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Seeds of hope and change

Seed Library of Los Angeles is part of a small but growing movement across the country to preserve agricultural diversity.

June 18, 2011|By Mary MacVean, Los Angeles Times

Some families of plants can use a gardener's hand to maintain the seeds' purity because if left to the bees or the wind, crops such as a zucchini and a pumpkin could cross-pollinate. Bomba gave a seminar one Sunday to instruct members on how to transfer the pollen to the flower by hand and then tape the petals shut.

It can be a profitable endeavor, as King explained: "So you can take out 3 ounces of seeds, get 45 pounds of beans and return 3 ounces of seed."

Saving seeds is an ancient practice, of course, and there are hundreds of seed banks around the world. But libraries and exchanges are a newer phenomenon. Among the best known is Seed Savers Exchange, an Iowa-based organization with 13,000 members— home gardeners, universities, market farmers around the country — and a catalog of thousands of seeds.

"Seed Savers is all about participatory preservation," Executive Director John Torgrimson said. "The more people that are growing these varieties, the better chance that these varieties won't be lost."

Seed Savers began in 1975 with two seeds, a German pink tomato and a morning glory given to Diane Ott Whealy by her grandparents, Torgrimson said. Like family jewelry or money, immigrants frequently brought seeds to a new home — something they could plant to be reminded of their homeland, he said.

"You have to think of food as having been always on the move," Torgrimson said.

Several seed libraries are in Northern California, including some housed in public libraries. Karen Schulkin helps keep one going in the Potrero Hill library branch in San Francisco. It's open to everyone whether they have a library card or not. The seeds are in drawers, akin to an old-fashioned card catalog.

"When I saw all those seeds, it just makes you so excited. There's so much potential there. It makes you think about everything — what you can grow, what you can eat," Schulkin said. "This is a small way of trying to put power into local hands, to have that knowledge."

Schulkin, a nurse, calls herself a beginner at the seed enterprise. So she plans to go to Seed School in Arizona, where Bill McDorman teaches genetics, history, breeding, the practical handling of seeds and some business. His students are interested in founding seed libraries or exchanges, or in starting their own companies, said McDorman, who has started three seed companies himself.

"I see Seed Savers Exchange as the beginning of a huge movement of people," McDorman said. The growth of seed libraries "is the next stage" as home growers respond to a post-recession economy and to genetically engineered crops.

"All of our confidence has been shaken with the econ system being so fragile. Maybe it's time to circle the wagons and learn to take care of ourselves a little bit," he said.

"Thomas Jefferson was a great seed saver," McDorman said. "This isn't new, we're just going back to what worked better. We're really the conservatives in this."

Look around online, and there's another sort of seed saver: survivalists who have produced instructional videos about what to do in a disaster.

"I'm not interested in this sort of lifeboat thinking," McDorman said. Even if you buy your survival seeds and you learn how to garden, he asked, how long will that last in a sea of hungry people? "The only real solution is community, is everyone having enough."

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