Starting a Community Seed Bank: Part 2 – Organizing Workers, Collecting Seed

Post-harvest activities


In Part 1 we explained how a community seed bank can protect rare and local varieties of crops. This script explains how to set up the seed bank.

Some farmers put their savings in a bank. When they need extra money, they can take out their savings. This is the way most banks work. A seed bank has seeds in it, not money. These seeds are collected from rare and local plants which are useful to farmers. The seeds are stored in a community seed bank until they are needed. The bank can take different forms. In your village it could be a collection of seeds stored in pots in a shed or in some public building such as the health clinic. It could be a collection of clay pots dug into the floor of a family granary. Or it could be bags of seeds on the kitchen shelf.

A seed bank belongs to the community, not to an individual farmer. If a crop fails because of drought, flooding, insects, or disease, the extra supply of seed from the seed bank will be essential. Farmers may also use the bank if they need seeds from a specific crop or plant. Whenever possible, however, farmers should also keep their own seed.

There are seven steps to starting a community seed bank:

  1. Organize a group of workers
  2. Collect seed including tubers and cuttings
  3. Clean and dry the seed
  4. Keep information about the seed
  5. Store seed
  6. Plant out seeds
  7. Restock seed supplies

Here we will explain the first three steps. Later we will talk about keeping information about the seed, about seed storage, and about restocking seed supplies. Keep in mind that this is only a brief introduction to seed banks. You may be able to get more information about community seed banking from agricultural or development organizations.

1. Organize a group of workers First, a community seed bank needs a group of dedicated planners and workers. Select individuals willing to plan and work on the project. They may be farmers or other community members, such as herders, wood gatherers, medicine makers, artisans, and fisherfolk. Local organizations may also help, but this decision must be made by the whole community.

The first and most important task for the group is to make sure everyone understands the work involved, and agrees to help keep the bank going. Some members of the group may be assigned specific tasks. As most farmers can tell you, seed collection, treatment, and storage must be done throughout the year. So, a community seed bank requires work and commitment.

If people are willing to work hard, the next step is for the workers to decide which seeds to collect. Write down the names. Include all the locally important crops in your area. Remember to include different or rare varieties of staple crops, as well as trees and other plants used as medicines, food, and fuel wood. These are the seeds you will want to collect.

2. Collect seed including tubers and cuttings The seed bank workers must organize seed collection carefully. The group should approach farmers for some of their extra seed. Remember that farmers must first collect enough seed for their own use. Never take seed from farmers without permission. Collect whatever seed the farmers can spare, at least in the first year. After a year’s experience you will know what the seed bank workers can manage.

Some plants grow from tubers or cuttings. Collect these as well. Farmers will know when is the best time of year is to collect seed, tubers, and cuttings. As you collect seed, remember to:

  1. Save seeds from useful crops and wild plants which people in the community think are important, and from those plants which you know are only grown locally. Farmers will tell you how much seed they can spare for each crop or plant.
  2. If the land is no longer productive because of soil erosion, drought, or deforestation, you should save seeds from wild plants, and even from weeds. Often these plants are related to other plants which farmers find useful. For example, modern potatoes, tomatoes, and squash have relatives which grow wild. If the land is still productive, you may not need to collect seeds from wild plants, but you should always protect wild plants from overgrazing and soil erosion.
  3. Collect a wide variety of seed from every type of crop by walking through the field and randomly picking seed from the plants, or from several different fruits. If the plants have different characteristics such as good fruit, drought tolerance, or resistance to insects, you will need to collect more seed. Always try to collect as much as possible.
  4. Save seeds from the best and worst looking plants. Collect seeds from both strong and weak plants. Also, save seeds from plants which don’t look normal. These plants may offer something important which you cannot easily see, such as tolerance to poor soil, drought, insects, strong sunlight or shade. If the plant is diseased, you should also collect seeds only if the fruit is still healthy. Many plants can tolerate disease or pests, and still produce high yields. Collect and store seeds from diseased plants in a separate container so that the disease will not spread. Keep them in reserve just in case your healthy plants don’t grow. Do not plant seeds from unhealthy plants unless no healthy seeds will grow because insects can carry disease from sick plants to healthy plants. Never grow them together.
  5. Save seed from plants even if they have invaded or have been introduced into the area in recent years. Some plants change, adapt, and sometimes improve, in new growing conditions within only a few seasons.

3. Clean and dry the seed Once the seed is collected, carefully prepare it for storage. Store only the seed. Sift or winnow chaff or dirt from the seed using a basket, or remove seed from cobs or pods by hand. Farmers may leave seeds on their cobs or pods to protect them from mould or insects. Follow local customs.

Most seeds must be dried before they can be stored. Spread seeds to dry in a warm place, but not in direct sunlight. Test the dryness of a seed by bending it between your fingers. If the seed breaks, it is dry enough. If the seed is springy but not breaking, the seed is still too moist. Be careful to keep seeds dry, especially in the rainy season. Moisture in the air will make the seeds mouldy.

Seeds from certain tropical fruits such as coconut, mango, and orange should not be dried, but should keep their natural moisture. Plant these seeds as soon as possible after collection. You can keep this type of seed in a plastic bag which is opened once a day so that air mixes with the seeds.

Also, don’t dry eggplant, tomato, squash, and melon seeds. Put the pulp and seeds into a full pail or pot of water. Do not put too many seeds in the pail, or the bad seed will not be able to float to the top of the container. Let the seeds sit. Stir them occasionally for three to five days. The bad seed will rise to the top of the water, and you can throw them away. The good seed sinks to the bottom of the pail. Dry this good seed for 2 to 3 days before it is stored.

In the next script we will talk about how to keep information about the seeds, how to store the seeds, and when to restock the bank. If you would like more information about starting a community seed bank, contact your agricultural office or community organizations.


Helen Hambly Odame, an agroforestry researcher who works in Canada and Kenya wrote this script. Her address is IDRC, Liaison House, State House Road, Nairobi, Kenya.

Harvey Harman helped with the initial preparation.

The script was reviewed by Elizabeth Abergel, Plant Geneticist, York University, Toronto, Canada.

This series of four scripts is based on information in the Community Seed Bank Kit, Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI), P.O. Box 655, Pittsboro, North Carolina 27312, USA. Part of this kit called “Building the bank” is included with this script.

The production of this script was made possible through the generous support of the George Cedric Metcalf Charitable Foundation of Toronto, Canada

Information sources

Growing Diversity: Genetic Resources and Local Food Security, Edited by: David Cooper, Renée Vellvé, and Henk Hobbelink, 1992, (166 pages). Intermediate Technology Publications, 103/105 Southampton Row, London WC1B 4HH, United Kingdom.

The following Network scripts also have information on seeds:

  • Grow many different crops and crop varieties Package 18, script 5.
  • Save your own seeds; Part one: seed selection Package 29, script 1.
  • Save your own seeds; Part two: seed storage Package 29, script 2.
  • Traditional, hybrid, and improved crops Package 28, script 2.

Organizations working with community seed banks

    c/o CET Casilla 16557
    Correo 9
    Santiago, Chile
  • Information Division
    International Plant Genetic Resource Institute
    Via Delle Sette Chiese 12 00145
    Rome, Italy
  • Seeds of Survival
    USC Canada
    56 Sparks St.
    Ottawa, Ontario K1P 5B1
  • Vanaja Ramprashad Navdanya
    839, 23rd. Main Road J.P. Nagar, 2nd. phase
    Bangalore 560 078, India
  • Zuni Folk Varieties Project
    c/o Centre for People, Food & Environment
    344 South Third Avenue
    Tucson, Arizona 85701