Feature Friday: JMU Community Seed Library

Posted on: March 13, 2021

(All photos pre-COVID.)

In February 2020, over 100 people packed into the lobby of Carrier Library for the grand opening of JMU’s Community Seed Library, organized by JMU Libraries. A few weeks later, the COVID-19 pandemic sent many of us home. A surge in interest in home gardening led to a national seed shortage, as seed suppliers could not keep up with the demand. Some local farmers even had trouble finding the seeds they needed. During the pandemic, seed library organizers Liz Chenevey and Sarah Pritchard continued to fulfill requests using contactless pickup from their homes so that this resource could still be open to our local community.

Kathy Yoder is a community member who has used the Community Seed Library to support garden programs at two local elementary schools and Vine & Fig, a local nonprofit. She feels the seed library is an important resource for food security. “This project is innovative and extremely beneficial to our community, especially during COVID when seeds are scarce and seed sovereignty is recognized as important. In my opinion, it is yet another way our Harrisonburg community can become more resilient.” Yoder points out that the seed library also helps local non-profits with community gardens. “To have seeds available to us at no cost is extremely helpful, especially as a non-profit organization that tries to maximize resources.”

In Spring 2021, the Community Seed Library opened a second location at Massanutten Regional Library (MRL), organized by Susan Versen and Jon Hilbert. “We had been wanting to offer this type of service for a few years,” says Hilbert. “We are happy to see it finally come to fruition.” Versen points out that the seed library is an example of the multifaceted role of libraries in a community. “Libraries are more than just a place to get books, movies, music or magazines, they are community centers. Normally we like to be a gathering place and community hub. COVID-19 has forced us to adjust this a bit, but the Seed Library is still a service that we can provide our community in a safe way.”

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Meet Liz and Sarah, Seed Library Organizers

How did the idea for the seed library come about?

Liz: When I first started working in Rose Library in 2015, I dreamed of having a seed library, but I was new and the project never got going. A few years later, Sarah was in a meeting when a colleague was encouraging people to apply for some grant funding for special projects and a seed library was one of the example projects. She then reached out to me about collaborating and I enthusiastically said yes!

Sarah: I heard a colleague reference the possibility of using funding from donors for a seed library in a large meeting and later discovered that Liz was behind the initial idea. I’d been longing for a Harrisonburg seed library for years and it never occurred to me this could happen at JMU. I’m so grateful for Liz’s willingness to collaborate on this project. It’s been so exciting for both of us from the start.

Are most of the seed requests from community members, JMU employees, or students?

Liz: I would say it’s mainly been community members and JMU employees requesting through the form. When the physical location in Carrier was open for a short time before everything shut down in Spring 2020 there were students who would stop by, browse, and borrow which was exciting! 

Sarah: Yes, we have a lot of requests from both JMU employees and community members. We also have a second location at Massanutten Regional Library, which is easily accessible to community members. 

Where did the seed donations come from?

Liz: We received a large donation from a community member before we opened. And then at our opening we received a second large donation from local home farmers Jason and Janelle Myers-Benner. Jason later did a seed saving workshop for us. Since then, there has been a slow stream of small donations from community members which is what we love! We have also received seeds either through purchase or donation from various heirloom seed companies and seed saving organizations.

Sarah: Liz and I have supported the project from our own gardens, as well. If you are planting popcorn from the seed library, that came from Liz’s garden! I saved calendula and fennel seeds last year and those are circulating, as well. Community donations have been so generous, we are so excited by the idea that this could be a truly self-sustaining project.

The Community Seed Library is funded by donations. What is the money used for?

Liz: We’d rather have seed donations, than money! We have some small expenses for supplies (envelopes, printing fees, seed purchasing when needed). But more of our budget we put towards events, especially compensating our speakers for their time and labor. We have so many local experts in gardening, seed saving, food systems, local ecology, etc. and we want to use our platform to elevate their voices and ensure they are paid fairly. 

Sarah: We also hope to collaborate with other community organizations working on food justice issues. For example, we recently connected with the Vine & Fig/New Community Project to explore how the Community Seed Library can best support some of their projects. One of their initiatives involves running local public elementary school gardens and growing produce for Harrisonburg City schools. Another focuses on securing land access and planting space for refugees and folks who have recently immigrated to the United States. Donations to the Community Seed Library can build culturally important seed collections and ensure we have plenty of seeds to support larger projects.   

Is it important that people “return” the seeds they “borrowed” (by saving seed from mature plants)?

Liz: Not at all! I’ll start by being fully transparent, I don’t think I had ever saved seeds before we started this project. So no! We’d love for folks to learn to harvest seeds and “return” them to the library, because it can be fun and an important aspect of food sovereignty, but it is absolutely not required. Sometimes growing food, especially from seed, can seem really daunting, so we want to make the barriers to doing so are really low and don’t set too many expectations for use. But we would encourage people to challenge themselves to try and save seeds if they’re able and feeling up to it– see what happens!

Sarah: Returning or donating seeds is certainly not required to use the Community Seed Library. The library is open and available to all. We are looking forward to more seed saving workshops to help build this skill within our community. Jason Myers-Benner’s recent virtual event provided a wonderful seed saving overview for beginners and experienced gardeners alike. You can watch the recording on our website. 

How does this project fit into the mission of JMU Libraries?

Sarah: This project aligns with several of JMU Libraries’ values. We feel strongly about making seeds accessible to anyone who wants or needs them. We are continually thinking through ways to make access equitable. Our partnership with Massanutten Regional Library reflects our desire to grow within the larger Harrisonburg Rockingham community. We are also committed to using our platform for programming that reflects the diversity of our community. 

How does this project fit into your personal mission, goals, or interests?

Liz: I’ve long been interested in environmental issues, including food sovereignty, and worked in that area in college and immediately after. I also come from a family of gardeners–some of my earliest memories are of me running through my grandmother’s wild woodland garden or “helping” my parents turn compost. So getting to connect this interest with my work as a librarian, empowering people in their search for and engagement with resources, is just so rewarding. 

Sarah: I find growing and making food both empowering and healing. Food brings people together. A beautiful bouquet of flowers can brighten someone’s day. I have always been amazed by the potential of a small seed to provide so much. So for me, this project feeds my natural amazement and brings me joy. Gardening is a privilege that requires time, money, and space. My hope is that the Community Seed Library will lower some of these barriers not only by providing seeds and supplies, but by building community around shared knowledge. My personal dream for this project is to build connections that help solve problems of food access. 

Anything else you’d like to share that we didn’t ask about?

Liz: Seeing the community’s enthusiasm for this project has been such a bright spot in this incredibly difficult year. While the library is not operating as a self-service space as we originally planned, I am grateful for the more personal connection we’re able to have with people when scheduling pickups. Seeing the names of people I recognize in the form, or getting follow-up emails with “thank you’s” and notes about their garden last year, adds that personal touch that I don’t think we would get if people simply came & browsed. I do hope that someday soon we are able to get back to a point of a self-service library, especially for easier access, but that we don’t lose that connection with the people using it–we still want to hear from people using it!

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