some seeds and plants you just know you will keep around you for the rest of your life.
There are a handful of seed libraries around the Bay Area, and a sprinkling throughout the nation. Here is a map listing about 200 of them and contact details for getting involved.
If you are feeling really inspired and want to start your own seed library, here are a couple of tutorials:
Silicon Valley Grows – Working on saving heirloom vegetables from extinction, one variety at a time
Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds – Purveyor of open pollinated heirloom varieties, and organizer of the National Heirloom Seed Exposition
Seed to Seed – A great book on how to save seeds from your own veggies
Ark of Taste – A list of delicious but ‘endangered’ American foods we can save by growing them ourselves
Safe Seeds List – A list of seed suppliers that provide quality non-GMO seeds (not all are open-pollinated)