While Some States Yank Seed Libraries Out By Roots, Wyoming's Are About To Bloom

May 6, 2016

Librarian Cassandra Hunter used an antique card catalog cabinet that had been sitting in the library's basement to organize seed packets alphabetically.
Credit Melodie Edwards

  


Laramie gardener Amy Fluet admits it. She’s a bit of a hoarder.

“I take up a huge amount of the space in the refrigerator with seeds,” she says, laughing. “It's an embarrassment, and I hide them in the back so my family doesn't realize how much space it takes up.”

She stores seeds in the fridge to trick them into thinking its winter until she's ready to plant them.

“So you just keep them cool and dry and most of them will live for quite a long time," she says. "And then, when you want to germinate them, that's when you start getting them moisture.”

Today, Fluet is getting ready to teach a seed starting workshop at the grand opening of the High Plains Seed Library in Albany County, the first of its kind in Wyoming. Campbell, Goshen and Sheridan are right behind.

Fluet says people think it’s impossible to grow things in Wyoming's cold, arid climate, but she disagrees.

“We can grow a lot of crops here, our cool season crops that are hard to grow in hotter climates,” she says. “We don't tend to have a lot of the disease problems that you have with high humidity. We have a lot of great sunlight....”

Gardeners and authors Jenny Thompson and Amy Fluet sort seeds that Fluet stockpiles in her fridge.
Credit Melodie Edwards

The biggest challenge, Fluet says, is the short growing season. And that, she says, is where seed libraries come in. Jenny Thompson works on agriculture program at the University of Wyoming Extension Office and is co-teaching the workshop. The two of them wrote a book together, Plants with Altitude. Thompson says plants grown from seeds collected in this climate are better adapted to survive in it.

“Because whatever survived, the plants that survived and grew the best are the ones you're saving seeds from,” Thompson says. “So over time, automatically you're selecting for certain characteristics like cold hardiness or short season or long season or certain size fruit.”

“I read an interesting story about a man in Siberia who had done this with watermelon,” says Librarian Cassandra Hunter. The High Plains Seed Library is her brain child. “And he started out with these tiny, tiny watermelons but after I think it was seven or eight generations, he's growing kilo sized watermelon in Siberia and it was all because of his seed saving practices. So it’s not an impossible dream to grow really great watermelon in Laramie.”

To get all this going, Hunter took donations from seed companies and volunteers repackaged them, minus trademark labels. She says once the community starts returning seeds, in a few years the library will be stocked with seeds adapted to high altitude gardens.

But Hank Uhden with the Wyoming Department of Agriculture says, there are rules.

“A few states, to my understanding, have been restricting the seed libraries,” he says. “Others such as Wyoming, we're okay with the seed library as long as it’s done within the guidelines of the state laws and the Federal Seed Act.”

He says states like Pennsylvania have shut down seed libraries unless they could prove every seed had not been trademarked by a company like Monsanto or Burpee that engineers seeds.

“These companies expend billions of dollars toward developing seed varieties,” Uhden says. “And they like to trademark those, of course, those seed varieties with a name.

Uhden says, even in Wyoming, seed libraries can’t use special plant names. He says a theoretical example might be 'heirloom tomato.'

“If someone was to propagate that same tomato and then take that seed from those tomatoes and then provide it into the seed library, they can no longer use the name of 'heirloom’ on that. It can only be referenced as ‘tomato seed.’”

Uhden says of all the new seed libraries in Wyoming, he's only heard from Albany County and that worries him. He says they could also inadvertently distribute invasive weed seeds.

Gardener Jan Hart displays one of the seed packets volunteers have labeled to remove company trademark names.
Credit Melodie Edwards

But Librarian Hunter says, she’s been watching the struggles of libraries in other states and says Wyoming's rules aren't so bad.

“That’s probably one of the benefits of living in Wyoming is that there’s less bureaucracy in a way. Where you kind of have a little more freedom to maneuver around than some other states.”

Another benefit of less red tape? Getting the seed library open in time for spring planting.

Librarian Hunter cuts a ribbon and people start sorting through drawers of seed packets in an old card catalog cabinet. Gardener Dan Bremmer already has a stack, mostly of hot peppers.

“I got one packet of jalapenos, one packet of habaneros, one packet of the paprika,” he says, sorting through the seeds he plans to check out. “I got to get some herbs. My wife wants some flowers, some hollyhocks.”

And the great thing is no due dates and no overdue fines.