It is estimated that farmers produced about 80,000 species of plants before the advent of industrialized agriculture, now they rely on about 150. This has resulted from a number of factors but, over the last two decades, large, multinational companies like Monsanto have taken over family-owned seed companies and focused on producing their own hybrid and patented varieties.
Why is this an issue? These hybrids don’t produce viable seeds and cannot be collected legally and used by farmers or home gardeners.
This means that both home gardeners and farmers must buy new seeds each year from these corporate sources. It also has meant that we are losing the knowledge and techniques of traditional seed saving and plant propagation.
More than that, local, heirloom seeds are better adapted to a local region and become better seeds for that area. They also provide more interesting and unique varieties than are often tastier.
This has led many to recognize the need to preserve the genetic and cultural diversity of the heritage seeds that are left, before they too are gone. In the past year, seed libraries are sprouting all over the United States and the United Kingdom.
Modeled after the public library, a seed library allows members to “check out” seeds in the spring and in exchange, they agree to grow them and “return” the seeds after harvest from the mature plants they have grown in the fall.
There are now seed libraries in Portland, the San Francisco Bay Area , in New York’s Hudson Valley the Hudson Valley Seed Library, and the newly formed Seed Library of Los Angeles (SLOLA). In Great Britain, there’s the Heritage Seed Library that works to “safeguard rare vegetable varieties that were once the mainstay of British gardens.”
Some are for profit ventures, while others are non-profit ventures, and work to provide seeds to all regardless of income level or gardening experience, like SLOLA.
Most seed libraries also provide information and education on growing, saving, and propagation techniques. For example, the Seed Library of Los Angeles is offering an “Essentials of Seed-Saving” seminar on January 29.
If you are looking for a seed library near you, Richmond California’s Richmond Grows Seed Lending Library, has a link to seed libraries in the U.S.
If you don’t live near a local seed library, you can save and share heirloom seeds via Seed Savers Exchange. This non-profit organization mission is “to save North America’s diverse, but endangered, garden heritage for future generations by building a network of people committed to collecting, conserving and sharing heirloom seeds and plants, while educating people about the value of genetic and cultural diversity.” So far, they have saved about 25,000 varieties of heirloom seeds.