Originally published November 4, 2019 on CountryGuide
By Julienne Isaacs
Not many remember that the Canadian Seed Growers Association started with a seed-selection competition for children.
In the early 1900s, agriculturalist James Robertson and philanthropist Sir William MacDonald, wanting to encourage farmers to use seed selection to improve the output and resilience of Canadian farms, targeted their children with a contest: the children would select the best 100 heads of grain from their parents’ crops of wheat or oats and mail them in postage-free. The winners received the satisfaction of helping to improve Canadian grain varieties — plus a cheque from the federal agriculture department.
They were also invited to become members of the Macdonald Seed Growers Association, which became the CSGA in 1904.
Researcher Kristen Jane Greene says Robertson’s office was deluged with contest submissions: he’d convinced a generation of future farmers that they could take a direct hand in developing varieties ideally suited to their farms.
The Canadian seed industry has changed, but Robertson’s principle remains in the University of Manitoba’s Participatory Plant Breeding (PPB) program for organic crop production.
The program aims to develop wheat, oat and potato cultivars uniquely suited to organic producers’ needs by allowing the farmers to make selections themselves on the farm.
The program was started in 2011 by professor Martin Entz together with instructor Gary Martens, research associate Anne Kirk and technician Iris Vaisman. It is now co-ordinated by Michelle Carkner, a graduate of the University of Guelph’s organic program, who later did her master’s degree on organic soybean variety performance on Manitoba farms.
Since 2011, the program has involved over 100 producers. Each cohort of producers makes selections from original crosses for three years. Afterward, they can choose to commercialize what they’ve developed or hand over the material for development into a commercial cultivar. Entz says the program is currently working with about 35 farmers on a new round of selections. Meanwhile, he and Carkner are evaluating material from the previous 75 or so farmers.
About 60 per cent of the program is focused on wheat, with 30 per cent focused on oats and about 10 per cent on potatoes. These breakdowns tend to be on geographical lines with, for example, a large percentage of the oats grown in northern Alberta.
There are three avenues for the selections to take: producers can hand the material over to breeders to test and potentially develop into registered varieties, they can choose to sell the grain to mills or bakeries in a closed-loop system, or they can attempt to register their varieties themselves and leap over registration hurdles and testing requirements.
Entz says organic variety development is an underserved area in Canada, and organic producers’ needs are different than those of conventional producers. Weed competitiveness is key for organic producers, who tend to prefer taller wheat varieties.
The first group of wheat selections tended to be taller with better fusarium head blight resistance, but were more susceptible to leaf diseases and lodging. In evaluations of the “big cohort” of 75 farmers, Entz and Carkner have continued to find that wheat selections yield better than the checks and are taller.
Jennifer Mitchell Fetch is a research scientist and breeder at AAFC’s Brandon Research Centre. She’s responsible for most of the oat crosses sent to farmers, and tests the material they return.
Fetch says the program’s success in generating breeding material for oat cultivar development remains to be seen, but there are promising signs.
Last year her team tested 27 of the participatory lines in their 2018 preliminary organic yield trial. Those lines resulted from 20 different crosses and had been selected and advanced to the F7 or F8 generation by the participating breeders or Martin Entz’s staff. Of those lines, 16 performed well enough compared to checks and Fetch’s breeding selections to be selected for testing their 2019 B Organic Yield Trial, which is grown at nine locations across Western Canada and one site in North Dakota.
“I was actually impressed by how well the participatory lines performed in 2018, especially compared to the breeding lines in my own organic breeding program,” Fetch says. “To put that in context, I selected only one line from my own program to be tested in the 2019 trial.”
“I think getting the participants involved is a great idea because they can select the lines they see performing best under their specific conditions,” Fetch says, adding there’s a cost saving since farmers make early selections themselves in locations her team couldn’t travel to at various times in the growing season.
Ian Cushon, who owns an organic operation in Oxbow, Sask., has been involved in the PPB program since 2015. His operation did three years of selections with an initial set of crosses, and is on year two of a second set.
“A lot of the newer wheat varieties are moving toward semi-dwarf stature, and that doesn’t fit well with what I need for wheat competition characteristics in organic wheat production,” Cushon says.
The varietal blends he currently uses have midge resistance in the bag and work pretty well on his operation. “The advantage I see with the PPB project is that farmers are able to select varieties for their farm situation and their growing conditions and soil type.”
This sentiment is echoed by Ian Grossart, who farms southeast of Brandon, Man. He has been involved in the PPB program since the beginning and is also looking for taller wheat varieties that provide good ground cover early in the growing season.
“As companies get bigger there’s less and less research on a regional level that’s focused in one area,” he says. “The chances of things working out, or the risk of problems, is higher. And there aren’t varieties being developed for organics.”
Both farmers hope their selections make it to the variety-development stage, but even if they don’t, there’s potential to direct-market the grain to local flour mills on the lookout for the grain’s unique characteristics.
Entz says several farmers who have been involved in the program are successfully milling their new wheat lines and selling them to local and international markets.
“They’re not selling seed but branding their flour as something that was grown organically, where the farmer actually bred the variety,” he says. “Where we can help them is to make the crosses, and we’ve made a lot of what I call ‘boutique crosses’ for farmers, crossing Acadia with Walton for the eastern Canadian farmers, for example, when their customers want the baking qualities of Red Fife with better disease resistance.
“These are very serious people with serious markets and serious volume. If we could get 10 of these farms going in the next two years I’d be thrilled and I think that is going to happen.”
Entz says Robertson believed environment was key to developing successful varieties, and he feels the same way.
“I feel that plant breeding in Canada today pays too much attention to trying to control the genetics of the plant up front, and not enough attention to the selection environment.
“We’re not trying to poke someone in the eye here with this — we’re just trying to offer a new way of achieving a goal and one that engages farmers a bit more than it has in the past. Because we work on organics, and this is an underserved area, the model we decided we needed to serve it was going to have to be different, for ecological as much as business reasons.”
The process, Entz says, complements the wheat-breeding industry.
Cushon doesn’t know if his selections will be among the best of the farmer selections, but he says the experiment has been empowering. “We all farm under different conditions so we’ve been making those selections under different conditions — this has been done for generations and it works.”