Pepperfield Project

  • Steward a seed collection of over 300 varieties
  • Donate seeds to school gardens across northeast Iowa

Brief history

David Cavagnaro founded this non-profit organisation in 2008 as a means to develop his 50-acre homestead as an educational resource and retreat centre. Since then the work of the organisation has expanded to include outreach activities in local schools and community centres. Today, David and his team manage Pepperfield Farm, a therapeutic garden at Decorah’s Winneshiek Medical Center, as well as participating in a Farm to School programme, overseeing 24 gardens in nine northeast Iowa counties.

David was the manager at the preservation gardens of the Seed Savers Exchange from 1987-1995 and grew out approximately 15,000 varieties from their collection of unusual and heirloom varieties. During this time he created a personal collection of favourite varieties which he still stewards on his farm today. Seeds from this collection supply the Pepperfield Project gardens, as well as all the schools participating in the Farm to School programme.


How it works

The project operates from Pepperfield Farm, a diverse site with extensive edible and ornamental gardens alongside meadows planted with native and prairie wild-flowers and wooded hills. From the moment you step on to the property, you sense the abundance of the place: wild-flowers surround the house in huge drifts; cucurbit vines tumble out of flower beds; crops are heavy with seed in the vegetable garden. David has been living on the land for 25 years and has made it his mission to improve its bio-diversity and to create a space which is at once productive, peaceful and harmonious with nature. The farm forms the perfect location for educational events and retreats, where the surroundings provide inspiration and opportunities for demonstration. They host workshops as part of Seed Savers Exchange Seed School, and educational Harvest Dinners, prepared exclusively with heirloom varieties.

Pepperfield gardens in July

The vegetable garden at Pepperfield Farm, July 2015

The Pepperfield Project grow and save hundreds of varieties of open-pollinated seed each year. They are entirely self-sufficient in seed. The collection contains many unusual and rare varieties with origins from across the globe, as far afield, as Italy, Mexico and Vietnam. David is passionate about cooking and thinks that it’s important to connect growing with eating and savouring the taste of heirloom varieties. He only includes crops in his collection that taste delicious and are a pleasure to cook with.

As part of their mission to get these little-known and nutritious crops back on to plates of ordinary Americans, Pepperfield Project donate hundreds of seed packets to school gardens each year. David tries to match the national origin of the seeds with the ethnicities prevalent at each school. Schoolchildren participate in gardening, learn the stories behind the varieties and get to eat them at harvest-time as well.

David’s seed collection also populates an edible garden at Winneshiek Medical Center in Decorah. The garden supplies fresh produce to the kitchen as well as cut flowers for the canteen. It is open to patients, hospital staff and other visitors, who get the chance to enjoy a beautiful, colourful garden, which is also highly productive.

Pepperfield bean varieties

A display of heirloom bean varieties; all 10 varieties are included on the Ark of Taste catalog and were used in a harvest feast at the farm in October 2015


David maintains a seed collection of over 300 varieties and he is still acquiring new ones: sometimes because he finds out about ones at risk and sometimes because he just can’t help himself. His passion for and dedication to growing an artistically-varied array of crops is undeniably impressive. Maintaining such a collection requires a lot of hard work and organization, but David makes it seem easy. He wants his garden to show what’s possible on a home-scale. His equipment is basic and his methods are home-spun: kitchen sieves are the most important seed processing tool; tomato seeds dry on paper plates; names are scrawled on labels made from scraps of card. ‘You can do this!’ is the message that floats through his words.


The seed store: newly harvested seeds dry in cardboard trays

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