ERIE — For nearly a century and a half, free public libraries in Kansas have served to enrich the lives of people through access to books, newspapers, magazines and other information.
Those offerings have expanded in some areas over decades to include art, musical instruments, internet access, fishing poles and more.
In Erie, director Julie Coover Kent has been working to ensure the Erie City Public Library continues to enrich people mentally and physically. A couple of summers ago, the library sponsored a plant and seed swap and people brought in seeds they had harvested to share with others. Kent passed out free tomato plants to those who wanted them, and those who had extras from their own gardens were invited to bring their produce into the library to share.
Beginning in June, when the school district distributed boxes of fresh produce to people in the community through a U.S. Department of Agriculture grant, a number of seniors couldn’t eat all the food gifted each week, like a 10-pound bag of potatoes or 2 gallons of milk, so people took the extra fresh food to the library to share with others.
“We’d open up a bag of potatoes and tell people, ‘Take as many as you want.’ If people needed just a couple of potatoes for a meal, they could do that,” she said.
Seeing others’ willingness to help their community neighbors, and based on her own desire to help, Kent created the We Share program in the summer.
“We had food we handed out to people. We had lots and lots of food. One of the people at the community garden brought us tomatoes, and they brought us squash and corn on the cob. When we’d get stuff in, I would put it on Facebook and people just showed up. People that don’t normally come to the library came to the library to pick up food,” Kent said.
Response to We Share was incredible, she said. The program made it possible for community members to help one another and themselves by planting gardens.
To build on We Share’s success, Kent applied to Neosho County to receive Strengthening People and Revitalizing Kansas funding to help purchase a refrigerator, a greenhouse, fertilizer, seeds and other items. The refrigerator would help store perishable items donated, such as herbs, carrots, or even milk and eggs. In addition, it would serve to store seeds. The greenhouse would allow bedding plants to be grown and stored.
With the library’s grant approved, in November Kent placed her order for a Yoderbilt 8-by-12-foot greenhouse.
“They set it up to be exactly what you want, so we’ve got exhaust fans, an electric package, shelves, a wooden floor,” Kent said.
The first of December, Eric Craft’s construction class at Erie High School installed a gravel pad for the greenhouse to sit on. On Monday the greenhouse arrived.
Everything has seemingly fallen into place for the We Share program, she said.
“A couple of weeks ago my daughter and I were in Joplin at Tractor Supply and they had a 5-gallon bucket of seeds for a quarter apiece. Part of my budget includes the seeds and the fertilizer and all that stuff. I asked the manager of the store how much he would charge me for the whole bucket, and he said he needed to make some money off of it. I told him I understood that; I just needed to know his ultimate price list. It was $20 for 5 gallons of seed,” Kent said. “We pulled the packages out and sorted them and there were $1,428 worth of seeds in this bucket. So we have seed for a seed library as well.
“So, in the spring when people are getting ready to plant gardens, we have seed for corn and beans, lots of flower seeds, lots of herbs, and we have a lot of tomatoes seeds as well. We will have tomato plants this year, too, just like we did last year, but our goal this year is 500 plants.”
Kent said that goal was set through developing their grant application.
“You have to have in the grant whatever you think you are going to achieve. You have to have numbers. We said our plan was to do 500 bedding plants for people in the spring to just give away,” Kent said.
As for the seeds, Kent is bagging and storing them in the freezer until spring.
“You may not get 100% germination the following year, but still plenty of germination for what we need,” Kent said. “We’ll take a lot of those seeds and do packets. Last year we did packets that contained onion sets and seed potatoes and different kinds of seeds. We’ll have some of those.”
This will start the new seed library. While you can’t check out seeds and return them like books, people who receive seeds are asked to give packets of certified seeds as they are able to keep the seed library going.
“We’ll get donations from Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds out of Mansfield, Missouri. They gave us a donation last year of a $50 gift certificate. The year before they sent us this huge bag of seeds that we shared. The gift certificate is better because then we can get things we don’t have like radishes and lettuce for people to put in their gardens.
“We also are getting a donation from a place in Vermont called High Mowing Organic Seeds. For the cost of shipping, they will send you 25 packages of seeds for $5, and you can have up to five bundles. I ordered $25 worth of seed from them.”
Kent said she will contact seed companies elsewhere and hand out seed as she is able.
“If you want seeds and we have seeds, you can come and check them out. The idea is that at some point if you take seeds you bring seeds back in. Not ones you harvested from home, but seeds in a packet. The Department of Agriculture is very fussy about seeds and they want certified seeds to be in seed libraries. If you do heirloom seeds you can save those seeds and replant, or share with friends. You just can’t put them in a seed library. That’s why we went through the seed companies.”
The one great thing about the library hosting the We Share program is if someone has questions about gardening or seeds, they can stop by and check out a book to guide them. If the library doesn’t have a title, they can likely acquire it though the interlibrary loan program.
Beyond helping people grow their food, We Share at the Erie library may be able to help people in other ways, too.
“At some point, I’m hoping, also in the spring, we will have a library of things. For instance, rakes and shovels. I have a VCR-DVD player. I have an Instant Pot. I have a waffle maker, an air popper. Those will be things people can check out if they need them. Things like a roasting pan when it’s time to do Thanksgiving dinner. People don’t have space for that (stuff),” Kent said.
There are a number of libraries in the area that have pans people can check out. Caney’s library has a collection of cake pans.
“So if you were wanting to make a certain kind of cake and say you needed a Raggedy Ann cake pan, you can actually order it from your library and they will send it to you interlibrary loan,” Kent said. “Chances are the things we have here will not go into interlibrary loan. It will be strictly for community use. I’m not crazy about trying to ship my Instant Pot someplace else. But those will be things that will enrich the library, and that’s the idea.
“I just hope I live long enough to do everything I want to do. I’ve given myself till I’m 75. I’ve got three more years to get this stuff off the ground and going. It’s going to be so cool. Hopefully it will all come together.”