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South Coast Seed Library Has Borrowers Checking Out Seeds Like Books

There’s a little known type of library that’s sprouting up throughout California. It promotes gardening, biodiversity and access to healthy food. On the South Coast, a library allows patrons to check out seeds just like checking out books.

“Welcome to the Camarillo Seed Lending Library," said Erin Dilley who runs the seed library located inside the Camarillo Library at the Circulation Desk.

“We’re here to encourage people to grow their own food and be sustainable,” she said.

“I don’t know what seeds you were looking at growing," Dilley asked Jennifer Herrera of Camarillo who came by the library to pick up seeds.

"Something I will use a lot of. I cook a lot and I like to have fresh vegetables, fresh herbs especially on hand," Herrera said.

Packets of seeds of arugula along with carrots, beets, snap peas, dill, basil and thyme are for the taking. The idea is that the public can check out seeds, plant them, harvest the plants and then return the harvested seeds back to the library, so it becomes a sustainable project.

The Camarillo Seed Lending Library is just one of more than 100 seed libraries across California and more than 900 around the globe since the first one opened in Berkeley in 1999, said Daniela Soleri, an associate research scientist in the Department of Geography at UC Santa Barbara.

“I noticed in the last couple of years that there was this boom in seed libraries. So, I wanted to look into that and see what is going on, what is this about,” she said.

She conducted a 2016 survey of California seed libraries. Based on interviews with 45 seed library managers, Soleri found that these seed libraries are distributing about 6,500 packets of seeds annually, which amounts to a staggering number of seeds.

“They’re moving over 800,000 seeds every year just through these 45 seed libraries. They’re serving almost 5,000 different people every year,” Soleri said.

However, she discovered that few seeds are being returned to the seed libraries -- only a 6% return rate.

Dilley said that’s a problem for the Camarillo Seed Lending Library.

“If I don’t have people donating seeds back to us, not only are we losing out on creating seeds that grow very well, but we also are able to keep it going because I can’t keep buying seeds forever. That wouldn’t work. I’m really hoping that I’ll start getting more people donating seeds and hopefully we’ll be able to create a community that can actually save seeds and return them,” she said.

Soleri’s research also showed that the seed libraries she studied operate through 17,000 hours of work annually, with more than 12,000 hours by volunteers.

She said the seed libraries are driven by the values of the people who run them.

“People are concerned about the loss of biodiversity. They’re concerned about environmental degradation, the health of our food system, the food that people have access to – especially in urban areas. They’re very interested in adaptation to climate change and other changes that we’re experiencing,” she said.

Those who take seeds do so for a variety of reasons. For some, it’s a necessity because they otherwise would have no access to affordable, healthy food. For others – like Herrera -- they enjoy gardening and cooking with home-grown food.

That’s why she stopped by the seed library in Camarillo.

“Did you want to go ahead and check out some actual seeds?” asked Dilley.

“Sure. We’ll try some herbs. Flat leaf Italian parsley, I always use. Actually, oregano, too, I use a lot of,” Herrera said.

She said she’s enthusiastic about the seed library.

“It gives the ability to everyone in the community. You don’t have to come up with money to go get seeds or special seeds or order them in a catalog. I like the fact that the community can get involved, that they can give back to their community,” Herrera said.