February 17, 2018

State Tweak to Seed Library Rules Ignites Debate


“Seedbank” by R. C. Johnson – Gene Banks Pay Big Dividends to Agriculture, the Environment, and Human Welfare
Johnson RC PLoS Biology Vol. 6, No. 6, e148 doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.0060148[1]. Licensed under CC BY 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons.

As controversies go, it would have been difficult to see this one coming. In tiny Mechanicsburg, PA, a pilot seed library in existence for all of four months is now the epicenter of a national discussion among seed traders, growers of organic food, and other agriculture experts after state officials wrote a list of regulations for the fledgling program.

At the Joseph T. Simpson Public Library in this village of some 9,000 people located about eight miles from state capital Harrisburg, the seed library launched this spring followed a familiar model: Participants could “borrow” packets of seeds, agreeing to “return” seeds harvested from their fully-grown plants at a future date. Who could possibly object?

But it wasn’t long before Pennsylvania’s Department of Agriculture (DOA) took notice, alerting the Cumberland County Library System (CCLS), based in Carlisle, PA, that it was in violation of the state’s Seed Act of 2004, which covers sale and distribution of seeds. Meetings were held, a compromise was reached on new regulations, and the Simpson Seed Library stayed open.

Check Out, But Don’t Return

The Simpson Seed Library was launched, appropriately enough, on Earth Day, April 22. Months earlier, Jonelle Darr, executive director of the Cumberland County Library System (CCLS) said, CCLS had been approached by the Cumberland County Commission for Women with the original idea for a seed library, and the Simpson branch was selected to host this pilot program.

A repurposed card catalog was used to shelve the first packets of seeds (all donated by the women’s commission), which were organized into three categories: vegetables, herbs and ornamentals.

“We had about 60 people sign up,” Darr said. Local newspaper coverage and a feature airing on a Harrisburg TV news broadcast helped publicize the seed library, perhaps too well. DOA officials, also based in the state capital, took notice. “The publicity we garnered seemed to force their hand,” Darr said.

In June, CCLS was notified in a letter that the seed library violated the Seed Act.

“They were surprised we contacted them,” said James Howes, the DOA’s deputy secretary for consumer protection, regulatory affairs, and dairy industry relations. He told LJ the state’s goal was to “shield them [the library] from a potential liability,” as well as protect the integrity of seeds.

Library and state DOA officials met on July 8 to iron out a solution. Howes described that session as “very cordial and productive,” and the state promised to set down a list of rules under which the Simpson Seed Library could continue operating.

On July 18, that “protocol,” as Howes described it, was delivered. Its five parts boil down to one main change: State officials did not want the library collecting harvested seeds. Patrons are welcome to continue checking out packets of seeds that are donated by companies, but returns of seeds from home-grown plants will no longer be accepted.

The main issue, Howes told LJ, is the redistribution of seeds that may be incorrectly labeled. Without proper testing of collected seeds, he said, their integrity would be in question and problems could arise after their planting.

Darr said the Simpson Seed Library lacks the time and resources to test harvested seeds, and CCLS agreed to these stipulations. “We couldn’t store them unless we were willing to test them,” Darr said, “which is something we’re not prepared to do.” Instead, seed “swap days” can be held a handful of times per year at the Simpson branch, where seed library members can gather and exchange saved seeds.

“We view this as a model, a template,” Howes said. “We’re not targeting other seed libraries around the state.”

Howes said he took exception to the notion of a state “crackdown” against CCLS’s efforts to start a seed library. “They say no good deed goes unpunished,” he told LJ. “We thought we were doing a good thing, being proactive.… We as an agency are much more concerned about compliance than we are about taking heavy-handed enforcement action.”

A media sensation

However that wasn’t the end of the story. Later that month, Darr reported on events surrounding the seed library at a morning meeting of the Cumberland County Commissioners. The session was covered by a reporter from the Carlisle (PA) Sentinel, and her July 31 article was headlined “Department of Agriculture cracks down on seed libraries” and quoted “one commissioner as saying the department’s action was necessary to combat “agri-terrorism.”

Coverage, several sources told LJ, quickly went viral. Soon, in blogs and articles, established seed libraries around the country were commenting on government’s need—and its right—to interfere with such programs, and worrying that the action would cause seed libraries even outside of Pennsylvania to be shut down, or never started in the first place, out of concerns about their legality. Because these laws vary from state to state, Cumberland’s compromise may not work for everyone: California law, for instance, may be interpreted to prohibit seed swaps as well.

In a phone interview last week with LJ, Darr said she hoped the summer-long swirl of controversy was finally starting to abate. But that may be wishful thinking after the Wall Street Journal ran its own article last week, re-invigorating the online conversation.

What Darr minded the most, she said, besides being besieged by media requests for comment, was a wave of misinformation being spread across the Internet. CCLS has “invested too much time” this summer on the seed library, added Darr, describing it as only a small part of what her eight-facility system is able to offer patrons in Pennsylvania’s sixth-largest county. “The libraries have never been more well-used,” Darr said. “We’re trying to meet those demands. To me, that’s the story. … The seed library is not a core mission of our public library service.”

Darr said a much more pressing concern is several years of reduced state funding, roughly $750,000 per year over the last six years. “That’s my state government battle,” she said.

