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Des Moines, Iowa — For thousands of years, people have exchanged seeds to grow terrific tomatoes or produce the perfect potato, but a new effort to loan and borrow seeds has created a conflict between well-meaning gardeners and state agriculture officials who feel obligated to enforce laws restricting the practice.

Seed exchanges have sprouted up in about 300 locations around the country, most often in libraries, where gardeners can exchange self-pollinating seeds rather than buy standard, hybrid seeds. In spots like Duluth, Minnesota, the conflict with agriculture departments has surprised gardeners and library officials, who established exchanges to meet a growing interest in locally grown food and preserving certain varieties, never thinking to examine the intricacies of state seed laws.

"It's about sharing with our friends and neighbors in the community," said Duluth Library Manager Carla Powers said. Its seed exchange is operated by library employees and volunteers out of a converted wardrobe.

As they became aware of the increasingly popular seed libraries, agriculture officials felt obligated to enforce laws intended to protect farmers, that ensure seeds are viable, will grow the intended plant and aren't mixed with unwanted seeds for weeds or plants.

"Everybody thinks we're the big, evil, bad government, but it's much more complicated than people are aware," said Geir Friisoe, director of the Minnesota Department of Agriculture's Plant Protection Division.

Seed-sharing advocates express frustration that laws focus on the needs of modern hybrid seed producers while limiting age-old, person-to-person seed exchanges.

John Torgrimson, the executive director of the Seed Savers Exchange, which maintains a seed bank of more than 20,000 varieties, said the group meets the standards of all U.S. seed laws.

"There's almost no danger," he said. "This is not a risk to agriculture in any state. This is not a risk to our food supply."

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