U of M project puts DIY back into plant breeding

DIY has done wonders in the metal shop. Why not try it in the fields, too?

Research tech inspecting a plant

What do you do if you can’t find or can’t afford a piece of farm equipment for a particular job on your farm?

For many, the answer is DIY, short for do-it-yourself.

Necessity is the mother of invention, and often inspiration, a welder, chop saw, and a trip to the scrap pile is enough to solve a vexing problem.

But what if you need a tailor-made potato, oat or wheat variety that fits your farm’s soil, weather patterns, geographical location and production system?

For the past four years, about 35-40 organic farmers across Canada have been setting aside a 20×20-metre plot for on-farm crop development trials under the University of Manitoba’s Participatory Plant Breeding Program sponsored by the Bauta Family Initiative on Canadian Seed Security.

Program co-ordinator Anne Kirk said that the chief aim is to involve farmers in the decision-making process.

Farmers select a specific variety for trial as parent material, often a favourite that they have chosen for disease resistance, that is then crossed by the university’s researchers and returned to them for planting in on-farm small plots.

Ian Grossart has been running trials for wheat and oats for three years under the program on his organic farm near Brandon.

The plots are seeded by hand or with a garden seeder, then Grossart watches over them during the summer.

Trial plot of oats growing in a field.
A trial plot of organic oats, seeded as part of the University of Manitoba’s Participatory Plant Breeding Project, grows on Ian Grossart’s farm near Brandon. photo: University of Manitoba

“If there’s any off-type plants that we don’t like, we pick them out,” said Grossart. “Then in the fall, I pick out the best heads of the different varieties and they go back so they can make a sample out of them.”

Kirk said that farmers are encouraged to make selections over three successive years based on maturity, lodging, disease resistance or height and send them back to her for threshing and cleaning.

Her job is to make the initial crosses to create diversity and also test for protein and bushel weight before returning the seed in 250-gram packages for planting each year.

“It’s really up to the farmer. We encourage them to go with what they think looks good in the field,” said Kirk.

Potato farmers are especially interested in developing new cultivars due to the very limited choices available currently, she added.

“The ones that consumers really like to eat don’t grow that well, or they don’t have a really good white variety,” she said, adding that scab, late blight and early dying resistance, weed competition traits are keenly sought.

But because potatoes are grown from tubers — essentially clones — selection is based on what the farmers might like to try on a larger scale.

To Grossart’s way of thinking, developing new grain varieties for production under the more stressful organic growing environment makes sense rather than reaching for the latest, greatest seed from conventional breeders.

“The conventional varieties are bred using high amounts of phosphate and nitrogen, which aren’t going to be available as readily in organic systems,” he said, adding that some conventional varieties he’s tried just haven’t panned out under his farm’s growing conditions, while others have fared better.

Also, using seed developed on the top-notch soils typically found at breeding sites might not translate well on sand or heavy clay.

“It’s intriguing to develop site-specific varieties,” he said.

Pure chemical fertilizer is like “crack cocaine” to plants, he added, and he theorizes that seeding “addicted” varieties on a farm like his where compost is the only nutrient source might be akin to forcing a dope-addled junkie to go cold turkey.

One of the most appealing aspects of the program, he added, is the prospect of not only narrowing the yield gap between conventional and organic, but also empowering farmers to take the seed-breeding reins in their own hands.

“I was at a meeting this winter and the conventional guys were complaining about the cost of seed. I said, ‘We’re doing this here. There’s nothing that says you can’t do it too,’” said Grossart.

However, he added that current seed registration requirements mean that some form of partnership with academia or the private sector is helpful for navigating the intricacies of the system.

Kirk said that for the first time in the four-year program yield tests will be available for some varieties.

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