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Sow What?

An ancient interchange flourishes as a modern seed library takes root in Camarillo

By Mark Storer

Photo by Mariana Schulze

Growing seeds for All Good Things Organic, an Ojai-based company that helps stock the Camarillo Seed Library.

Libraries have always been a place to grow, and the privately managed one at the end of Las Posas Road is certainly no different. In many ways, the Camarillo Library is a non sequitur: a large, resource-rich facility in a town of less than 65,000 people.

It is something of a civilized town square, where you’ll find just about anyone or anything you’re looking for. There’s a quiet outdoor plaza. Even an adjunct coffee shop. And if you want to plant your own garden, start inside—at Camarillo’s own seed library.

“We’re in an agricultural area,” said librarian Barbara Wolfe. “About three months after we opened, in March of 2011, we had a series of talks by the Ventura County Master Gardeners program and it was really popular.” Since then, the Master Gardeners—a nationwide group of community volunteers who offer free gardening advice and services—have returned with increasing frequency; they’ll give no less than one talk every week this April.

But it was a talk last spring by Novella Carpenter, the author of “Farm City,” a book in which she documents growing an urban farm complete with livestock, that really got things blooming. At the event, Wolfe commented that she thought a seed library would be a good thing for the library to create.

That’s where Laura Maher came into the mix. “I went to hear Novella Carpenter, and I remember Barbara saying that she wanted to do a seed library,” Maher said. A few weeks later, she signed on as a volunteer to run the program, which would allow people to check seeds out of the library, grow the vegetables or fruit—allowing some of the plants to return to seed—and then bring those seeds back to the library.

“I’ve become a seed-aholic now, I admit that,” Maher explained in a phone interview. She was in Temecula, at the Permaculture Voices Conference, getting her seed and organic growing fix. “What I envision is a system that has numerous free resources, including a card catalogue, website, and even training in things like tree grafting. My passion is all about community and education and creating a culture of sharing.”

So far, all of the organization has fallen to Maher, who’s even spent some of her own money purchasing resources. She keeps a lot of the seeds, too, storing them in a wine refrigerator “to keep them viable.”

The library has a small supply of seeds available for checkout during regular business hours and has received donations from various seed purveyors, including All Good Things Organic, an Ojai-based seed company that has supported the library’s efforts and contributed to a number of programs. Run by farmer/gardeners Justin Huhn and Quin Shakra, the company sources the seed varieties in its catalog directly from its local farm and other farms with a similar agriculture ethic.

Maher coordinates garden and farm visits, “because everyone has different levels and a different understanding of what they need to do.” And the most important thing, she says, is simply “to grow seeds and gather food and return some seeds. That’s where it all begins.”

According to Wolfe, there are only about 20 seed libraries in the U.S. right now: “It’s just beginning. And really, it’s a natural marriage between a community resource like a library and a place to learn about, and even get, the materials to grow your own food.”

Wolfe said that the community response has been very strong, and the fact that Camarillo has two community gardens—one called the Camarillo Community Garden, another located at the Baptist Church on Temple Avenue—where people farm their own food, has added to the interest. “These are lost skills,” she said, “and it’s a chance for people to learn to eat healthier and share resources together.”

Maher said that she sees a real future for the seed library, especially with Rancho Campana High School being built next door (on land formerly used to grow strawberries). “My goal is to get the edible schoolyard and a seed-saving garden at the high school,” she explained. “It would be a really great connection.”

Another non sequitur, then: In a town with an agricultural past that has diminished over the years, one of its brightest spots is taking root—a chance for residents from all walks of life to learn to grow their own food and become gardeners, not for profit, but for sustenance. And for each other.

Harvesting sunflower seeds in Ojai.

Seed checkout form at the Camarillo Public Library.

Laura Maher (l.) and Barbara Wolfe (r.).

04-01-14

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