Bills could help Nebraska community gardens, seed libraries
BY ANNA GROENWOLD / THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
The Nebraska local food movement, championed as a bridge between the state’s agricultural and urban sectors, needs to be promoted and protected from overregulation, community gardeners told senators Tuesday.
A legislative committee heard public testimony on a bill by Sen. Burke Harr of Omaha that would allow cities, states and counties to designate vacant city land for community gardens.
“This is an opportunity for city people to start getting engaged in the food production process so they begin to get an appreciation of how complicated agriculture is,” said Nebraskans for Peace state coordinator Tim Rinne. “This is our opportunity to start pulling our weight in the food production system.”
Community gardens currently sit on private property, primarily land owned by churches. The bill designates a task force to explore ways to repurpose open lots such as public-school grounds or right of ways purchased by the Nebraska Department of Roads.
Advocates, such as the Douglas County Nebraska Farmers Union and Nebraska Farm Bureau Federation, said they promote community gardens making agriculture and whole-food nutrition accessible to low-income families.
The bill would also exempt free seed exchanges, or seed libraries, from regulations that apply to commercial seed operations. Seed libraries have gained attention as an informal mechanism for sharing seeds among gardeners.
Elizabeth Goodman, who coordinates three different branches of seed libraries in Omaha, said they promote seeds adapted to the community soil and conditions, which is important to the nutrition and longevity of the produce.
David Mixdorf of South Sioux City, said seed libraries work just like book libraries. People can check out seeds and return them at the end of the growing season.
As the exchanges have gained national popularity, members have begun to worry that state agriculture departments will interfere. The Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture effectively shut down a 10-year-old seed library in June of last year by enforcing the commercial requirement that seeds be labeled and tested in 400-seed batches. Harr’s bill would exclude seed libraries from regulations in the Nebraska Seed Law.
The committee also heard testimony on a measure by Sen. Rick Kolowski of Omaha that would allow for potentially non-hazardous foods such as fresh produce, baked goods and jams to be prepared in personal kitchens and sold on a small scale. Such products already are legal to sell at farmers markets.
Phillip Seng, who owns gluten-free baking business P.S. It’s Gluten Free LLC, said he has a loyal customer base at farmers markets for six months of the year, but does not have the funds to build a commercial gluten-free kitchen to legally distribute his product during the off season.
Kathy Siefken, executive director of the Nebraska Grocery Industry Association, testified against the bill, saying consumers should know if their food is being prepared on surfaces where dogs, kids or diapers had previously been.
The committee took no action on the bills.