Q&A with Cindy Conner, Author of 'Seed Libaries and Other Means of Keeping Seeds in the Hands of the People'

Cindy Conner researches how to sustainably grow a complete diet in a small space at her home near Ashland, VA, and has produced the videos Develop a Sustainable Vegetable Garden Plan and Cover Crops and Compost Crops IN Your Garden. Cindy, a former market gardener, was instrumental in establishing the sustainable agriculture program at J. Sargeant Reynolds Community College in Goochland, VA and taught there from 1999-2010. Her book Grow a Sustainable Diet: Planning and Growing to Feed Ourselves and the Earth was published in 2014. Seed Libraries and Other Means of Keeping Seeds in the Hands of the People was released in early 2015. Her newest interest is to go from seed to garment with cotton and flax/linen. You can check out Cindy's website at HomeplaceEarth.com and follow her blog at HomeplaceEarth.wordpress.com. Cindy's latest release, Seed Libraries and Other Means of Keeping Seeds in the Hands of the People, discusses the growing movement to preserve and expand our stock of heritage and heirloom varieties through seed saving and sharing opportunities and serves as your practical guide to saving seeds through community programs. Read on for more information about this book and find out how to WIN ONE OF FIVE COPIES from New Society Publishers!

Just how big is the seed library movement? How many seed libraries are in existence?

When I was researching for the book in January 2014 there were about 163 seed libraries in the U.S. on the Sister Seed Libraries list, up from 60 in early 2013. Now, according to that list, which can be found at www.seedlibraries.net, there are over 500 worldwide. Some of those listed are not yet active and shown as mulling"”as in thinking about it. Of the number shown, 113 are outside the U.S., including 67 in Canada. Why are seed libraries important? What repercussions do we face if we do not start saving seeds ourselves? Seed libraries are important to keep the seeds in the hands of the people. Chemical companies have been buying up small seed companies since at least the 1970's. These small regional seed companies sold varieties of seed that would do well in their region. When they were bought up into larger corporations, the seeds that were regionally based were dropped from the offerings in favor of seeds that had a broader base. The companies turned to offering more hybrid seeds and seeds that did best with their chemicals. Gardeners need to go back to the seed companies each year for hybrid seeds. If we do not save our own seeds, besides losing the seeds, we lose the skills and knowledge to preserve this part of our culture. What are the advantages of saving your own seed? When you save your own seed you are saving seed from plants that you know will thrive in your microclimate under the conditions you choose to grow in. Whether those conditions are exceptionally wet, dry, cold, or hot, most likely they are not the same as the conditions of the growers who produced the seed for the seed companies. The method of gardening"”organic or with chemicals"”makes a difference, also. Another big advantage is to ensure you have the varieties of seeds in the amounts you need, when you need them. Seed companies are known to drop seed varieties without warning. You can save seeds of varieties that are special to you, such as ones your grandfather grew or seeds related to your heritage. I cherish the varieties that have been given to me by friends and family. Saving the story is often as important as saving the seed. The prospect of starting a seed library may seem overwhelming, but is it really? How does your book guide the reader in making a seed library venture more manageable?  I have been saving seeds for a long time and know how things might not go the way you planned if you were new at seed saving. So, when I learned about seed libraries and that people who did not have much seed saving experience were starting them, I could foresee that there might be problems. Yes, it could be overwhelming. First I encourage those starting a seed library to not go it alone. No matter how enthusiastic you are about a project, even if you are an experienced seed saver to begin with, it is easy to burn out with a project such as this. My book suggests places to look for helpers. Once you have gathered your interest group, you need to develop a mission statement that everyone can refer to. That statement will help you if you need to turn to groups or grants for funding, although many seed libraries are started with no up-front money. My book gives examples of mission statements I've gleaned from the seed libraries I researched. The mechanics of how to acquire seeds to start and how to display and disperse them are covered with examples from established seed libraries. There is information on the best way to store seeds. They do have a shelf life, which some people are not aware of when they jump into this project. Once a seed library is established you need to keep the momentum going. You can find information about setting up a seed library from the Internet, but my book particularly helps you with the connections you need to make finding your helpers and your growers and with activities to keep things rolling along. What are some of the common challenges that are faced when starting a seed library and how does your book help to circumvent them? One of the biggest challenges is if the person spearheading the project does not know how to save seeds, which might (but not always) be the case with librarians in a public library. In that case they need to bring experienced seed savers to their team and define their mission before they bring the seeds into the picture. Where to get seeds and how to keep them coming is a challenge. Seed companies usually have a plan for donating their seeds packaged for the previous year. That will get you started, but getting seeds back from the patrons of your seed library is a worry. An educational component to your library, with print and online resources, plus presentations with speakers, will help lead your growers to become better seed savers. Seed libraries are evolving as fast as they are multiplying in number. Your mission may not be so much to get seeds back from everyone who receives them, but to distribute seeds freely and depend on seed stewards to grow them out for you. These stewards could be individual growers or be part of community or school gardens that have designated a portion of their space as a seed garden, where seeds are the crop, not the afterthought. Once a seed library is up and running, you need to keep it going. My book addresses all of the above issues and has suggestions for gatherings, photo exhibits, book discussions, and more that will help to publicize your project and to keep people coming back. What are some of your best tips/advice for those planning to embark on starting a seed library? Read my book, of course, I spent a year of my life researching and pouring everything I could into it to help seed libraries thrive. Have fun! There are no mistakes, only learning experiences. Be aware that not everyone has the same goals in mind that you do and be ready to work with a diverse group of people. Learn all you can about what others are doing in the seed library world"”subscribe to the Cool Beans newsletter at www.seedlibraries.net.

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WIN ONE OF FIVE COPIES OF 'Seed Libraries and other means of keeping seeds in the HANDS of the PEOPLE'!To enter, simply leave a comment on this blog post by midnight on Sunday, July 10, 2016 (be sure to provide a valid e-mail address) in answer to the following question:Have you ever used a seed library or do you have an interest in starting one?Be sure to include a valid e-mail address. The winner will be drawn at random from all qualified entrants, and notified via e-mail. (See rules for more information.)

UPDATE 7/17/16: Congratulations to Brenda White, Richard Kahute, Kristen Chan and Sandra Zimmer!

Shelley Pierce

Shelley Pierce was a writer for Gardening Know How, contributing to hundreds of articles for the site.