It’s Now Legal to Sell Seeds in California

Civil Eats | October 6, 2016

seed packets available at seed swap

Seed packets on offer at a swapping event. Photo credit: Local Food Initative via Creative Commons

Free seed libraries, swaps, and exchanges increase access to local food and can play a large role in both expanding and preserving biodiversity. Yet for almost 80 years, these non-commercial operations have been running afoul of the law.

That’s because the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Federal Seed Act mandates that any activity involving non-commercial distribution of seed be labeled, permitted, and tested according to industrial regulations that would be both costly and burdensome to the over 460 estimated seed libraries operating in 46 states.

Now the tide may be starting to turn.

California—home to over 60 seed libraries and hundreds of swaps, according to Rebecca Newburn, co-founder and coordinator of the Richmond Grows Seed Lending Library—recently became the fourth state in two years to pass a law that exempts non-commercial seed activities from regulatory requirements.

“We wanted to create the legal framework for an alternative system that is not reliant on large companies to provide open-pollinated seed varieties,” said Neil Thapar, the food and farm attorney at the Sustainable Economies Law Center (SELC). “Seed sharing has a direct connection to building local economic resilience.”

SELC partnered with a variety of groups throughout California—including local seed libraries, nonprofit organizations, and a class of fourth graders in Marin County—to advocate for AB 1810, the legislation co-sponsored by Assemblymembers Marc Levine and Devon Mathis.

While none of the seed libraries and seed exchanges in California had reported being targeted by the government, Thapar said, advocates nationwide became concerned when state officials shut down a Pennsylvania seed sharing library in 2014, citing the violation of a law mirroring the Federal Seed Act. The next year, Nebraska and Minnesota libraries faced similar crackdowns (seed control law is mostly uniform across all 50 states).

But in the last two years, Nebraska, Illinois, and Minnesota have all passed laws protecting non-commercial seed activity from regulatory requirements. And the effort appears to be spreading. Thapar says he has been contacted by residents in Florida, Ohio, and New York.

SELC is taking action to get laws changed in all 50 states. Almost all state seed control officials use “model legislation” (officially dubbed the Recommended Uniform State Seed Law or RUSSL) developed by the Association of American Seed Control Officials as the template for their own laws. SELC has been working with the Association to add a section to RUSSL specifying that noncommercial seed sharing activities be exempt from industrial labeling, permitting, and testing requirements.

“If we can get the RUSSL to change that, then it would facilitate more states to incorporate that language over time,” Thapar said.

Sara McCamant, the co-founder of Community Seed Exchange, a volunteer-run seed library and garden in Sonoma County, California, said she was never too concerned that state officials would attempt a crackdown.

“There are so many libraries here,” she said. “But there was concern that it could be a problem in the future. This legislation was a preventive action, as it’s becoming an issue with the seed controllers in every state.”

But McCamant emphasizes that the new protections for local seed sharing, saving, and swapping do have immediate significance for biodiversity in California

“Just one seed library can take [plant] varieties that have almost disappeared and are impossible to find and all of a sudden you can find it everywhere,” she says. By saving the seeds of the plants that appear to be the healthiest, gardeners can breed for strength of future seed generations.

Community Seed Exchange’s library includes 180 varieties of fruits, vegetables, and grains such as quinoa and amaranth. The group also maintains a garden and teaches classes on how to save seed.

But the most important impact of these programs, McCamant says, is that they build resilience in the local food system by taking power away from the handful of corporations that control the majority of the global seed industry.

“If we don’t have access to the first link of a food chain, we have no control over what to grow and what food is available to us,” she said. “The scale can be small, but the impacts can be so large.”

Note: In December 2016, Civil Eats announced that this story was one of its most popular in 2016. It was reprinted in KQED’s Bay Area Bites blog on October 11, 2016.

