UVM State Agricultural College: Seed Saving Workshops in Vermont’s Seed Libraries

2021 Update:

With funds from City Market Co-op’s 2020 Seedling Grant, a team of researchers at the University of Vermont have planned a series of seed saving workshops across the state to be hosted by six seed libraries. The workshops will be taught by master seed saver Sylvia Davatz (of Hartland, VT, leader of the Upper Valley Seed Savers, and founder of Solstice Seeds) at seed libraries in South Burlington, Jericho, Charlotte, Brandon, Barton, and Stamford. Beginning in spring 2021, we worked closely with all seed library coordinators while planning the details and logistics of the seed saving workshops. Given what appeared to be an easing of Covid-19 in early summer 2021, we scheduled six in-person workshops between September 25 and December 4, 2021. Materials were prepared including binders of technical information to be given to the seed libraries, Sylvia’s Power Point presentation, and research materials. In addition, our plan is to also donate three books to each seed library recommended by Sylvia: Seed to Seed, The Seed Garden: The Art and Practice of Seed Saving, and The Manual of Seed Saving.   

The workshops focus on seed saving techniques of beginner-level plants, including selecting crop species, cultivation strategies, space and time requirements, and processes of harvesting, processing, and storing. The research component is structured as a pre-test/post-test evaluation to assess increases in participants’ knowledge, skills, and attitudes, such that participants will complete questions immediately prior to the workshop and the same set of questions afterwards to assess changes. In addition, the survey asks a series of questions about participants’ engagement with the seed library and how it relates more broadly to engagement with their communities. The team at UVM used existing literature to develop the survey, which was reviewed by the seed library coordinators, and then approved by Institutional Review Board at the University of Vermont to assure that the research adheres to ethical standards.    

Although our planning had progressed in accordance with the timeline of our proposal, the growing uncertainty of the COVID-19 Delta Variant disrupted implementation. Several factors informed our decision-making. First, our plan was to hold each workshop in-person, the format most likely to be effective. Second, the age group in which Sylvia falls into as well as many of the expected participants puts them in a higher risk category. Third, the seed library coordinators made clear that social distancing would substantially limit participation. Fourth, when we asked the seed libraries whether they would be open to an online format, we received varying responses, all of which were marked by uncertainty. Due to these considerations, and after having consulted with the seed libraries, we decided to reach out to City Market to see if extending the life of the grant by one year would be possible. When Mae Quilty indicated that it would, we decided to postpone the workshops until Fall 2022 to ensure safe and high-quality workshops for all involved.   

Now that the workshops have been postponed until next fall, we are busy planning how we can assist the seed libraries in the meantime. Our plan is to coordinate an online convening with the seed library coordinators this winter to discuss the workshop plans specifically and more broadly how we can further support them through research and programming. Although we are disappointed to wait until next fall to implement the seed saving workshops, we have valued all interactions with seed library coordinators thus far and we are looking forward to continuing our work with them.  

2020 Grant Amount: $5,341.00

This project leverages the impressive work that is underway in Vermont’s communities related to seed saving and sharing. Ongoing research I am spearheading is characterizing the various seed systems in existence in Vermont. This work seeks to be comprehensive, documenting the roles of local seed companies, backyard seed savers, community-based seed saving groups, Abenaki tribal members, and resettled refugee farmers. As part of this work, a student on my research team also identified as many seed libraries in Vermont as possible (16 in total, 12 functioning). Seed libraries, most of which are housed within public libraries, share seeds with their patrons with the intention of making seeds more accessible to the public and preserving crop diversity. Of the seed libraries in existence in Vermont, my student was able to interview the coordinators of five of them. Among the most interesting findings from this preliminary work was that all of the seed libraries rely on donations from seed companies to maintain a sufficient stock of seed, meaning that their operations are neither self-sustaining nor positioned to adapt seed to local ecological conditions. When asked the educational initiatives most needed for their seed library operations, all indicated that enhancing the capacity of their community members to save seed was a priority. 

We seek to respond to that need though a series of basic seed saving workshops at seed libraries across the state. Thus far, seed libraries in Jericho, Charlotte, Stamford, Barton, Brandon, and Montpelier have enthusiastically agreed to host a seed saving workshop. Each library will host one 90 minute workshop led by Sylvia Davatz, founder of Solstice Seeds in Hartland, Vermont, active member of Upper Valley Seed Savers, and equipped with more than 30 years of experience. 

To generate useful information, we will use a multi-pronged strategy. First, we will conduct a pre-, post-, delayed post-test evaluation by which respondents answer the same questions prior to the workshop, immediately after the workshop and several months afterwards when a growing season has been completed to gauge seed saving activities. This evaluation model will assess the change in and application of knowledge and skills. In addition to these evaluation questions, we will add a series of questions to assess the degree to which engagement with seed libraries enhances community participation and action. Second, we will facilitate an open-ended discussion at the end of each session with both library coordinators and workshop participants to identify future interest in educational activities and recommendations to enhance the operation and offerings of the seed library. Finally, we will establish record-keeping templates for seed libraries to track seed loans and returns, provide indication of the crop diversity flowing through seed libraries, and establish the building blocks for the sharing of seeds and data among seed libraries across the state. The project will culminate in a meeting to which all seed library coordinators across the state will be invited. The purpose of this meeting will be for the seed librarians to expand their networks, compare practices, and brainstorm future collaborative efforts.  

Seeds and other planting material are the most important inputs for crop-based production. In developing countries, seed saving and informal seed systems (seed fairs, farmer sharing, etc.) are prominent strategies among farmers to access seeds and are the systems through which high levels of crop diversity flow. Crop diversity is essential to adapt to climate change, enhance food and nutrition security, conserve cultural heritage, and encourage healthy agroecosystems. As opposed to informal seed systems, formal seed systems are those that are commercially-driven and typically emphasize high yielding crop varieties, limiting the crop genetic diversity contained within them. These formal seed systems are often tied to intensive agricultural production and thus receive the majority of attention from plant breeders, researchers, and policymakers. Across the globe, the formal seed system has been consolidated: four companies control 67% of the global seed market. 

In the United States, much of agricultural production is linked to the formal seed system, yet seed saving, sharing, and other informal exchanges continue to exist despite the lack of attention they receive in policy and research. Seed libraries are an emerging institution that provide promise in enhancing seed access, diversifying genetic diversity, and maintaining seed as a public good. As seed libraries become sustainable, such that its patrons are growing out and replenishing the seed they borrowed, crop varieties will adapt to the changing environmental conditions locally and thus enhance the resilience of community food systems.

In addition to the potential agroecological benefits of seed libraries, community-based agricultural activities can enhance civic engagement. Farms, farmers’ markets, and other agrifood spaces where community members gather can foment discourse, feelings of community attachment, and collective action. As institutions seeking to link community members together, seed libraries likely contribute to community development, though this hypothesis has yet to be tested.