Believe it or not, it’s time to start thinking about seeds for edible gardens this year. There are still a few weeks before you need to plant any indoor starters, but before you plant them, you need the seeds. For some people, that will mean ordering from seed catalogs. Others will look into seed sharing, swapping seeds with friends and neighbors, or finding local seed libraries.

What is a seed library? It’s is a local depository for seeds that are usually heirloom or native to the region. People can deposit saved seeds from their own fruits and vegetables, and they can borrow seeds from the library that others have deposited. The idea is that at the end of the growing season, they return seeds saved from the fruits and vegetables they grew with the seeds they borrowed. Seed libraries have seen a growth recently because of the interest in preserving fruit and vegetable varieties and the resurgence of backyard gardening. There are now more than 300 seed libraries in the country, according to American Libraries Magazine.

Seed libraries sound like a great idea, don’t they? Heirloom varieties get saved. People have open access to free seeds and the ability to share their seeds with others. Healthy foods are grown and probably shared with others.

But the simple act of exchanging seeds this way with other gardeners may technically be illegal in some states.

In Pennsylvania, state officials are concerned that these libraries violate seed laws. These laws often require seeds that are distributed to have undergone testing (to make sure they really are what they say they are and that they germinate) and specific labeling. When someone comes into a seed library with a packet of tomato seeds and says the seeds are for a certain variety, seed libraries take the person’s word for it. There is no testing done. It’s an honor system, one that seems to be working very well.

Even though the system is working well, the Cumberland County Library System in P.A. has agreed to stop accepting harvested seeds that don’t meet the state requirements. The state is allowing them to host seed swaps. At a seed swap, individuals are allowed to exchange seeds with each other directly. They aren’t given to the library first before being distributed.

In Duluth, Minnesota, the Minnesota Department of Agriculture hasn’t yet reached a compromise with Duluth’s seed library. It’s working with the library to help it meet state regulations.

The New York Times reports that in Nebraska, the head of the seed control office said if seed library organizers persist, he might look for help from a state attorney to “seek guidance about how to proceed.”

The problem with any seed library not being up to state standards is that those standards were written for seed businesses that make profits and have the money to do testing and labeling. They weren’t written for an organization like a seed library that works with donated seed in very small amounts. It doesn’t make sense to hold seed libraries to the same regulations as seed companies.

There’s no way to know how this will all play out. Will states do the reasonable thing and exempt seed libraries from the laws that were never meant for them, or maybe set new, logical standards for seed libraries? Or, will they hold the seed libraries to the existing standards and deny local gardeners an efficient way to share seeds?

Are you a member of a seed library? Has state regulation caused a problem with your specific organization yet?

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Robin Shreeves ( @rshreeves ) focuses on food from a family perspective from her home base in New Jersey.

States question the legality of local seed libraries
Some states are requiring the seed libraries where gardeners share saved seeds to meet the same standards as businesses that sell seeds.