The John Trigg Ester Library


Status: proposed 6/28/2011; approved by JTEL board 8/9/2011; currently under development

Seed Library Program: Growing Ester’s Biodiversity (GEB)

proposed by Deirdre Helfferich, presented to JTEL Board of Directors for discussion at the July 12 or August 9, 2011 meeting

Program Description:

Growing Ester’s Biodiversity is a proposed seed library program for the John Trigg Ester Library. Seed library programs preserve and strengthen local biodiversity; encourage gardening and local food production; support the local economy; promote health; and educate the public about seed saving, biodiversity, gardening, botany, cultural traditions concerning foods and plants, food preparation and preservation, and more.

GEB would function as a lending and educational program: participants “check out” seeds, grow them, and then selected growers who are skilled at seed saving would “return” or donate seeds at the end of the growing season. GEB would, through partnerships with local agriculturalists and educational institutions, educate the public by means of lectures, workshops, and fliers or other literature in seed saving techniques and biodiversity in garden plants, gardening and local food production, gardening history and traditions (with a focus on Alaska), and other, related topics. The GEB would highlight or feature books and movies relating to these topics in blog posts, library displays, and program events. The GEB program’s purpose is to:

  • create an accessible and affordable source of regionally-adapted seeds that grow well in the Ester area that is maintained by a local community of caring farmers and gardeners;
  • educate library members and the public about biodiversity, garden and plant ecology, sustainable food production, food sovereignty, cultural traditions concerning food and agriculture, heirloom varieties, Ester and Alaska’s agricultural history, and related topics;
  • build community awareness and connections through partnerships between the library and local nonprofits, food producers, horticulture businesses, gardeners, educational institutions, health practitioners, artists, and others; and
  • strengthen the JTEL’s connections to its community, membership, and volunteers; broaden the relevance of the library to area residents; set an example for other libraries and organizations; and support and supplement the other educational programs of the JTEL.

The GEB program would be run by a volunteer Program Coordinator who would serve at the pleasure of the JTEL Board of Directors and would report to it or the JTEL’s Program Committee. The Program Coordinator, with Board or Committee oversight, would be responsible for:

  • Soliciting program partners and donors;
  • Obtaining funding, equipment, and supplies;
  • Forms and procedures for the program;
  • Publicity and announcements;
  • Organizing workshops and lectures pertaining to the program and soliciting presenters and speakers;
  • Creating and maintaining a seed database and variety histories;
  • Managing program funds;
  • Reporting monthly to the JTEL Board of Directors or Program Committee;
  • Writing an annual report for inclusion in the JTEL Annual Report;
  • Finding and training volunteers to help with these tasks and responsibilities;
  • Other duties as assigned or developed by the Board and Program Committee.

The GEB program would be housed at and administered by the JTEL, but would require strong partnerships with area organizations and individuals for its operation and continuation. It would begin as a small seed exchange pilot program and add workshops and other educational capacity as resources and interest allow.

Significance of the program:

Food security and sovereignty are becoming ever more important issues to the public as our global food system becomes more centralized and our foods more homogenous. Our food biodiversity is shrinking dramatically and dangerously. Alaska is at the end of the food supply chain, and our food reserves are less than a week. Our emergency food supplies are stored outside of the state. As the state’s population becomes more aware of its precarious position, small farms and alternative agriculture business models such as community supported agriculture are increasing. At the same time, federal support for agricultural research and programs is being cut (for example, the Agricultural Research Service for Alaska has been closed). In the last few years, new associations and coalitions have formed in Alaska to strengthen the state’s food security. The State of Alaska recognizes the importance of food security and policy issues, and has supported these efforts through legislation (such as the Farm to School Act of 2010) and financial or staff help (for example, the support given to the Alaska Farmers’ Market Association by the Division of Agriculture).

