Seed Saviors

Check out a package of seeds at a public library to get a glimpse of a gardener’s past—and into a community’s future.

May 9, 2015

FeaturesIssue 12: May/June 2015


“If you are walking along a trail and you see a kernel of corn, pick it up. It is a lost story in need of an audience.” –Anonymous

Years ago, my daughter Jessica Moreno volunteered every Thursday at Native Seeds/SEARCH. Sitting around a big table in a cramped, unventilated room on Fourth Avenue, she cleaned seeds, sorting out wrinkled, bug-eaten, or mildewed ones, removing clods of dirt or small rocks, measuring, packaging, and labeling. “Chile days were interesting,” Jessica says, “because the powder would hang in the air and go up your nose and everyone’s eyes would water.”

She would return home with small envelopes—lemon basil from New Mexico, tomato from Punta Banda in Baja California, dipper gourd from southwest Arizona. I blistered my hands digging up her stony plot of desert. Jessica had learned that every gardener who plants these heirlooms not only becomes linked to our indigenous cultures but also shares in the preservation of them.

Native Seeds/SEARCH was responding to what tribal elders had made clear they needed: the seeds their grandparents grew, some of which were then only found south of the border. A legacy of food. Jessica, in her own small way, was showing that seed diversity alone isn’t the answer. We also need diversity in the sizes of farms and garden plots, in the kinds of farmers and gardeners.

She realized that making agriculture sustainable means connecting seeds to people. This is what seed libraries are all about.

In 2012, Pima County Library’s Justine Hernandez, along with several local nonprofits, built Pima County’s first network of 19 seed libraries. Southern Arizona now has 12 percent of all the seed libraries in the country, and that number is growing.

Tucked among shelves heavy with volumes of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry, repurposed card-catalogue drawers hold envelopes of heirloom seeds that gardeners can borrow and plant at home. From amaranth to White Sonora wheat and zinnia (and six varieties of tomato), up to six packets per month are available to anyone with a library card. The idea is that gardeners can check out seeds and then return them from harvested plants at a future date. In this way, the seed library maintains a resilient and sustainable collection of plant varieties specifically adapted to our hot and dry climate.

I’m pleased to hear that there will be no fines for unreturned seeds.

On an 80-degree spring day in March, I meet with Justine Hernandez at the Joel D. Valdez Main Library in downtown Tucson. No horn-rimmed glasses and bun-tied gray hair here. Her long dark locks frame her oval face and broad smile. Hernandez is the force behind Baja Arizona’s seed libraries. In fact, last year Library Journal magazine named her a 2014 Mover & Shaker, offering her national recognition for her work in creating the popular program.

“One of the things that energizes me,” Hernandez says, her dark eyes brightening, “is the seed library’s capacity for building community. It gives people an opportunity to contribute, people who might otherwise feel faceless in their community.”

She hands me a dried bottle gourd.

“One of our first donations,” she says. “We didn’t have the heart to break it open, so it’s become our mascot.”

I read the handwriting scrawled across its woody surface: “Ideal plant for arbor” and “Needs much H2O.”

“We encourage people to let us know how their plants grew,” Hernandez says. “How did they prepare it and eat it? Usually they fill out a donation form.” She lifts a Ziploc holding a slip of paper buried in dried leaves. I smell pungent basil. “We also have a Facebook page where we invite people to share photos and stories.” She shows me a picture of a green vine hung with oblong fruit. A luffa, from a native Tucsonan who has saved her seeds since the 1960s. “There’s a story there.”

Making agriculture sustainable means connecting seeds to people. This is what seed libraries are all about.

In the beginning, Hernandez wrote letters to companies for donations of naturally pollinated seeds. “We didn’t know if there would be any interest, but that year the library loaned out 6,432 packets. The next year, that number doubled. And, 40 percent came from seeds people in the community had donated. We were utterly surprised.”

Last year, more than 16,000 packets went out to local gardeners. “Any particular kinds of seeds?” I ask.

“Anything. The seeds that don’t succeed in the garden don’t come back. What works stays in the library—that’s the beauty of it. It quickly takes the shape of the community.”

At the card catalogue, I thumb through the bar-coded packets in a drawer marked T. I’m looking for something for my garden. A volunteer brings Hernandez a box full of seed packets. “Mostly tomato,” she says, passing it to her.

“Oh, this is what you want,” Hernandez tells me. She hands me one labeled, “Ciudad Victoria.”

After checking out, I browse among the planters outside the library, once mostly receptacles for trash. Hernandez reached out to the business community, food bank, and master gardeners—all volunteers—to take over the planters from the City of Tucson and put them to better use. Now, I see cilantro and eggplant, kale and radishes. Seed drawers C through R, spreading into the courtyard. The garbanzo beans are particularly delicious.

With the Grateful Dead singing “Box of Rain” on the CD player, I pull into Portal, gateway to the Chiricahua Mountains. Acorn woodpeckers laugh with wacky squeaks from bare sycamore trees above the rush of water in Cave Creek. At the Myrtle Kraft Library, I find Kathleen Talbot and Karen Fasimpaur. Blonde and brunette. Both look too young for library science. Around these parts, they call Talbot, “Kiddo.”

Fasimpaur had never grown anything before moving from Los Angeles to Portal six years ago. But because she likes fresh vegetables, and the nearest farmers’ market is 90 miles away in Bisbee, she started gardening.

Then she stumbled across the “mobile seed folks,” a traveling broadcasting station out of New Mexico called SeedBroadcast, which investigates food culture across the country. “It was like a big food truck that has a seed library and they also record stories. It was so neat!” she adds, and I see the excitement in her gray eyes. “They had a broadcast going, telling stories about seeds and seed libraries, and why this was important.”

Seeds don’t care if your soil is conservative or liberal.