Seed libraries respond

CCLS and the Pennsylvania DOA arrived at the regulations as a cooperative venture, Darr said, but the mere idea of state interference definitely touched a nerve for the community of established seed libraries from coast to coast.

Rebecca Newburn, who founded and operates the Richmond Grows Seed Lending Library in Richmond, CA, told LJ there are now roughly 300 seed libraries in 46 states, along with 90 more she knows of spread throughout 16 other countries.

“When things go wrong, it’s still an opportunity to learn something,” said Newburn. “This is going to be a learning curve.”

“I’m not surprised that it happened,” Ken Greene, who runs the Hudson Valley Seed Library in Accord, NY, said of the state’s involvement. “In a certain way, I was kind of waiting for something like this to happen.”

Greene claims credit for starting the nation’s first seed library, in 2004, at the Gardiner Library in New York’s Ulster County. In the last three or four years, Greene said he’s witnessed a “total explosion of seed libraries popping up all over the place.”

If nothing else, the CCLS controversy has served to illustrate the vitality of seed libraries as a national community, eager to advocate for, or debate, issues that arise.

“What this moment is, is figuring out how to have this balance,” said Greene, who now operates his own farm and seed company. “On the one hand, we shouldn’t lose our right to share. We should be able to share our seeds with one another. … Seed libraries do bring in whole new groups of people. They’re really awesome for libraries. But they need to be awesome for seeds also.”

Newburn, for her part, said, “From the seed library perspective, we value those laws. They have their place. However, we are not a commercial industry. We are a public service.”

David King, who chairs the Seed Library of Los Angeles, also weighed in.

“I was shocked,” he said, describing the Pennsylvania DOA’s response as “excessive government supervision.” Added King, “I understand their point. I understand their concern. It is, in my opinion, very much misplaced.”

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  1. Dorene Pasekoff says:

    The legality of the PA Department of Agriculture’s “interest” in seed libraries has not been established. Most readings of the PA Seed Act of 2004 agree that it is designed and should be implemented when seeds are sold, not swapped. Although PA Department of Agriculture has been asked to tie their actions to the PA Seed Act of 2004, they have refused.

    The Rocky Mountain Seed Alliance letter to the PA Department of Agriculture is here:


    if this issue concerns you, give a copy of the letter to your state representative and senator and ask that you be copied on the answers to these questions.

  2. I don’t understand .cause i never use a seed libraries ,but i do trade seeds ,if you were my neighbor i would just walk over to your house and give you some of my seeds for some of your seeds , no money exchanged hands ,but if not i would mail you some seeds for some of your seeds no money still has been exchanged , i don’t see the problem do you have to buy seeds from the library?

    • Dorene Pasekoff says:

      Terry — I can’t think of any seed libraries that sell seeds — people “check out” the seeds, grow the plants, then bring seeds back to the library in season so that other people can “check out” seeds the next growing season. No money exchanges hands. Why the PA Department of Agriculture has decided that they should be involved when seeds are not sold, no one understands.

      The concern has been that if the PA Seed Act of 2004 allows the review of seeds which are not sold, then where is the line for the PDA’s involvement? To the individual seed saver who swaps with neighbors and friends? For those of us who save seed and live in PA, it is a troubling situation and one that has not been clarified.

  3. So, why “check out” seeds if they are not ever going to be returned?? Why not just give them away? I suppose it could be useful for statistical information, but stats can certainly be kept other ways.

    And then, if it’s not a borrowing, check-out/return program, how is it connected to the library’s mission? I’m trying to think, is there anything else tangible that libraries just give away for free?

    Next, isn’t a seed swap subject to the same set of problems?? Improperly labeled seeds, accidentally cross-bred plants, threat of invasive species, etc.?

    • Dorene Pasekoff says:

      Jane – most seed libraries ask you to grow the seeds, then at harvest, bring back seeds for people to check out the next season. So there is a check-out/return program.

      The concern among seed savers is that seed swaps will be targeted next. The “line in the sand” was considered to be selling/not selling the seeds. If that line no longer exists, then where is the line now?

    • My understanding is that with most seed “exchanges” or “libraries” at public libraries, the “check-out” does not obligate the “borrower” to come back with seeds from the resulting plants at the end of the season. That’s why the term “check-out” or “borrow” is often in quotes in articles or publicity about seed libraries, because it’s not really a library check-out in the normal sense (e.g. they won’t contact you or fine you if you don’t bring in your seeds). So really, they are just a giveaway.

      Although I can’t speak for any particular library, my impression is that libraries consider seed programs to benefit the community in sort of a peripheral way; they are nice but not central to their mission, as the CCLS director said in the article. At a talk I went to recently, the library director of a small suburban library in Wisconsin said that their seed library had the following benefits:

      1. The library is perceived as forward-thinking and creative
      2. The seed program supplements other garden-related educational/leisure programming for kids and adults that the library already provides, and brings attendees of gardening-related programs back to the library over time, as well as attracting new visitors
      3. The library is participating in community hunger prevention by providing a cost-free source for seeds

      Obviously these are not strictly central to the library’s main missions, but that doesn’t mean seed programs in libraries shouldn’t exist, esp. in communities where budgets are approaching adequate levels. (They’re never truly adequate for any library, are they?)