Seed library programs are relatively new in the United States, with the oldest being about eleven years old, but have begun to appear in dramatically increasing numbers in the last two years. They are similar to seed banks, but with the added emphasis upon distribution to the public, propagation of rare and heirloom varieties, and education of everyday people on agrobiodiversity and seed saving. The Bay Area Seed Interchange Library (BASIL), one of the oldest such programs in the country (founded in 2000), describes why seed libraries are important:

[BASIL] is part of a growing network of concerned farmers and community gardeners dedicated to conserving the remaining genetic diversity of our planet's seed stock. … In the last two decades, the majority of the world's family-owned seed companies have been bought out by multinationals such as the Monsanto and Novartis corporations. These companies are not interested in creating sustainable food systems and communities. They are busy replacing carefully bred strains of vegetables and flowers with their own hybrids and patented varieties. Hybrids don't produce viable seed, and the seed from patented varieties cannot legally be collected and used. Instead, the seeds must be bought fresh each year, forcing gardeners and farmers to purchase from corporate seed sources annually.

Genetic engineering enables "life science" corporations to control plant traits by "programming" the seeds. Monsanto's infamous implementation of trait-control technology is often referred to as the "Terminator" seed. "Terminator" seeds yield plants that produce no viable seed of their own. Trait-controlled plants that breed with traditional varieties may pass on engineered traits to the offspring. If non-evolved plant varieties are permitted to squeeze out natural and/or carefully cultivated varieties, seed saving may nearly disappear. Our nourishment or hunger might then depend on chemically dependent or infertile trait-controlled plants.

Traditional knowledge of seed saving and plant propagation techniques exists in fewer and fewer minds and communities.

Seed libraries help conserve and promote genetic diversity in domestic seedstocks; encourage individual, family, and community independence; preserve traditional knowledge and cultural traditions around plants and food; and increase local food security and sovereignty.

The GEB program would be unique in Alaska. While seed swaps or exchanges have occurred elsewhere in the state (Palmer and Seward, for example), and the Agricultural Research Service has maintained a germ plasm and seed bank at the Matanuska Experiment Farm in Palmer, there are no seed libraries or seed swap programs in any library or other institution in the state. This program could provide an influential example for other libraries or organizations in Alaska, establishing the JTEL as a program innovator and attracting positive publicity for the library.

Geb is the “god of life beneath the earth” in Egyptian mythology: vegetation and the harvest, and mines and the Underworld. He was the father of Osiris, who taught humans to farm. In ancient Egypt earthquakes were thought to be Geb’s laughter; he supplied the minerals and precious stones found in the earth. Although Egypt isn’t local, it seems fitting that the name of a god of mines and vegetation forms the acronym of a seed program in a mining town’s library.

Need for and scope of the GEB program:


The GEB program would help the JTEL fulfil its goals of celebrating and showcasing Ester’s unique character; establishing educational, cultural, and community-building programs; and encouraging healthy lifestyles and an understanding of the natural world. It would also strengthen the JTEL’s connection to community members it currently does not reach or reach well, by partnering with local agriculturalists and highlighting a subject/lending arena not traditionally addressed by library programs. Finally, it would strengthen the JTEL’s ties to Ester history and honor the gardening abilities of Ida Lane Clausen.

Gardening is a common pastime in the Ester area, and there are several small farms and nurseries within the vicinity of the village (Anne’s Greenhouse, Calypso Farm & Ecology Center, Cripple Creek Organics, DogWood Gardens, the Fairbanks Experiment Farm, Grey Owl Garden, Happy Creek Farm, the Quist farm, Rosie Creek Farm, Wild Rose Farm, etc.).

The GEB program would tie into and strengthen the current Ester Library Lecture Series, by offering lectures during the series’ summer off-season. Lecture topics would relate to agriculture, history, and ecology, and would serve an educational function not provided by Calypso Farm’s or the University of Alaska’s programs. It would support the work of area garden clubs, commercial farms and greenhouses, and individual gardeners by providing a base pool of locally adapted varieties that can be saved and propagated for resale at area businesses and markets.


The scope of the GEB program would be modest at first, focusing on plant varieties suitable for Ester-area gardens, seed-saving and starting techniques, and encouraging gardening. It would begin as a small seed lending program, relying on seed donations from area farmers, greenhouses, and skilled gardeners. At this stage it would require minimal funding (for publicity, seed packets and labeling, venue rental, and some equipment).

