The Little Library That Could: Advocates Change Seed Exchange Laws in Minnesota
May 3, 2015 | Trish Popovitch
Minnesota’s first public seed library, held at the Duluth Public Library, came to the attention of the Minnesota Department of Agriculture after the story was picked up by the Associated Press in late 2014. But not in a good way.
After 200 people exchanged around 800 packets of seed, the library was informed by the Department that Minnesota statute 21.80-21.92 prohibited the exchange of non-commercial seeds. The library was breaking the law.
“It was a shock all the way around. Those of us involved in setting up the seed library felt like we had done our homework and put in place good procedures and educational programs. The community loved the seed library, and we had gotten a grant from the University of Minnesota. None of us could fathom that person-to-person seed exchange would be in violation of the law,” says Carla Powers, Manager of the Duluth Public Library. “I’ve since come to realize that the protections in the seed law are necessary for large-scale agriculture, but in Minnesota’s case the law went so far as to make it illegal for gardeners to exchange a handful of seeds with one another.”
The successful and popular seed library ground to a halt and Powers reached out for help.
Statewide advocates including the Institute for a Sustainable Future, St. Paul Ramsey County Food and Nutrition Council, St Paul’s West Side Seed Library and Do it Green! Minnesota worked with the library to bring awareness to the current seed laws for the state of Minnesota. They began working on an amendment to the statute that exempted the exchange of non-commercial seeds from testing, labeling and licensing laws. The co-chairs of Minneapolis Home Grown Food Policy Council, Russ Henry of Minneapolis Home Grown Food Policy Council and Nadja Berneche of Gardening Matters acted as mediators during the process.
“We negotiated between the Duluth Seed Library, the Department of Ag and the big seed companies that were represented through trade associations. It took us a couple of meetings and some negotiating. We believe we’ve crafted language that should be very effective,” says Russ Henry of Minneapolis Home Grown. “The Department of Ag was very willing to work with us. The Department’s Commissioner David Fredrickson is a very progressive thinker in the ag world. After the legislation passes, there should no longer be any actions from the Dept of Ag interfering with interpersonal seed sharing.”
Public awareness grew and people called their state representatives and the state department of Agriculture to support the amendment. “It was a really interesting statewide effort. Three cities, Duluth, Minneapolis and St. Paul all passed resolutions through their city council which called on the state to change these rules and give us the freedom to share seeds,” says Henry.
After seeking advice from the Sustainable Economies Law Center and Seed Savers Exchange, Henry and his co-advocates worked with Senator Roger Reinert to get the exemption SF 949 added to the current state seed law. Reinert hails from Duluth and took on the seed exchange law as a local issue. SF 949 exempts educational, literary, charitable and religious organizations from the seed law’s definition of “sell” governing commercial resale or exchange.
On April 1 of this year, the Minnesota House and Senate’s Agriculture committees voted to add the seed exchange exemption to their omnibus bills. SF949 is making its way to supportive Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton where final approval is expected in the next few weeks. Until the bill becomes state law, Powers is stocking Duluth’s seed library with commercial seed to maintain the exchange program.
According to the American Libraries Magazine, there are over 300 public seed exchange libraries operating around the country. Pennsylvania and Maryland have seed laws that have prompted recent state intervention at public seed libraries.
“Don’t be discouraged if your state law doesn’t allow it. Find some strong community partners who can help advocate for a change in the law. In the meantime look for a way to operate your seed library legally if possible,” says Powers. “A seed library can empower people to grow food, save seeds and contribute to a locally-adapted seed stock. When people understand what is at stake they will support you.” A seed exchange exemption was introduced in Nebraska during this same legislative session.
“With these two models, Nebraska and Minnesota, we hope to turn the tide in the state and across the country. Start affecting change; using these as a jumping off point for many other states,” says Henry.
The Minnesota seed laws can be read in full at the state’s Department of Agriculture website. The USDA provides a link to each state’s Department of Agriculture that show non-commercial seed exchange laws for the individual states.