Drought dowsing goes hi-tech

California Magazine | Aug. 11, 2014

Wellntel pilot

Wellntel is conducting its first pilot with farmers and residents in the drought-stricken town of Templeton, Calif. Photo credit: Wellntel

This year, groundwater is serving as California’s pinch hitter, supplying about 60 percent of the state’s needs during this historic drought. But until now, it’s been an impossible resource to manage.

We don’t have enough data to know just how much groundwater is hanging out below any given house or farm. Because it’s unregulated by the state, anyone can pump as much water as they want—a point of contention between those who think people own the water underneath their property and those who believe groundwater is a communal resource. To make matters worse, groundwater hasn’t been replenished during these dry times, and there’s been a recent rush to drill more wells in the San Joaquin Valley.

But while we can’t make it rain on California, nor force the legislature to pass two bills currently being considered that would mandate local governments to regulate their groundwater, new technology is allowing us to better “see”  the water beneath the ground and could help us make smarter decisions about how best to use it.

A recently developed sensor-based device that measures groundwater is helping UC Berkeley researchers understand just how much of this resource we’ll have in the coming decades. Developed by Wisconsin-based startup Wellntel, the product attaches to the top of a well and uses sonar to measure water levels and a well’s pumping rate every 30 minutes, then sends the data to the computing cloud, allowing researchers to make use of it.

In the last few months, geography department professor Norman Miller and recent Ph.D. graduate Raj Singh have started incorporating data from the devices into the computer-based groundwater model they’ve been developing for the last four years. “One of the big problems I see is the availability of water due to land use stressors under climate change,” says Miller, a hydrometeorologist. “So one of the outstanding questions is how much (groundwater) is left on planet, who’s using it, and when. But there’s a lot of water that we can’t see.”

The current problem, the researchers say, is that while satellite data can show how much groundwater there is on a regional level—in the Central Valley, for instance—it can’t capture how much there is under a city, or at the farm level. There just isn’t enough data from U.S. wells to get a deep understanding of how groundwater flows. The predominant techniques used to measure well water levels—measuring tapes or pressure sensors—are labor-intensive and costly. The U.S. Geological Survey monitors less than 10 percent of its 20,000 wells, California’s Department of Water Resources monitors a few hundred.

But by integrating the Wellntel data into their current model, the Cal researchers believe they can provide a deeper understanding of how much groundwater we have now, and how much we’ll have in the future as climate change takes its toll.

“It’s like moving from a black-and-white to an HD television,” Singh says of the difference in resolution—which with the new data has advanced from gathering data at the 10-20 kilometer level down to a 100-meter level. At that resolution, he says it’s possible to discern the land’s topography and groundwater level differences from houses a few blocks apart.

With this knowledge, farmers and landowners could be better equipped to allocate their consumption, plan their growing seasons and save for dry times—not unlike the way we manage our bank accounts.

Wellntel is partnering with Miller and Singh on a pilot research project in Templeton, a town just outside Paso Robles on California’s Central Coast. The area has sprouted a number of vineyards and hobby farms in recent decades after its almond groves turned fallow.

“There’s been a huge increase in vineyard development in Paso Robles, and many residents saw dramatic declines in their water levels and had to dig new wells because the water table dropped,” says Wellntel co-founder Nick Hayes. “And some of the new wells have had to go so deep that they have to tap into mineral and sulfur-smelling water—it’s pretty severe and it feels dire to them, and their property values are tied to water in the area.” Some even have had to truck in their water, Hayes adds.

Every two weeks, Miller and Singh receive data (stripped of any identifiers) from 12 Wellntel sensors installed every half-mile throughout the 9-square mile pilot area.

By assimilating this data into their current groundwater model, the researchers say they’ll eventually be able to predict how groundwater levels will change from season to season over the next few years, as well as over the coming decades based on a range of greenhouse gas emissions scenarios up to 2050.