Depending upon its success and as partners, supplies, equipment, and funding is found, it could expand to include regular workshops, guest lecturers, significant seed collections, and part-time staff. The transition from a small program that hosts a few events per year (seed offering events, seed-saving workshops) to one that is an ongoing, staffed operation could take several years to a decade, and would depend on interest, facilities and funding availability, and the strength of the library’s partnerships. Several possibilities for specific ways to expand the program exist: sales of collectible art seed packets and posters (created in collaboration with area artists or photographers); lending of bulbs; acting as an incubator or model for similar programs at other institutions and providing training to coordinators for them; and others. The scope of the GEB program is very adaptable to the available resources and partnerships.

Who the program will serve:

The GEB program would expand the reach and relevance of the JTEL to the Ester community by working with and serving the interests of cooks, gardeners, farmers, scientists, health professionals, and teachers. It will serve families and local businesses, and will help strengthen local agriculture. It would supplement the programs at Calypso Farm & Ecology Center, and provide an example to other libraries and nonprofit agricultural and educational institutions around the state.

Calypso Farm, which has an educational and agricultural mission, is already a partner with the JTEL through its Resource Library. Expanding that partnership to work jointly on a seed lending program would benefit both organizations and help each further its own mission by serving a wider public in a unique way.

Partner organizations:

All potential partners would be approached by the GEB Program Coordinator and undergo an approval process by the JTEL Board of Directors or Program Committee to ensure that each partner is suitable for the JTEL and its aims in keeping with those of the library. Potential partners already approached include:

  • Calypso Farm & Ecology Center: willing to donate and store seeds for the program and teach seed saving and related gardening workshops.
  • Grey Owl Garden: willing to donate organic, locally adapted heirloom variety seeds and to assist with training in permaculture and seed saving.
  • UAF School of Natural Resources & Agricultural Sciences/Agricultural & Forestry Experiment Station: willing to donate seeds, provide a free workshop/lecture venue (at the Fairbanks Experiment Farm), store seeds, and provide speakers and/or conduct workshops. May also be able to provide pass-through funding or grant management.

Potential partners not yet approached include:

Other eventual partners might include other local farms and greenhouses, the Ester Community Market, the Fairbanks Garden Club, SNAP Gardens, the Noel Wien Library, the Alaska Library Association, Denali Seeds, or the Alaska Division of Agriculture.

Some potential speakers for lectures are: Jodie Anderson (Cooperative Extension Service); Danny Barney (USDA Agricultural Research Service); David Fazzino (UAF Department of Anthropology): S. Craig Gerlach (UAF Cross-Cultural Studies); Meriam Karlsson (UAF SNRAS); Philip A. Loring (UAF Institute of Northern Engineering).

Budget and support required:

The budget to support this program would be minimal for startup. Should the program expand and require, for example, a part-time staff member, then the project budget could become significant. However, it is likely, judging from preliminary conversations and research, that grants, donations, and support for the program would be sufficiently plentiful.

Total funds needed for first season: $955–$1,255

This figure assumes that the first year would entail a very modest program. It assumes a volunteer coordinator for the program, use of the JTEL’s card catalog drawer cabinet for one of the partners (seed storage), and no charges to use the JTEL Business Office or the Ida Lane Gazebo (if workshops or seed meets are held in these locations).

  • Event space rental: ~$175 (rentals for three seed offerings, two educational lectures, and two workshops; assumes cost of renting Hartung Hall and no free space available; if the Ida Lane Gazebo is used for the lectures, this cost could be reduced to $100)
  • Poster printing: ~$200 (200 copies each on pastel color paper for five separate posters, assuming the seed offerings could go on one poster)
  • Workshop cost: ~$400–$700 (10 people at each of two 2-hour workshops; lower figure assumes Calypso member discount applies. Note that this could be offset somewhat by charging a nominal fee to attend, but might have the effect of discouraging participation. The figure would also vary according to number of participants [$20–$35 per person per workshop].)
  • Blank seed packets: ~$60 (1,000 white resealable 2.25”x4.25” envelopes—price varies on quantity, style and size of envelope, etc.)
  • Self-inking stamp for packets: ~$20
  • Pens, paper, & misc. supplies: ~$100

Support required would include assistance in publicizing the program and its associated events to the membership and public at large (including web space and publications support), use of the card catalog drawer cabinet, use of the JTEL Business Office and Ida Lane Gazebo, creation of formal partnership agreements with Calypso Farm, Grey Owl Garden, and the Agricultural & Forestry Experiment Station (and possibly others), and assistance in applying for grant funding or support for hosting a dedicated fundraiser.

