As August gives way to harvest time, I decided to take this blog down to earth and talk about vegetable seeds. In particular, the news of a recent crackdown by the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture on a local seed library.
In honor of Earth Day, the Simpson Library in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania decided to start a seed lending library. Seed exchanges are of course not a new concept. For countless generations, seeds have been collected and saved for later planting and have been swapped as well, whether among neighbors or at such venues as county fairs. In recent years, seed libraries have “sprung” up across the United States to preserve the genetic diversity of locally grown crops and encourage local gardening.
The Simpson Library, after consulting the county extension service, got its initiative off to a promising start, with sixty people signing up. Program participants could “borrow” seeds before the growing season and “donate” seeds back to the library at the end of the season. However, the Library was in for a big surprise. On June 12 the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture informed the Library of several requirements under the Pennsylvania Seed Act, including the need for a license to distribute or supply the seed, and the necessity of having its name appear on each seed packet. In addition, each packet would have to be tested for purity and germination rate in accordance with rigorous requirements, with the same procedure to be followed for seeds donated back to the seed library at the end of the growing season. The Department explained that noncompliance could result in mislabeling of seed, propagation of potentially invasive plant species, cross pollination of varietals, and introduction of out-of-state poisonous plants.
The Department’s concerns may seem like overkill, and it is open to question whether all of the Act’s requirements are in fact applicable to a library that isn’t selling seeds. Nevertheless, such requirements are not unique. In fact, there are similar state laws and regulations across this country and at the federal level, some even more stringent than those in Pennsylvania. Many of the laws were adopted in the early 1900s when commercial seed companies became more prevalent, but they have seldom been applied to seed libraries. Now several of those libraries are waiting to see if the authorities in other states will follow Pennsylvania’s lead.
At least for the Simpson Library, there seems to be a happy ending with some qualifications. After further discussions with the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture, the Library agreed to remove all commercially labeled seeds with expired use-by dates, and to purchase and accept only commercially prepared and labeled seeds for the current year or future growing seasons. In addition, since the Library does not have the testing capacity or proper storage for loose seeds, it will not accept or store harvested seeds from seed library participants. However, it can – and will - host seed swap events where individuals swap or trade their own seeds. The Library’s website contains several of the relevant documents.
My takeaway? Depending on your point of view, no good deed goes unpunished, or exercise caution when a stranger – or even your best friend – offers you heirloom tomato seeds, since you never know what dangerous properties may lurk within. And for all concerned, support your local library!