- Offer catalogue of open-pollinated and heirloom varieties
- Up to 50% of varieties are grown at their Organically-certified farm
- Membership scheme with over 1000 members
- Train farmers to grow seeds within diversified farming systems
The Hudson Valley Seed Library has been through numerous incarnations, from seed library to membership organisation to small business, since it was founded in 2004. Ken Greene established the library whilst he was working as a Librarian at the Gardiner Public Library, New York. The library was one of the first of its kind. It allowed patrons to check out seeds and encouraged them to return saved seeds later in the season. This model has become familiar and is now practised by 100s of seed libraries across the country, however at the time Ken started, he was creating a system from scratch. The seed library worked; a loyal group of supporters emerged and seed donations came rolling in. Ken soon found that he was dedicating more time to co-ordinating its activities than to his job as a Librarian. In 2008, Ken and his partner Doug, made the brave decision to quit their jobs and turn the library in to a small-scaled independent seed company, which continues to run to this day. Alongside the seed company, they also run a membership scheme, which promotes participation in seed saving and provides how-to guides to assist members in their seed saving endeavours throughout the year.
How it works
The Seed Library operates from a small Organically-certified farm in a picturesque valley near the Catskill Mountains, New York. The team grow 30-50 varieties every year on 3 acres of land, as well as processing and packing seeds from other companies for the catalogue. They source their seeds from local farmers and other trustworthy sources; they never buy seeds from companies that are owned by or affiliated with multi-national bio-tech companies. Their catalogue offers about 350 varieties of open-pollinated seeds to approximately 25,000 customers and has seen a steady growth in its customer base since it launched in 2008.
Ken is actively involved in promoting seed farming throughout the Northeast region and trains farmers in how to integrate growing seeds in to diversified farming systems. Some of the farmers who have participated in training go on to supply seeds for the catalogue. Others have embarked on breeding projects to create locally-adapted varieties. The Hudson Valley Seed Library also conduct their own breeding projects using traditional methods, some of which make it to the catalogue.
Hank’s X-tra Special Baking Beans: a regional heirloom from Ghent, New York, which Hudson Valley have brought back in to circulation
Traditional plant breeding has been practised by backyard gardeners for centuries. It does not need expensive equipment or a Science degree; the methods are simple when you know how. It involves identifying desirable traits and making selections in order to develop a variety to suit your environment or to cross different varieties to create something new. Ken is keen to pass on these skills not only to the farmers who he works with but also back in to the hands of home gardeners. The Hudson Valley membership scheme is the main vehicle for this educational endeavour.
The membership scheme has over 1000 members who pay an annual subscription fee of $10. Benefits of membership include 10% discount on all purchases and the chance to participate in the Community Seeds programme. Community Seeds is based on the ‘One Book, One Town’ reading programme, organised by libraries across the country, in which local residents are all encouraged to read the same book at the same time. By encouraging members to all grow the same seed in the same season, participants can share their experiences, learn from eachother and feel part of a community. Members receive instructions at different points of the year to guide their efforts and to make sure their seed saving is successful.
In 2015, members were offered Breed Your Own Zucchini, a seed mix which contained a variety of zucchini seeds, and were encouraged to grow them out and make selections based on which ones they liked. In 2016, members will be offered several different varieties which are still being developed, in a continuation of this participatory breeding experiment. For example, members will get the opportunity to have seeds from a cross made at the farm between a beautiful variegated hot pepper, called Fish, and several sweet peppers. The aim is to create a variegated sweet pepper plant, but the potential for different kinds of sweet pepper plants is obviously huge, as the seeds are released in to the hands of hundreds if not thousands of members. The project is particularly exciting because not only does it educate about seed saving but also helps to increase the genetic diversity of the chosen crop throughout the region.
A butterfly lies to rest amongst Gift Zinnia seeds
The journey from seed library to member organisation to seed company has been one of constant flux, and partners Ken and Doug have needed to be astute to market needs, as well as flexible in their approach, in order to stay at the forefront of the field. However, the journey is not over, as the pair discover how the business model does not allow them the space and freedom to do the educational and advocacy work which lies at the heart of their mission. The company have reached another pivotal moment in their development. Over the coming months, they will be going back to the drawing board and assessing where their priorities lie and where they need to focus their energy. “What does the movement really need right now? That is what I want to be doing”, Ken explains.
From educating about seed saving, to raising awareness of open-pollinated seed, to developing farm-based breeding projects, there is no shortage of work to be done. However Ken is hopeful about the future. He has observed a huge surge in interest in seeds, particularly over the last three years, not only from consumers but from farmers as well. The Organic Seed Alliance conference in Washington DC, which brings together organic growers and breeders, has had to double in size for the last two years to accommodate the growth in interest.
Having been at the forefront of this burgeoning organic seed movement for the past ten years, Hudson Valley have acquired invaluable knowledge and expertise. They are in a unique place to understand the intersections between community projects, the food industry, the marketplace, and farmer interests. Ken believes that all of these strands need to continue to develop together in order to create a more sustainable and resilient seed system.
More info http://www.seedlibrary.org/