For thousands of years, people have exchanged seeds to grow terrific tomatoes or produce the perfect potato, but a new effort to loan and borrow seeds has created a conflict between well-meaning gardeners and state agriculture officials who feel obligated to enforce laws restricting the practice.
Seed exchanges have sprouted up in about 300 locations around the country, most often in libraries, where gardeners can exchange self-pollinating seeds rather than buy standard, hybrid seeds. In spots like Duluth, Minnesota, the conflict with agriculture departments has surprised gardeners and library officials, who established exchanges to meet a growing interest in locally grown food and preserving certain varieties, never thinking to examine the intricacies of state seed laws.
"It's about the philosophy, the legacy of shared seeds," Duluth Library Manager Carla Powers said. Its seed exchange is operated by library employees and volunteers out of a converted wardrobe. "It's about sharing with our friends and neighbors in the community."
Agriculture officials say they weren't looking for a fight but felt obligated as they became aware of the increasingly popular seed libraries to enforce laws, which are largely uniform across the country.
Intended to protect farmers, the laws ensure seeds are viable, will grow the intended plant and aren't mixed with unwanted seeds for weeds or plants. Even though most of the laws refer to "sales" of seeds, that term is defined to include exchanges — where no money changes hands.
"Everybody thinks we're the big, evil, bad government, but it's much more complicated than people are aware," said Geir Friisoe, director of the Minnesota Department of Agriculture's Plant Protection Division.
The issue first arose last summer in Pennsylvania, when a state inspector became aware of a seed exchange at a public library in Mechanicsburg that appeared to violate the law.
State Agriculture Department Deputy Secretary Jay Howes said his office "sent them a nice letter" that outlined the problem, noting seed distributed by the library needed to be tested and the library would have to be licensed. State officials and the library quickly resolved the situation by agreeing to hold one-day seed swaps, Howes said.
Despite the agreement, some were puzzled about why the state had demanded changes. The department felt it was wrongly portrayed as cracking down on well-intentioned gardeners, when officials had little choice.
"When state law was written, probably 10 years ago, there was no such thing as a seed library, so the law didn't anticipate this," Howes said.
Advocates of seed-sharing programs said they don't necessarily blame agriculture departments, but some express frustration that laws focus on the needs of modern hybrid seed producers while limiting age-old, person-to-person seed exchanges.
It's hard to justify restricting the small-scale exchanges, according to John Torgrimson, the executive director of the Seed Savers Exchange, which maintains a seed bank of more than 20,000 varieties. His Decorah, Iowa-based group meets the standards of all U.S. seed laws.
"There's almost no danger," he said. "This is not a risk to agriculture in any state. This is not a risk to our food supply."
Betsy Goodman established a seed library at an Omaha, Nebraska, library branch in 2012. This year, patrons checked out nearly 5,000 packets, and the program will expand to two more branches on Jan. 1.
"As a farmer, I understand why these laws are in place," said Goodman, who works at an organic farm. But, she added, "Regenerating your own seed is a human right."
Despite the existence of several seed libraries in Nebraska, they're probably not legal. David Svik, who heads Nebraska's seed control office, said if the organizers of such libraries persist, he'll likely seek guidance from a state attorney about how to proceed. The issue also might arise in the Nebraska Legislature, Svik said.
Friisoe said his office will propose changing Minnesota law to allow occasional exchanges and those operated by charitable groups.
Meanwhile, Oakland, California-based Sustainable Economies Law Center is providing information to seed libraries about state laws, including an online "Seed Law Tool Shed" that compiles relevant sections. Neil Thapar, a lawyer for the center, said his group planned to help state legislatures draft measures that would allow the libraries.
"We think it's a right people have," Thapar said. "It's part of our culture."