Sowing security

Local seed lending library promotes gardening and diversity of crops

Attendees of the Chico Seed Lending Library’s monthly meeting and workshop organize seeds that will be offered during the annual seed swap in February.

Attendees of the Chico Seed Lending Library’s monthly meeting and workshop organize seeds that will be offered during the annual seed swap in February.

Photo by Kevin Fuller

Every third Tuesday of the month, the tables in the meeting room at the Chico branch of the Butte County Library become littered with packets of seeds, ranging from arugula and zucchini to various types of tomatoes and beans.

However, the library isn’t planning to plant a garden. It’s the Chico Seed Lending Library that fills the community room during its monthly workshop and planning meeting, called Lettuce Come Together, which aims to educate potential seed borrowers as well as draw interest in the program in order to help continue its goal to regionally adapt seeds and provide an alternative to genetically modified organisms.

“Our particular reasons [for running a lending library] are to promote gardening and food production at a home scale—in addition to the seed saving—for security and sovereignty,” said Stephanie Ladwig-Cooper, co-librarian and one of the program’s founders.

The Chico Seed Lending Library formed in 2013 as a partnership among the Butte County Library, GRUB Education Program and Earthshed Solutions and has slowly drummed up interest in the community. It has lent out about 2,000 packets of seeds thus far this year, which is the most since its inception. The seeds come from community donations, volunteers with the program and its members.

The program revolves around the notion that genetic diversity in crops is the key to food security and sustainable agriculture. The goal is to keep the agriculture system locally adapted and self-reliant, as opposed to dependent on corporate farms, which typically are the source of store-bought seeds.

When people buy seeds from a store, they were most likely harvested at some faraway place. That means the resulting plants must adapt to the climate of the region in which the seeds are purchased. A seed harvested in Maine, for example, might react differently to the climate of Northern California.

The seed library tries to lend seeds that were harvested locally from more robust vegetables, meaning the plant thrived in the local climate. Among the library’s offerings is a German pole bean that’s been growing in this area for nearly 20 years.

“It’s super adapted to the heat here,” Ladwig-Cooper said.

Right now, Ladwig-Cooper and Sherri Scott, another co-librarian with the program, are busy organizing seeds that will be given out during Chico’s ninth annual seed swap in February, an event during which members and the public can come and swap surplus seeds, bulbs, plants, cuttings and scion.

The seed swap isn’t just a way to get members to interact and exchange tips on gardening and particular seeds. It’s the group’s largest fundraiser, with money taken in through gift baskets and donations of food from the Chico Natural Foods Cooperative. The proceeds, generally $400 to $600, ensure the continuation of the seed swap and the lending library.

In addition, the women are hoping to raise the funds to make the program more accessible to the public.

“We are working on finding people to translate all our literature into different languages, so that everybody in our community has access to the library,” Ladwig-Cooper said.

While last Tuesday’s workshop drew only a handful of attendees, the group is growing and has more than 700 members. However, Ladwig-Cooper said only about 20 percent of the members are active and borrow seeds regularly. The hope is to educate them, in order to get a better return on seeds loaned out.

To take home seeds, one must have a library card and fill out a member form with the Chico Seed Lending Library. Participants can choose seeds to take home and plant, and are asked to collect seeds from their healthiest plants and return them to the library once something is harvested, though that is not a requirement.

“They love to borrow them, but the returning is not [as] successful,” Ladwig-Cooper said.

She explained that it’s not a lack of good will that prevents members from returning seeds. “Some of that is lack of education and not feeling confident enough to be able to, which is why we really want to be able to boost the workshops,” Ladwig-Cooper said.

Already on the calendar is a harvesting clinic in coordination with the Butte County Master Gardener Program scheduled for 10 a.m.-noon on Dec. 7 at Patrick Ranch.

The monthly Lettuce Come Together workshop, however, is a more laid-back get-together, covering all things seeds. It’s a place for beginners to ask questions and learn about regional gardening. It’s also a place for master gardeners to geek out about more complex seeds, such as melons, squashes and cucumbers. Sometimes, members even bring dishes made with the vegetables from their gardens.

“It’s our hope that people will come to the Lettuce Get Togethers and we talk more informally about it,” Scott said.