From the Ground Up

Seed Libraries Preserve, Pass on Traditions and Heritage

By Christopher Nagy


For Ben Cohen, getting back to his roots meant simplification.

Cohen and his family run Small House Farm on the outskirts of the village of Sanford in Midland County. The business was started in 2013 when the family was looking for ways to simplify their lives and develop a sincere relationship with the Earth and its bounty.

“Small House Farm came together organically and, over time, has taken on a life of its own,” Cohen said. “An important aspect of the Small House philosophy is the understanding that nature provides for our every need, we just simply need to learn where to look. And we need to learn how to listen. Through Small House Farm, we have learned so much about the bounty of this world; and at the same time, we have learned so much about ourselves.”

The business crafts a number of small-batch and seasonal herbal products such as salves, teas and tinctures that are made with plants either grown on the farm or gathered from the wild. In addition, they cold-press oils from various seeds and nuts that are then used in Small House products.

At the very heart of the essence of Small House Farm’s efforts is Cohen’s seed library.

“Saving seeds is simply part of gardening for me,” he said. “To learn about and appreciate the plants that we grow for food or pleasure, it’s important to understand their life cycle, from seed to seed.”

A seed library functions in much the same way as a traditional library. Instead of borrowing books, patrons will borrow seeds and are encouraged to replenish the borrowed seeds at the end of the growing season. Cohen said seed libraries are often housed within a neighborhood library and serve as a community hub where people can share farming and gardening resources, knowledge and experience.

“There are almost as many reasons to save seeds as there are seed savers, but the reasons that you’ll hear the most are things like local adaptation for better performance in the changing climate, genetic preservation for maintaining historical connections as well as for future breeding efforts and economic benefits for people that would prefer to produce their own,” Cohen said. “For me, while all of these reasons are valid and important, I save seeds to remind myself that I’m just a small part of a much larger world.”

Cohen sowed that passion by founding the MI Seed Library, a database formed on the vision that one day every community in the state should have access to locally adapted seeds and education.

“We believe seed saving and seed sharing serves as a vehicle for supporting regional food systems, preserving genetic diversity, and maintaining connections to history and culture,” he said. “There are a number of people involved in the project from across the state and we recently launched our new website. … The website features an interactive map detailing the many existing seed libraries as well as plenty of information for people looking to start a seed-sharing program in their own community.”

It all ties directly back into the local food movement. Local seeds produce local food, Cohen said, and that resonates with a shared sense of community.

“Community is everything. Community is tangible. Community is cohesive. Community brings people together in ways that allow them to do things they couldn’t have done in isolation,” Cohen said. “Far too often people are living isolated from one another – not physically, but absorbed by the concept of self. As the English poet John Donne put it, ‘No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent.’ ”

Small House Farm products are available at stores and farmers markets across the state as well as through the business’s website. For more information on Small House Farm, visit

In addition to his work at Small House Farm, Ben Cohen is also sharing his knowledge and experience with others as a lecturer and author.

“I’ve had the pleasure of giving lectures and leading workshops for a number of great organizations in some truly beautiful venues across the country on the benefits of living closer to the land through seeds, herbs and locally grown food,” he said. “I have spoken at conferences, expos, seed swaps, for garden clubs, churches, community gardens and everything in between.”

Over the past few years, Cohen has given more than 200 presentations across the country. Although the typical target audiences are gardeners and small-scale farmers, his lectures are open to anyone interested in turning toward the land to increase happiness and general well-being.

While Cohen’s goal is to provide inspiration with his speaking engagements, his extensive travels have also allowed him to come in contact with plenty of inspirational people, which helped spur him to write his first book, “From Our Seeds & Their Keepers.”

“These are true stories, as told by the seed keepers themselves, filled with history, culture and even a bit of philosophy. Some stories in the book have been able to follow these seeds back through a family line for 200 years or more,” Cohen said. “Throughout the book we’ve been able to highlight the benefits of a simple life, one in tune with the seasons: A life lived off of the land.”

The stories serve to document history through gardening and seed saving, preserving aspects of cultures and heritage, he added.

“Seeds are more than just simple commodities; they are time travelers, stretching back hundreds, or thousands, of years while simultaneously ensuring our future every time we plant them in the nourishing soil of Mother Earth,” Cohen said.

For more details, call (989) 708-0549 or email