What Is This State Ag Department’s Beef With a Tiny Seed Library?

The heavy hand of the Pennsylvania government comes down hard on a few dozen backyard gardeners.

(Photo: Carole Gomez/Getty Images)

Steve Holt is a regular contributor to TakePart. He writes about food for Edible Boston, Boston Magazine, The Boston Globe, and other publications.

As libraries attempt to find a place in the post-print era, some institutions are moving past books to hold on to their role as community centers. Some towns, such as Durham, N.C., and Mechanicsburg, Pa., are turning to seeds. Gardeners can check out a packet from the library, but unlike with books, which require the same copy you brought home to be returned, the libraries ask that you give back some of the next generation of seeds instead, providing stock for the coming growing season.

Many see it as an elegant, inspiring idea. Others are convinced that it’s against the law. 

Laws regulating the buying and selling of seeds for agricultural purposes have their origins in the early 20th century, when seeds became a significant commodity. As more farmers turned to retailers for their seeds, fraud began to creep into the marketplace—hucksters sold dead or mislabeled seeds to unsuspecting customers. State governments stepped in to regulate these transactions for little reason other than to make sure America’s food producers were not being swindled.

Why, then, is a more contemporary state seed law being applied to stop 65 or so gardeners in rural Pennsylvania from saving and exchanging their seeds?

In early June, the Simpson Public Library in tiny Mechanicsburg—the population is just shy of 9,000—received a letter from the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture. It seems the library’s seed-exchange program is in violation of the state’s 2004 Seed Act, according to state agriculture officials who require all seed distributors to purchase a license, conduct germination tests on each seed distributed, and maintain copious records of each transaction. Their reasoning is that they want to prevent agroterrorism and the spread of invasive weeds.

Experts say the fallout at the Simpson Public Library is much more certain and immediate: the closure of the seed library altogether.

“Since the library is not able to provide testing services for seeds harvested by its library users, we will not be able to accept harvested seeds as we had originally planned,” reads a message on the library’s website.

Humans have been saving seeds for millennia, says Matthew Dillon, director of Seed Matters, a program run by the Clif Bar Family Foundation, which wrote some of the first free resources for communities interested in starting seed-saving programs. He says Pennsylvania’s application of its 2004 law is misguided. Dillon, who also serves on the USDA’s National Genetic Resource Advisory Council, says the propagation of organic seed systems is important not only to combat the damage done to our land and food supply by decades of industrial agriculture but also to reclaim ownership of our food system. He says Pennsylvania appears to be treating the library as it would a commercial seed seller, when in reality it is a small group of backyard gardeners exchanging seeds.

“Laws were passed with good reason to ensure seed quality and make sure farmers were getting treated fairly,” he says. “Pennsylvania is applying laws meant for commercial sales of seed to an open and free exchange. Open and free exchange has been happening for centuries without regulators getting involved. The state needs to pull back and ask whether this is the correct application of the law.”

Dillon says Seed Matters has offered funding to support mediation and legal guidance but has not heard back.

But what of the threat of agroterrorism or spreading noxious, invasive weeds? These threats are “exaggerated,” Dillon says.

“Birds, mammals, and human beings in a given summer collectively spread more weeds than a group of 65 seed savers from the Simpson Public Library ever could,” he says. “We’re talking about such a small population of growers planting such a small population of plants—there’s no reasonable concern for these scenarios.”

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