Calling All Wannabe Wheat Breeders

If you’ve ever had a hankering to develop your own wheat variety, the University of Manitoba and Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada have a deal for you.

Researchers have created a participatory wheat-breeding program that allows farmers to take early crosses and then make the genetic selections on their farms, based on their management practices and local environmental conditions.

And they are looking for more farmers to participate.

While not restricted to organic systems, the program is seen as an opportunity to select genetics that perform well under that type of management, said Gary Martens, a University of Manitoba agronomy instructor who is helping co-ordinate the program. Most of the plant breeding that takes place today is focused on conventional farming systems.

The objectives of the project are to select varieties for high-stress, heterogeneous environments, to increase genetic diversity, and to develop varieties that are specifically suited to farmers’ preferences.

Participating farmers will receive approximately 10,000 seeds from second-generation crosses selected by AAFC plant breeder Stephen Fox to be sown in a 10-metre by 10-metre plot on their farm. Then they treat it like they would their other crops and pull out the plants that aren’t doing well, or which don’t have the characteristics that are important to them, such as straw height or strength or its resilience to local pests or stresses.

It’s the same techniques farmers in ancient cultures used to select landraces suited to their conditions. “We’re going back 10,000 years,” Martens said. “Farmers are going to choose what they like.”

ORIGIN OF SELKIRK

But you don’t have to delve very far into Manitoba’s history to find farmers whose keen observational skills changed the course of wheat breeding. In 1930, Strathclair-area farmer Moseph McMurachy found two heads of wheat that were resistant to the dominant rust strain of the day. He sowed the seeds of these plants, and by 1935, he had developed six acres.

While all the fields around were hit with a major outbreak of rust that year, McMurachy’s six acres survived. He supplied seed from his rust-free wheat to the federal government’s Brandon Experimental Farm, where it was crossed with other varieties to produce Selkirk, a variety credited with freeing eastern Prairie farmers from the scourge of rust.

McMurachy, who died in 1960, was later inducted into the Manitoba Agricultural Hall of Fame.

Martens has his name on a batch of seed that he plans to plant into Osborne clay on his Kleefield-area farm, but on a spot that includes a low, frequently waterlogged spot. “I’m going to try to select wheat that tolerates lots of water,” he said.

The wheat is to be harvested and reseeded the following year on the farm, and once again farmers remove unthrifty or unwanted plants from the wheat population. The process is repeated through several growing seasons. “The goal is to have a final population that is well adapted to the local area, homogeneous, and stable,” Martens said.

At that point, the genetic lines will go back to Fox at AAFC and will potentially be placed into the three-year co-op trials to assess their suitability for registration for production in Western Canada.

INDIGENOUS KNOWLEDGE

The experiment allows indigenous knowledge to be incorporated into the breeding system, Martens said. Plant breeders make their selections based on important criteria, such as end-use quality, disease resistance and agronomic traits, but in the end, they aren’t farmers.

Martens said bringing outside perspectives of farmers into the plant breeding system could result in better genetics based on the “wisdom of crowds” theory, which holds a large group of people collectively make better decisions than individuals, even if those individuals are experts.

Interest in the project is high. “I expect that we’ll run out of seed before we run out of farmers,” Martens said, noting he’s received calls from across the Prairies since the notice has gone out.

Farmers who want into the program have until April 10 to contact coordinators. Those interested in learning more can call: Marion (204) 474 6236 or Gary at (204) 474 6097 or email: [email protected] or [email protected] [email protected]

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