The program was started in 2011 by instructor Gary Martens and technician Iris Vaisman in collaboration with Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC) wheat breeder Stephen Fox. Today the program is run by the University of Manitoba’s Martin Entz and co-ordinator Michelle Carkner. Funding comes from AAFC and the Bauta Family Initiative on Canadian Seed Security.
Entz and Carkner now do the wheat crosses themselves and offer oat crosses from Jennifer Mitchell Fetch at AAFC’s Brandon Research Centre. They also offer open-pollinated potato varieties developed by Duane Falk at the University of Guelph.
Carkner and Entz try to schedule their site visits for key selection times. “We give them pointers and just encourage them, because a lot of times farmers don’t feel they have the confidence or observational skills, like breeders, to make selections,” Carkner says. “But we tell them, ‘You know what a good crop looks like. Whatever looks best to you on your land is what natural selection has selected.’ ”
Farmers select about 500 spikes or panicles and send them back to the University of Manitoba, where some are archived.
This year, Carkner increased seed for three farmers on the wheat side and two on the oat side. In the future, she hopes the program will shift its emphasis from breeding to increasing seed.
“Farmers are thinking about their neighbours,” Carkner says. “They want their varieties registered so they can sell the seed and other farmers can benefit from their work, but you can sell it as grain but not seed. So the solution, under the current system, is to try to register the variety, but this takes an enormous amount of resources, time and money.”
Carkner and Entz currently offer the breeding lines to Brandon Research Centre and anyone else who wants to develop them. But they’re also open to working with farmers who want to pursue their own avenues to marketing.
Not all the farmers in the program are organic, but the program works particularly well for niche producers with markets for unregistered varieties.
Ian Cushon, who runs an organic grain and oilseed farm near Oxbow, Sask., is a long-term member of the program. This year, he asked Carkner to scale up one wheat population so he can take it to the next level in his operation.
It’s an experiment, because until Cushon gets enough volume to grow out a significant amount of the seed, it’s hard to test it – both for quality baking characteristics and for market accessibility.
He is enthusiastic about being involved in the selection process. “These initial crosses are not 100 per cent homogenous – there’s some variability in the population,” he says. “As organic farmers, we want and select for varieties with certain attributes, and within those varieties there could be beneficial variations.”
The program takes some commitment during the busiest times of the season, Cushon says, but it doesn’t take much time because the plots are small. Producers need to be fairly knowledgeable about diseases and negative qualities to watch out for, but these are skills that farmers, for the most part, already have.
“This is the process farmers have gone through for thousands of years – they’ve looked for seeds to save for the next season. It’s good to have farmers involved in their own selection process.”