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Duluth seed exchange program runs afoul of state law

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A new trend in gardening has been growing around the country in recent years – seed-sharing programs that allow people to borrow vegetable seeds in the spring and later replenish the stock in the fall with seeds they collect from their own gardens.

But some of those seed-sharing programs, including ones in Minnesota and Pennsylvania, are running into trouble with state regulators who say they're against the law.

Minnesota's first and only seed exchange program is in Duluth, and operates out of the city's public library. It just finished its first year, attracting 200 members who borrowed 800 packets of seeds, manager Carla Powers said, according to MPR News.

But a few months ago, an inspector from the state Agriculture Department visited the library and said the seed-lending program is in violation of the state's law governing the sale of seeds. Even though no money changes hands, the law defines "selling" as any sort of free distribution or exchange of seeds, according to MPR News.

The law requires more extensive labeling on the seed packets than the library does. In addition, each person who submits seeds to the exchange would have to pay a $50 permitting fee.

Most problematic for the library is the requirement that the seeds be tested to make sure they germinate properly.

Most labs that do such testing need about 400 seeds of a given variety to get a valid result. The library says most gardeners returned only a few dozen seeds, so the testing requirement would be difficult to comply with, according to MPR News.

The law was written mainly to regulate the commercial seed industry, not these sorts of exchange programs.

And it threatens the future of the Duluth program, placing "an incredible burden and hardship on the Seed Library," officials said in a statement on the library's website. "It is hard to imagine that the largely volunteer effort can meet the stringent germination testing and permit requirements."

The same issue has come up in Pennsylvania, where state officials cited a seed library in Mechanicsburg for similar violations. In that case, the two sides reached a compromise that will allow the seed library to continue.

Steve Malone, a supervisor in the Agriculture Department's Plant Protection Division, said the department is working with the Duluth library to help bring the program into compliance with the law before growing season begins next spring, MPR reports.

There are some 300 seed-exchange programs in the U.S., according to MPR News, and in other states, there doesn't seem to be an issue. Wisconsin, for example, has at least half a dozen seed libraries up and running, according to the Wisconsin State Journal, including one in La Crosse.

A national group called the Sustainable Economies Law Center has launched a campaign to encourage states to change their laws and allow seed-exchange programs to operate more freely.

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