I learn from Fasimpaur that through workshops, art installations, and dialogues, SeedBroadcast explores seed networks, urban and rural agriculture, and the environmental implications of food production. “These are our seed stories,” they say, giving voice to the people who are pushing back against corporate domination of our food.

It was SeedBroadcast that really got her thinking about starting a seed library in Portal two years ago. “I sent an email out on the community listserv, and people were really interested.”

They came to the idea from completely different places, she explains. Some wanted to get away from corporate control and GMOs. Some were more concerned about supplementing their diets. Others just wanted to garden.

So she approached Kathleen Talbot, Portal’s librarian, who agreed to host the seed library.

“I had just been to an Arizona Library Association meeting,” Talbot says, “and Pima County already had one. When Karen contacted me, I said we’d be honored. It would make us cutting edge.”

“The biggest surprise is what’s come out of it—workshops and classes—learning from each other has become the primary focus, more than the seeds. And we get all kinds of people,” she adds, explaining that gardening draws together neighbors with diverse experiences and backgrounds—and that seeds don’t care if your soil is conservative or liberal. “You know people’s politics aren’t the same, but everybody needs to eat!”


My last seed library visit takes me to Patagonia, where librarian Abbie Zeltzer introduces me to Francesca Claverie, who’s maybe 25 years old. Yes, revolutions begin with the young.

Claverie lived in California until she went to Native Seeds/SEARCH’s seed school in Phoenix and decided she had to move to Patagonia. That was two years ago. Then she heard Andrew Mushita from Zimbabwe speak about his work with small-scale farmers throughout Southern Africa to establish local seed banks and seed trusts, and she became inspired to start a seed library.

Borderlands Restoration and Native Seeds/SEARCH gave them seeds, and they became involved with Mariposa Community Health Center in Nogales and Rio Rico. “They’re doing community garden work,” Claverie says. “We wanted the first presentations and the library accessible to the entire community—a lot of the people in Patagonia are Spanish-speaking only.”

Zeltzer shows me a seed donation form printed in Spanish. This is a bilingual seed library.

Jars of seeds rest atop an oak card catalogue: tepary bean and sunflower, arugula and wheat. “This one is new,” Zeltzer says, lifting the small jar and unscrewing the lid. “Red/green chile from Sonoita where a gardener has grown it for 30 years.”

“We even have wheat seeds going back to Sonora,” Claverie adds. “People are losing the ability to save seeds,” she says. “No one thinks of doing that. Or they don’t know how. They’re forgetting their stories.”

When I ask where they see the future of the seed library, Zeltzer says she wants to let it evolve as it goes, “like the seeds themselves adapting to their local environment.”

It all seems rather benign, if a bit countercultural. People sharing seeds and stories. But, unbelievably, seed libraries are being threatened. Government inspectors have closed down five libraries in other states.

It began last year in a small-town public library outside Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Government officials with the state’s Department of Agriculture accused the libraries of violating the state’s seed act, designed to protect the quality of seed to commercial farmers. The law requires the proper testing of collected seeds, the officials said, which makes seed libraries “dangerous.” Commissioners argued that seeds could be incorrectly labeled and redistributed. As one put it: “Agri-terrorism is a very, very real scenario.”

Since the library wasn’t prepared or equipped to plant tomato seeds and verify they don’t come up radishes, the DOA delivered a new protocol: Patrons can continue to check out seeds donated only from seed companies, and the library will no longer accept returns from home gardeners. Some see this as a corporate takeover of our food systems.

“The letter of the law killeth,” says an ancient sower of seed.

But it may be that officials simply don’t understand the role of seed libraries. They misinterpret a law—undeniably important to farmers and consumers—and confuse protections for a commercial industry with a public service to gardeners. And since there are now more than 340 seed libraries in 46 states, some fear that what happened in Pennsylvania will spread across the country, essentially plowing under the movement.

When I mentioned these developments to the seed librarians, the name Vavilov came up. Nikolai Vavilov, a Russian botanist and geneticist, collected more seeds than anyone before him. He is considered the father of seed saving. Yet Vavilov, who wanted to end famine in the world, was arrested and sentenced to 20 years in prison for the failure of Stalin’s agricultural program. In 1943, he died of starvation in his cell as the book-burners laid siege to Leningrad and his staff scientists gave their lives to protect his seed library, the largest on the planet.

Hernandez had told me that what happened in Pennsylvania is going on in Maryland, Minnesota, and Nebraska. “But nothing in Arizona,” she added, knocking on the tabletop.

To address these regulatory challenges, Pima County public libraries, Native Seeds/SEARCH, the UA Kellogg Program in Food and Water Security for the Borderlands, and Edible Baja Arizona will co-host the first national forum on seed libraries. The event will also commemorate the 33rd anniversary of the Seed Banks Serving People Conference in Tucson when the seed-saving movement was born.

And, it will be a celebration of the rise of the seed library, of communities taking control of their food culture and their own irreplaceable heirloom stories. It will recognize that what was once a gleaning on the fringe is becoming a harvest among the rows.


On the second day of spring, I pull out last summer’s desiccated tomato vines: Early Girl—a favorite of mine for many years until recently. During the writing of this article I discovered that the goliath Monsanto now owns the hybrid. I shovel worm-riddled compost into warm soil. From my Tucson library packet, I choose five smooth seeds and drop them into finger holes, feeling a pleasant stirring in the small subversive act.

Seeds are like books. They record a past read by those who love them, though so many have gone out of print. But those who cherish them will collect them, share them, plant them in new soil. It’s been this way for thousands of years, since the twin dawns of agriculture and writing. Seeds are that revolutionary.

Ken Lamberton is the author of six books, his most recent being Chasing Arizona: One Man’s Yearlong Obsession with the Grand Canyon State.

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