Planting Wisdom

Round Valley Public Library stretches beyond book lending to food security

By Ree Slocum

Pat Sobrero, Library Technician at the Round Valley Public Library, greeted me with a warm smile when I visited her at the sunny, community-built library. During our conversations I asked Pat why she wanted to form a seed library in Covelo. She confessed that, through her parents and grandparents, she was a product of the Great Depression that followed the stock market crash in 1929. Money was scarce and people turned to frugality, reusing, and gardening to survive. Food security was on everyone’s mind. The idea of being thrifty and saving became a way of life for Pat.

Hearing about the “seed library” movement, Pat wanted to add the service to the Covelo Library to ensure the community's food security. “I had been talking about it with others but nothing was happening fast enough for me,” Pat remembers. She wanted to “be the change [she] wanted to see,” so she contacted Rebecca Newborn in Richmond, California at the Richmond Grows Seed Lending Library, the first seed library in the world. Rebecca believes strongly that people should have access to healthy, fresh, and affordable food in the same way they obtain free information from books in libraries. She generously provides all of the information she’s developed to newly germinating seed libraries, including hand outs, brochures, and membership and regional planting guide forms. This wealth of information made starting the seed library much easier than Pat expected.

In 2012 the Covelo Seed Library took root. Attractive, old-school card catalog cabinets organizes open-pollinated organic seeds in packets donated by seed companies. The print-outs provided by Newborn offer guidance to beginning gardeners and seed-savers. When opening a drawer of seeds at The Covelo Seed Library, one is greeted by beautifully labeled packets with handwritten information about where the seed was grown and by which member. Colorful commercial seed packets are interspersed with the local gems. Members collect seeds from their tastiest, most vigorous plants once it “goes to seed” at the end of its growing cycle, which are then processed, repackaged, and labeled to keep the library refilled with new, naturalized seed. This process allows the seed library to remain self-sustaining while also encouraging varieties of seed stock that are more resilient to diseases and better adapted to their particular climate and soil. “We have leek seeds that have been growing here for 20 years,” Pat informed me. Over the years the growing catalog of locally-adapted plants will ensure the availability of more free seed stock for others to borrow.

In Covelo’s Seed Library the seed catalog is alphabetized by type (e.g.i.e. beans), then by variety (i.e.g. “Provider”). It also includes information about how to save the seeds from each plant. Not all types of seed are easily saved so the catalog has different colored labels for “easy,” “medium,” and “difficult.” It’s quite simple to save seed for lettuce, beans, tomatoes, or peas for instance, but some plants, like carrots, need special care. At the seed library you can also find informative handouts, times when people will gather to process seeds, and classes to teach gardeners—at all levels of experience—how to save seeds. Members are encouraged to save seed but Pat jokingly assured me that borrowers won’t pay a fine if they don’t.

One can sense Pat’s passion when she talks about food security. “If you control the food, you control everything,” she stated. “Right now Bayer is trying to purchase Monsanto, Dow is trying to purchase Syngenta and there’s a third merger. If all of these mergers go through, 60% of the world’s seeds will be in the hands of these companies.” These developments, are shocking when coupled with a decline in plant varieties (especially ancient breeds) and the fact that over 94% of the seed varieties available at the turn of the twentieth century have disappeared. “Having seed libraries is a political action that small communities can do,” Pat states, “We need it for spiritual reasons, we need it for health reasons, we need it for political reasons.”