Rebecca Newburn, Co-founder of Richmond Grows Seed Lending Library in Richmond, California

In 2010, a friend and I started the Richmond Grows Seed Lending Library. It’s a lot like a regular library, but instead of books, we lend packets of seeds. You can check them out, plant them at home, and harvest new ones that you’re welcome to return to us for the next person to use.

A century ago, just about every farmer in this country saved seeds from their crops to replant the following year. Now, most buy new ones each season from big agriculture companies, which engineer them to produce uniform, high-yield harvests. But breeding for consistency rather than biodiversity can make plants more susceptible to various diseases and pests.

I found this out after taking a permaculture design class taught by Christopher Shein, who started one of the first of these libraries in the U.S. I was inspired, so I got a jump-start of donations from a small ­heirloom-seed company, and soon enough, people in the community started hearing about us and began donating their own. We had a 90-year-old man share little handmade pouches of seeds from Clarkia flowers he’d been growing for decades.

Today we have well over 100 jars of seeds at any time, labeled and stored in cabinets including an old wooden card-­catalog drawer. Seed saving offers so many gifts: nourishment, flavor, biodiversity, and climate resiliency. It also connects people, and gives us a connection to the past. Over the years in our country, we’ve lost much of the knowledge on how to keep seeds. We hope to bring it back.

As told to Sarah Whitman

This article was originally published in the Summer 2019 Make It Last issue of Popular Science.