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

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.