Reimagining nature’s original technology as a way to move humanity forward.
When many of us think of farming, the first thing that comes to mind is orderly rows of peak-season produce. This iconic image is inherently one of production—of our food system, emphasis on system. Yet at MASA Seed Foundation in Boulder, Colorado, founder Richard Pecoraro is working to cultivate a deeper set of roots—one that reconnects the farmer and the consumer to the land.
Entering the fifth decade of his career in agriculture, Pecoraro has lived many lives in the field—from growing show-stopping CSA produce, to crafting artistic or botanical garden installations. Yet his focus has never wavered from seed work. As part of the founding team at Seeds of Change, a New Mexico farm and “living laboratory” regarded as a pioneer in organic and diverse seed availability, his early career focused on saving the heirlooms—combatting the extinction of both species and varieties. Recalling that period, Pecoraro explains, “[It] grew out of the natural-food movement, yoga, spirituality and consciousness that started in the ’60s. There was a question of what people were going to do with the radical realization that food meant something to them, that the earth meant something to them.”
For many of us, that radical realization is happening now—more than four decades after Seeds of Change was founded. Yet Pecoraro is undeterred by the long arc of revolution: “It takes years to realize it takes years. It was only around my seventh year farming in the Gila Valley [in New Mexico] that I began to have realizations that were stronger than before. You learn a lot by changing locations, but the real wisdom comes from staying rooted in one place.”
Today, that place is an eight-acre farm in East Boulder, where Pecoraro has been farming since 2019. Already respected by food and agriculture professionals who have collaborated with MASA on the cultivation of rare seeds, the foundation is now preparing to become a larger force in the Front Range’s social, sustainable and agricultural consciousness.
“‘What is it going to take for us to set up farms that let people grow into their broader gardening self?” Pecoraro asks. “Some of us come [to farming] all fired up as the radical, or we bring a scientific approach and a desire to make money. But to make it work, you’ve gotta learn—and we need to facilitate a more holistic learning environment alongside [the goal of] productivity.”
To support learning and his ongoing research as the priority, Pecoraro founded MASA as a 501(c)(3)—the first nonprofit venture of his career. Since then, the primary focus has been to build a bio-regional seed bank of plants that have been acclimatized to grow well in Colorado. For some crops, like carrots, this process only takes two years. For others, it can take upwards of 10. Many of the seeds are ones that Pecoraro first encountered during his decade of farming in the Gila Valley. Others have been provided by visitors to the farm or by industry collaborators—for example, heritage grains that regenerative farming nonprofit Mad Agriculture commissioned MASA to test for their regional viability.
Perhaps the most interesting part of this seed work, however, is that it is a process of transformation, as much as replication. In a single batch of red-and-white Anasazi beans, for example, Pecoraro has sorted out the yellow and black variants, which he plans to selectively plant as an experimental variety. Larger and heavier than the standard Anasazis, it’s possible that these beans could grow into a regionally adapted plant that thrives in Colorado’s climate. It’s also possible that, when planted, they’ll simply reproduce their red-and-white cousins.
“Growing for seed—and specifically for seed research—is very different from growing for produce,” Pecoraro explains. While MASA offers a seasonal community-supported agriculture (CSA) program that complements and financially supports the seed work, it’s ultimately a byproduct of the organization’s research. program that complements and financially supports the seed work, it’s ultimately a byproduct of the organization’s research. “For certain crops, like beans, it’s an equal harvest because the seed is the bean, so it’s valued equally for both uses. However, if I’m trying to build up my stock of arugula seed, you can cut it once or twice to feed people, but my focus is on observing if certain plants are more disease resistant, and to get those to bloom and dry so that we can capture the seed.”
Interestingly, plants that are known to grow well as food in Colorado can be significantly harder to grow for seed. “Seeds are more region-sensitive than plants—way more,” Pecoraro notes. Broccoli, for example, may flourish as a food crop (particularly in late summer and early fall), but a maritime climate is required to produce a successful seed harvest. “It takes a certain day length, weather pattern, heat threshold and moisture to grow seeds well. When broccoli flowers in the Mediterranean or the West Coast, the temperatures are cooler during the day and warmer at night, so you get these tall plants with broad flowering tops. In Colorado, our high daytime temperatures and cold nights produce, at best, half of the seed crop.”
As MASA’s seed stock has grown, along with Pecoraro’s collaborations with other farmers and agricultural organizations, so have the foundation’s ambitions for public-facing programs. Supported, in part, by its thriving CSA, the organization is developing youth farming, volunteer and community programs where individuals can learn not only how to grow produce, but also about seed saving and the entire cycle of plant life. From dancing on seeds to condition them for cleaning, to sorting seeds for their viability, many of the tasks are unlike those that backyard gardeners have previously experienced.
“Seed work spans intergenerational learning,” Pecoraro reflects. “Young kids are much better with seeds than produce, and they often find it way more interesting. For adults, it’s beautiful and engaging mental work—seeds are the nucleus, so all the intelligence of a plant is in there.”
Pecoraro may be inclined to wax poetic about seeds, but most often he refers to them as a “technology.” For those who participate in growing MASA’s seeds—whether on the foundation’s property or at home, part of the fascination is knowing that with each successive crop, you contribute to the evolution of an increasingly biodiverse, regionally adapted generation of plants. In large part, that’s what keeps Pecoraro going: “At first you want to preserve, but then you want to create! Observation is where you get the wisdom to be an innovator.”
In an era when soil health is becoming a leading theme in the agricultural conversation, tending to seeds is also an effective way to become more aware of the land itself. “365 days a year, the dirt is alive,” Pecoraro emphasizes. “Sometimes the microbes are really busy, and sometimes they’re more dormant, but the dirt is always doing something—and saying something—at least, to those who have the wisdom of a veteran farmer.”
This perspective of a learning garden and shared science project permeates the programs at MASA, but there is also a deeper, more humbling sense of kinship and spirituality. “There really isn’t anything else [in agriculture] that will connect us to history and give us a chance to move forward,” Pecoraro argues. “I didn’t realize this myself until I heard Hopi elders speak. They talk about seeds as a relative—a human relative, which is so far-fetched for us. But it’s a part of their lineage: seeds that have been carried on and preserved by multiple generations of a family. They pray that each crop makes it, because it’s like a family member.”
Pecoraro’s primary hope for anyone who visits MASA or engages in its program is to tap into this feeling of awe and understanding. “Each seed is a story, connecting us to the old ones and inviting people to make new ones. Growing and harvesting produce is gorgeous work, but it’s gone in a flash. When you take a plant all the way to seed, you’ve created something for the next generation: the opportunity to create yet another story.”