Funding sources:

Potential grant sources include (all have applicable grants):

Other possibilities are big box stores with community improvement grant programs, such as Home Depot, Fred Meyers, Safeway, or Wal-Mart; local horticulture or carpentry businesses; local gardening clubs; the GVEA Good Cents program; and the Community Revenue Sharing Fund Program.

Most, but not all, of these funders would require the library to have obtained 501(c)(3) charitable nonprofit status before considering the JTEL or the GEB program for funding. Because the GEB program is connected to a library, it is likely that it would be able to solicit donations of supplies or equipment (such as seed packets or tools) from area businesses and organizations.

The GEB program could also support itself through a specialized fundraiser designed to focus attention on the JTEL and the gardening community, perhaps in conjunction with Calypso Farm & Ecology Center.


Stage One: Startup (summer–winter 2011, or first year of program)

  • Solicit partners and commitments to donate or conduct workshops or other tasks required by the program.
  • Apply for grants and purchase or solicit donations of equipment, seed packs, and other non-seed supplies.
  • Obtain seed donations.
  • Prepare seed collection and organize for lending/exchange.

Stage Two: Sprouting Season (spring 2012)

  • Publicity begins in January (four weeks before initial seed exchange/lending event).
  • Seed events held in February, March and April, early enough in the year for gardeners to obtain seed in time for early seed-starting. Seed events would act as publicity for the library and the program, and would be informal get-togethers for library members, the press, seed donors and workshop hosts, and gardeners. (Eventually, when a library building is constructed, the seed library collection could be kept there year-round and opened to the public for borrowing with a kickoff event in early spring, rather than only having seeds available at special events.) They would be hosted at community venues, such as Hartung Community Hall or the meeting rooms at the EVFD, at Calypso Farm & Ecology Center, at the JTEL Business Office, or at the Fairbanks Experiment Farm’s Visitors’ Center, as appropriate.
  • Workshop on seed-starting or related topic held between February and April.

Stage Three: Growing Season (summer–fall 2012)

  • As appropriate, a dedicated fundraiser held between April and July.
  • Lecture, movie, or other biodiversity-related educational events held in June and July.

Stage Four: Harvest Season & Renewal (fall/winter 2012)

  • Workshop on seed saving.
  • Selection of donors and solicitation of seed donations for next season.
  • Season closing/wrapup event, including survey, selected borrower “returns,” informal socializing, and solicitation of feedback and ideas for next season.
  • Annual report & evaluation.
  • Grant solicitation for the next season, as appropriate.

This timeline could be adapted to reflect increased demand for program services, or the program could be maintained at this basic level for several years.

Program evaluation:

The GEB Program Coordinator would provide monthly reports on the status of the program to the JTEL Board of Directors and to program partners. After the close of the program season, participants and partners would be invited to a season closing party at which an informal evaluation/feedback session would take place and a short, anonymous survey provided. Ideas and suggestions to improve or expand the program would be solicited and assembled into a season evaluation report for submission to the Program Committee or JTEL Board.

An important aspect of this program for future participants would be the histories developed for each seed variety. Borrowers would be asked to provide information on the growing conditions, culture, and use of their seeds and resulting plants. Seed donors (particularly those who were also borrowers) would also be asked to contribute this information. Over time, the data from these histories would provide a source of valuable information not only for gardeners and farmers, but also for anthropologists, historians, and other scientists and researchers. Planting and growing information for each variety saved could be refined on an annual basis, and eventually provide material for a book, reference file, or library handouts on Ester-area lore and growing instructions for locally adapted plant seeds in the GEB program’s collections. The quality of the data and its use would provide a form of long-term, ongoing evaluation.

Similar programs:

While seed libraries and library programs are much rarer than seed exchanges or seed banks, they have proliferated in the last few years. Seed lending programs are hosted by public libraries, museums, gardening clubs, educational farms, and seed exchanges. Programs similar to the proposed GEB program include:


Contact information:

Deirdre Helfferich

home phone: 479-3368 • work phones: 451-0636 (Ester Republic Press) or 474-6923 (UAF School of Natural Resources & Agricultural Sciences Publications Office),

(notes available with the hard copy version of this proposal)

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