For years, Cindy Conner was the go-to resource for people in her Virginia county interested in organic gardening. Author of Grow a Sustainable Diet, Conner is a longtime seed saver, seed sharer, grower and teacher who was farming organically long before the word "organic" was adopted by the mainstream. It was commonplace for her to receive calls from all over the county about getting started with organic seeds and practices.
In her new book, Seed Libraries: and Other Means of Keeping Seeds in the Hands of the People, Conner does a deep dive into issues surrounding seeds and seed sharing. She offers an overview of the importance of preserving seed diversity, explores the role public libraries and other institutions can play in connecting seed sharers, and provides step-by-step instructions for setting up a seed library and activating it as a thriving place with its own community and momentum.
“The mechanics of getting a seed library started is one thing,” she says, “and that’s usually found on the Internet. But it’s everything else that actually makes it go and makes it work.”
In the book, Conner provides insights for seed librarians and seed library patrons who may not know how to handle seeds correctly.
“I went to a seed library that had been going two years,” she says. “The librarian said, ‘We just found out that seeds have a shelf life. Who knew?’”
Conner laughs at the story, but it stresses how far removed we are from seeds and growing our own food.
“That really made me realize that people who are starting seed libraries have no clue of how to handle seeds,” she says. “I hope my book will help them understand how we got to where we are now with the fate of seeds, what we can do with them, and also how to handle seeds and keep them safe.”
Conner is encouraged by the growing awareness around seeds and seed sharing. She explains that whether you’re very successful the first time—or first few times—you save and share seeds, that’s beside the point.
“You’re learning the whole time and you’re connecting with other people,” she says. “You’re getting them to think about seeds and know that they can save them and do things with them without needing big corporations.” She adds, “Most people have never thought about seeds other than just ordering them from a catalog or buying them off the shelf.”
As passionate as she is about seeds, the heart of the issue, for Conner, lies in our eating habits. She says she is “far removed” from the way most people eat, as she grows the food she and her family eat.
“There are people who can’t imagine eating only food from a garden,” she says. “That is so foreign to how I want to live. When I was growing up, there were not even fast food restaurants in our county...now, the fast food restaurants advertise, go out and get your breakfast.”
A committed advocate for seeds, Conner understands that a lot of people aren’t even thinking about their food, let alone seeds. Her approach is to try to make people more aware of what they’re eating and to encourage them to “extract themselves from the mentality that their food comes in a box.”
“We need to build a new food system,” she says, “but we have to ease [people] into it.”
Seed sharing platforms, such as seed libraries, seed swaps, and seed celebrations are good ways to start easing people in the direction of eating close to the garden and being aware of seeds. Conner advises partnering with community organizations, schools, and local events to get people talking about seeds, seed saving, and seed sharing. The benefits of creating community around seeds include bringing people together and helping to bring awareness to a new food system.
“It’s hard to start a new system,” says Conner, “so we have to evolve from what we already have, and change that.”
Conner explains that to create a new food system, we need to be sharing information about handling seeds, growing organically, saving seeds, and more. While seed libraries are important community resources, she says it’s not enough to just to put out seeds and say, here, come and take them, and save them, and bring them back.
“That’s not a good way to do it,” she says. “We need to have more involvement than that.”
When asked about last year’s crackdown of the Joseph T. Simpson Public Library in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania, and the seed movement catalyzed by it, Conner says that ultimately, it’s a good thing that it happened.
“It had to happen to somebody,” she says. “It came out and now all these great things are happening with seed libraries.”
A passionate and focused woman whose commitment to changing how we think about our food and our seeds is unwavering, Conner takes a simple approach to her work.
“Follow your heart,” she advises. “Do what you truly do the best, and share it with other people.”
This article is part of an ongoing Save Seed Sharing series on Shareable. Top photo: Seed Swap at the Virginia Biological Farming Conference. Photo of Cindy Conner: Conner is wearing her homegrown, handspun, handwoven, naturally-colored cotton vest that she made. Follow @CatJohnson on Twitter