Miller says it’s not clear right now just when they’ll be able to make those predictions. But the Cal researchers have met several times and shared their model with Frances Chung, the chief of the modeling branch at the state’s Department of Water Resources, and they say the state is interested in making use of the new technology. Such an ability to collect information about groundwater levels could boost the state’s pro-regulation movement.

“If you limit water it has to be based on what you know, and right now it’s extremely difficult to control and monitor,” Singh says. “But as we get more information and it becomes more scientific—and more objective based on facts—it will be easier to regulate.”

View the original story here.

Virtual net metering grows, expands solar’s reach

SolarEnergy | January 22, 2014

mmunity-owner solar array. Photo courtesy Clean Energy Collective

A community-owned solar array.

When the clock ticked over to the year 2014, New Hampshire officially enabled residents to receive credit on their utility bills from solar energy — without a single solar panel placed on their roof.

Sound strange? A tweak in the state’s net metering laws has made it possible for apartment dwellers, renters, and business owners to buy their own solar panels (positioned as part of a larger array and located offsite) and receive credit for the generated energy. Known as virtual net metering, or community-owned solar, participants will get a credit on their bill if they consume less than their panels produce for the month.

New Hampshire is one of 11 entities — including California, Colorado, Connecticut, the District of Columbia, Illinois, Massachusetts, Maine, Minnesota, New Jersey, Rhode Island and Vermont — where some sort of virtual net metering policy is in place. In some places, such as California, restrictions limit eligibility. California State Sen. Lois Wolk is reintroducing a bill that would enable renting residents and business owners to be eligible alongside the building owners who can currently install solar PV and implement virtual net metering at affordable housing complexes.

“It’s not as attractive to investor-owned utilities that need to deliver returns,” said Paul Spencer, CEO and founder of Clean Energy Collective in Boulder, Colo., a company that is leading the way in setting up virtual net metering programs by negotiating deals with utilities and developing the solar projects needed to generate the energy.

Spencer’s company established the first such program in the U.S. in 2010 with Holy Cross Electric, a cooperative utility near El Jebel, a town outside Aspen. To reach that milestone, Clean Energy Collective had to wrestle with a number of challenges that had never been faced before, including satisfying security laws, federal tax laws, and developing software that enables participants’ energy credits to be directly applied directly to their utility bill.

Since then, Clean Energy Collective has brokered deals for virtual net metering with 14 other utilities in six states. At least one investor-owned utility — Xcel Energy — is part of the mix.

The key, Spencer said, is to negotiate a price for the energy that both the utilities and consumers can agree upon. And the utilities also benefit from the virtual net metering programs, he added, by helping them reach their state’s mandated renewable portfolio standard.

Expansion in Massachusetts

Recently, Clean Energy Collective announced plans to construct four solar arrays (in this context, also known as community solar gardens) in Massachusetts for virtual net metering programs. The solar gardens will be built in areas served by three of the state’s largest utilities.

In Massachusetts, as in other projects, the panels are available on a first-come, first-served basis. However, residents can only purchase solar panels with the capacity of generating 100 percent of their energy consumption.

Return on Investment?

With the average cost for a panel hovering around $750, and the first year’s return between 5.5 to 10 percent payback, Spencer estimates that buyers will break even anywhere from seven to 15 years on average, after taking inflation into account.

What happens if the owner of a solar panel has to move?

If one’s new home is located the same utility service area, the owner can just notify the utility. But if he or she is moving out of the area, it will have to be transferred to someone who lives in the area.

“It’s just like a car,” Spencer said. “You own it — so you can sell it for any price you want.”

Looking to the Future

As Clean Energy Collective currently has “active conversations” in play with over 135 utilities in 38 states, Spencer feels optimistic for the future growth of virtual net metering.

But he’s also realistic.

“All 50 states might be a challenge,” he says. “Some states are not a match for solar since there’s not a lot of sun, and the power prices are low.”

View the original story here.

Photo of community-solar array courtesy Clean Energy Collective