Ferndale's seed library just opened. No late fee included.

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It's not a very dramatic sight.
A 32 by 11-inch wooden box sits unassumingly in the middle of the Ferndale Public Library. Resting on a floral-patterned table cloth, the box, holding 15 drawers with worn-brass handles, sits inconspicuously. Unless someone is looking for this little wooden block, it's not going to attract much attention. But make no mistake - this modest bit of furniture holds the future for urban gardening, and maybe the future for food itself.

It's the Ferndale seed library and it's open for business - no late fees included.

“It's an honor system. If you're taking seeds, you're committing to bringing them back,” said Jeff Milo, a circulation specialist with the library. “But we're trying to strengthen our ecological engagement. We want our plants to be very hardy and local to Ferndale.”

Each drawer in the library is categorized by the plant it can grow. Right now, veggies, flowers, herbs and milkweed for monarch butterflies dominate what the bank offers. While the program was built for the residents of the city, the open-source of seeds are available to most anyone. Anyone with soil ready to be potted can sign out up to five seed packets a visit, or 20 packets a season.  After plants have emerged from the dirt and bloomed fresh tomatoes, peas and corn, any beneficiaries are asked to harvest the seeds from within and return them to the library. There, they will be packaged to be used the next season. 

The bank was officially unveiled to a crowd of about 20 people on May 1. Since then, employees have seen dozens thumb through the packets. After just two weeks, two pages' worth of names have taken a share of the bank - encouraging numbers for a program that fits the very definition of grass roots. 

“As a trend, I think you could still call it new, but it's gaining ground - pun intended,” said Michelle Williamson, another library employee.

Ferndale is just the latest city to open a seed bank; neighboring cities of Hazel Park and Royal Oak started their seed banks a few years before. The Royal Oak public library opened their own bank in September 2018. More than two years before that, the Hazel Park public library launched a bank that has grown in popularity as well.

“I think in the past few years, people have been more interested in homesteading things like gardening and doing things more naturally,” said Corrine Stocker, director of the Hazel Park library.

The idea of a seed bank is not new. One of the most famous in the world is the Svalbard Global Seed Vault in Norway. Located about 800 miles from the north pole, it was built to help ensure against the loss of seeds in global crises. It was first used in 2015 to help victims of the Syrian Civil War.

But now, seed banks are quickly becoming staples of public libraries. Heirloom seed activist Ben Cohen has helped galvanize more than 60 across Michigan - a number that has grown dramatically in the last couple years.

There are 600 seed libraries in the country and Cohen estimates Michigan has the second most of any state.

“From my understanding - because I work with seed keepers - aside from California, we may be second on the list of seed libraries in the state,” said Cohen.

What might represent the most basic interaction between nature and man is actually a resurgence of a “lost skill” as Cohen calls it. People have largely ignored reusing their seeds, preferring to purchase them from large companies instead. If they aren't buying the seeds to grow plants, then people are buying produce from grocery stores. This has led to a decline in seed diversity: an essential component of a healthy ecosystem. 

“As seeds have become commercialized, we have lost so much,” he said. “You might find one type of cabbage or two kinds of pepper at the grocery store. In reality, nature is incredibly diverse. There are hundreds or thousands to choose from. When our genetics get ourselves bottle-necked, that puts us in a precarious position.”

Think Irish Potato Famine. When infected potato crops led to a food crisis, it catalyzed mass starvation, disease and death of some 100,000 deaths. While Michigan isn't on the cusp of a food crisis, extreme cases like this underscores the necessity for diversity in seeds.

“Diversity is nature's way of being prepared, to ensure survival,” Cohen said. “Saving seeds in small community groups is our way to preserve diversity for future and planning.”

The concern of seed diversity loss isn't just anecdotes baked into history. An infographic produced by National Geographic in 2011 showed a 93 percent decline in diversity among popularly grown crops in 80 years. The Millennium Seed Bank Partnership estimates that 60,000 to 100,000 plant species are in danger of extinction. 

With the shadow of climate change gradually shifting the weather patterns on a global spectrum, many people are turning toward local solutions to prepare for a new growing environment. When seeds grown from Ferndale gardens are recycled from that same soil, it increases their ability to grow there.

Michigan is blessed with a conducive environment to grow crops. With the right combination of water, temperature and seasonal variety, fruits, vegetables, spices and flowers of all kinds can grow in the state. However, people still purchase food grown thousands of miles away. A seed library just a 10 minute walk away removes the need to buy produce from Mexico or California.

There's another, more personal benefit to seed banks that's trending upwards too. People don't always know where their food comes from. That disconnect has led to a knowledge gap between producer and consumer. Cohen said it's vital to bridge that gap.

“It's important to know your farmer, to make that connection. We're so far disconnected from where our food is coming from,” he said. “When you're so far disconnected, it's easy for our food system to get our control.”

Cohen's obsession with seeds began about 10 years ago - partly for economics, partly as hobby. Then about three years ago, he started helping libraries set up their own practices. The first year yielded about 10 new libraries. Then he began speaking at conferences for librarians - which he attributes to why the craft has exploded in the state.

To get their seed library open, the Hazel Park library got a lot of seeds from cooperatives that sell them, as well as from several urban gardens. But now, it increasingly relies on its users to harvest those seeds and get returned. That used to be common practice among growers - it's widely forgotten now. While each berry or melon varies in how its seeds can be extracted, the process is relatively simple.

“People want to be more technical, but deep down really nature does most of the work,” Cohen said. “Everyone saved their seeds a few generations ago and they certainly weren't scientists.”

For the tomato, when its ripe, all a grower has to do is cut it open, squeeze the juice and seeds out into a cup and let it sit until it starts to mold. Beans and peas are even easier. Leave them on the plant until they brown then crunch them open and take the seeds then. Pumpkins require even less time.

“It's such a natural element, it should be a step in the kitchen. It should be part of a recipe in a cook book,” said Cohen.

A lot of this information will increasingly become available at libraries. The marriage of seed libraries and public libraries has breathed life into both. As more people begin to borrow seeds for gardening, they'll be able to find helpful information at their local library, which is increasingly diversifying its resources.

“I think just the fact that it's a unique service, it's something libraries typically don't do,” Stocker of the Hazel Park library said. “The library started hosting local farmers for pop-up farm stands.”

Stocker said in order to help novice gardeners grow their own plants, the Hazel Park library host best practices for gardening. It's a service that many other libraries with seed libraries are mimicking. Jeff Milo at the Ferndale library said anyone using their seeds can contact the ferndaleseedlibrary@gmail.com for more information. 

“We're pretty responsive to the community,” Milo said. “Our motto is access and enrichment. We're giving you access to knowledge, or seeds, and then having those things enrich your life.”

If you'd like to see if there is a seed library near you, check out the Seed Library Map here.