By Will Sardinsky
Glimpses of bright, reflective ribbon shine out from between dense masses of green at the Wild Mountain Seeds greenhouse. These silver and neon orange ribbons are strung around plants that look healthy, green and bear a robust fruit. Around the flagged plants, others wilt and brown, struggling to grow. Casey Piscura, Seed Peace and Wild Mountain Seeds co-founder, walks the rows. He is checking on plants, looking for those that handle various stressors well.
“Typically, the average farm is not running trials of multiple genetic variations. We’re really focused on staying up to date on best practices, identifying innovative new ways of growing, as well as running trials on diverse genetics,” he explains.
Seed Peace was born from Wild Mountain Seeds, a seed-breeding company that has operated on the Sunfire Ranch property along Thompson Creek for the past eight years. Seed Peace, a nonprofit, aims to change the paradigm around local food viability by bringing in the necessary resources to expand their plant and seed research capabilities, training young farmers to use this knowledge elsewhere, providing local hunger relief, caring for the soil and, ultimately, helping to fix what they deem is a broken food system.
“So, on the farm here, we have a library of seeds of probably over 500 different varieties of the common food plants. We’re looking at those across different environments to identify best performing ones and also utilizing diverse genetics to improve those crops,” Piscura explained.
Unlike some of the United States agricultural mega-hubs with a conducive year-round growing climate, like those in California and Arizona, the Roaring Fork Valley has intense high-elevation sun, hot days, cool nights and very few days between first and last frosts. The genetics that make a plant grow well in California are not as well-suited to a climate like Carbondale’s. By continually testing new plant varieties and flagging the ones that grow well, then collecting their seeds for the following year, crops are adapted to the unique conditions of the Mountain West.
Casey Piscure walks the rows at Seed Peace, operating on three acres at Sunfire Ranch, south of Carbondale. Photo by Will Sardinsky.
“Selection can be very different. It could be, from a physical standpoint, actually looking at questions like: Are the roots formed and do they size up well? Are the tops of carrots strong enough to pull it out and not tear it off? Or, it could be within a squash actually cooking it and tasting it. Does it taste better than the others? So, actually looking at nutritional value. It could be in a tomato looking at beauty, so we could make a new variety that is just beautiful. And then, does it also taste good? It could be looking at certain plants that are surviving a particular disease that’s brought on either by accident or even on purpose to see if it has resistance to our local oomycetes [water molds] or late and early blights.”
Piscura continued, “For example, with our tomatoes, we have actually developed systems where we’ll force frost. We’ve brought our tomatoes down to the 28 degree range, killing thousands of plants on purpose, to find one or two or three individuals that have a better genetic makeup, that probably have a higher sugar content giving them an anti-freeze-like quality.”
Aside from working to create plants that thrive in the harsh Colorado climate, Seed Peace is also focused on education and mentorship. To help with all their research, Seed Peace hires an apprentice team each year, educating young farmers through hands-on experience. They also collaborate with and mentor other farms in the area, such as Highwater Farm in Silt and Green Boat Gardens in Carbondale, each growing Seed Peace plant varieties.
“In my first season working part-time for Wild Mountain Seeds, now Seed Peace, I was awe-struck by the pure quality of everything they were doing,” said Adam Ting, co-owner and operator of Green Boat Gardens. “From the amazing seed breeding, to the healthy soil and vegetables, to the food pantry support. I had to learn more, so I stayed another season and then another. My time there helped me develop the skills and knowledge of growing food in the high mountains that gave me the confidence to start my own farm.”
When visiting a local farmer’s market, you will find traces of Wild Mountain Seed’s work in the produce of many other farms. While many people may opt to shop at the supermarket rather than a farmer’s market, Piscura urges them to reconsider. “We’ve found by looking at the nutrient density, that sometimes food seems more expensive when you go to the farmer’s market. But if you actually look at taking a brix level with a refractometer, you can see that the farmer’s market carrot is four times more nutritious than the carrot from a large grower in California, but it’s not four times the price. It’s two times the price. So, you eat less carrots and get more nutrition. It actually makes more sense to invest in local growing.”
To help the community and make sure that this food is accessible, Seed Peace collaborates with local food banks. “Going to the food banks here is like going to a farmer’s market, it’s a lot of the same food,” he said, laughing. “This year, we’ll donate over 8,000 pounds of produce to local and regional food banks.” Piscura continued, “We’re hoping to expand as we grow to develop a system where we’re an agricultural research facility that’s pairing food supply to schools and food banks with research and agriculture innovation, soil health and carbon-sequestering farming practices.”
Implementing these practices between their three acres of produce and 24 acres of managed irrigation pasture has the potential to aid in more than just feeding locals with nutritious food; it can also help to combat global climate change. “We’re looking at the question, can we use diverse genetics and selection to produce food that can feed you throughout the winter without having to ship food all over the world, like we’re having to do now, which is causing climate change? Which squash lasted the longest for the winter, so it could actually last until the sun came back? So, we’ve done intense selection for things like onions, carrots and beets that can store all winter long [without rotting].”
A small farm with a big mission, Seed Peace wants to raise awareness about the state of our food system. “Agriculture is at a very interesting intersection with nature. When done poorly, it doesn’t sequester carbon. It actually creates carbon exhaustion. When we choose a certain way of eating, it causes climate change. We’re at this point where you can actually grow food in a way that builds the soil while feeding people and balancing climate. At Seed Peace, we’re looking at ways that we can push this to a bigger scale by starting on our small farm now, taking community investment and starting to do different scales so people have more options for local food.”
Seed Peace is actively raising funds to expand its infrastructure. Interested investors are invited to tour the farm. Learn more at seedpeace.org
Casey Piscura of Seed Peace shows off a tiny sampling of the farm’s rich tomato diversity. Photo by Will Sardinsky.