Visitors to the 103-year-old Royal Manitoba Winter Fair could learn all about how seed grows – but the annual competition recognizing farmers’ ability to select good seed is no longer a part of the annual event.
In the face of declining entries in recent years, show organizers decided to end the seed show this year, choosing instead to put seed samples on display and to bring in an interactive, educational display called Seed Survivor developed by Agrium.
Karen Oliver, general manager of the Provincial Exhibition of Manitoba, said the new display is more in keeping with the Royal’s role in helping a largely urbanized population understand modern agriculture.
The show’s organizers had tried different things over the years to keep the show going, even working with schools to put together samples for entries. But they heard back from teachers that “they didn’t see much educational value having kids picking through seeds,” she said.
Gord Hansen, a Brandon-area farmer who served on the seed committee for 15 years, said the change reflects changing times in the seed business as well as in agriculture generally.
The seed show dates back to the early days of the fair when farmers’ knowledge of good seed from bad was integral to their survival. After all, if their crops didn’t grow, they didn’t eat.
The seed show served an important extension role as well as helping pedigreed and commercial seed growers promote their individual businesses.
And competitors took it seriously.
“These guys would hand pick their seed through the winter to make sure it was perfect for the seed show,” Hansen said. “They wanted the most uniform sample they could possibly get.”
Winning was such a big deal, the committee and judges had to enforce rules that prevented the same winning sample from being submitted twice or entrants from manually enhancing individual seeds to ensure they were completely uniform.
“We had one guy who actually clipped the tails off oats so they were all a uniform size,” Hansen said. “He must have started in November to get ready for April 1.”
Up until a few years ago, most of the seed that was sown each spring came from farmers’ own bins. Most of the new varietal development was done through public plant-breeding programs.
Pedigreed and registered seed was the means by which that new genetic technology was transferred to the farming community. Once it was out there, farmers were free to keep planting it year after year.
That is no longer the case. Over the past two decades,
control over seed has largely been transferred from farmers’ and public breeders’ hands to the private sector. The introduction of technology use agreements or other licensing contracts, hybrid crops and market pressures, as in the case of flax, is resulting in a move away from farm-saved seed.
As well, there are fewer farmers and that means fewer pedigreed seed growers. And farm sizes have grown, which means there is less time to fuss over contests that might earn a shiny trophy, but do little else to support the farm’s bottom line. [email protected]