Hands-on plant breeding: Farmers help select new plant lines

Since 2011, organic farmers from across Canada have been making their own breeding selections

You might call it DIY cereal breeding.

Since 2011, plant-breeding researchers have collaborated with organic farmers in a breeding program in which the producers select lines from trials on their own farms.

Normally, a breeder goes through a plot, and selects the best spikes, heads or plants according to their breeding goals.

“The participatory plant-breeding program is different in that instead of getting a breeder to make those selections, we get organic farmers to make the selection,” Michelle Carkner, participatory plant-breeding co-ordinator at the University of Manitoba, said during a recent plot tour at the University of Alberta.

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The project started in Manitoba, and has since spread across the country.

Farmers started with early-generation wheat seeds, planted them on their land, and then selected 400 of their best spikes and sent them back to the University of Manitoba. The staff cleaned them, and returned them. Farmers planted them again, and sent more selections back to the university, for three years in total.

In 2013, the group expanded the program to include oats and potatoes along with wheat (although the potato program proved short lived).

To date, researchers have worked with more than 80 farmers across Canada, from Vancouver Island to Prince Edward Island.

Put to the test

Many of the current oat lines growing in the U of A research trials are farmer-selected populations. This proves farmer-selected populations can do well, and can meet requirements for breeding, said Carkner.

“If they do well, they can move into the Western Co-op trials and become a variety,” she said.

The wheat populations now growing in the test plot at the university’s south campus farm were selected for three years from various farmers and are now being compared against registered wheat checks such as Glenn, Vesper, AAC Tenacious and AAC Tradition.

Populations selected from Ward Middleton’s farm in Morinville are being tested at research plots at the University of Alberta’s south campus.
photo: Alexis Kienlen

Tradition is the first wheat variety registered that was selected and grown under organic farming requirements.

The wheat populations will be selected for three years, and will be compared against registered checks in the trial.

Ward Middleton, an organic grain and oilseed producer from Morinville, participated in the breeding program from 2012-15, and populations he selected are being tested — along with other farmer-selected ones from across the country — at the university.

“Philosophically, it was a good fit,” said Middleton, before adding, “It might not be a good fit for the farmer, because the research crop was secondary to my primary crop.”

That’s because the business of growing grain came first — with the research crops being planted a few days after his primary crops went into the ground.

“An actual researcher would probably be a little more disciplined in their regimen,” said Middleton. “I would tell myself that maybe I’m going to select for what produces the best in a short growing season. Even though I liked the concept of the program, I felt I wasn’t doing a good enough job.”

Choosing the criteria

But he appreciated the opportunity to select for traits that he most wanted.

For example, Middleton didn’t select the wheat spikes based on whether or not they had awns.

“I was just looking for what is giving me the most seeds in the head, as well as what will produce a head if it had weed pressure,” he said.

And that meant no babying — instead of trying to protect the populations from weeds, he grew wheat in high weed areas. Middleton also only pulled seed heads off whatever set seeds in an area where there was high competition.

“I always felt like I didn’t know if that was scientific enough,” he said. “It’s nice to hear that some of these trials performed well in comparison.”

He later learned he had selected populations with awns and without awns — although four years on, he figures he might have made different selections as deer eat the awnless populations and leave awned populations. On the other hand, awnless has its merits, too.

“Last fall, it was an early winter and it snowed a nice, wet, heavy snow and the awned varieties acted like a tennis racket and filled with snow and they keeled over. The awnless varieties have a smaller profile and when the snow comes on them, it doesn’t kink them over. In the view of an unstable jet stream with climate change, maybe I should be moving to the awnless varieties.”

He saw his role in the breeding program as helping researchers achieve the geographic diversity they are looking for in the selection process, as well as offering a different opinion and mindset.

He picked populations with traits that he thought might work, and these populations might be crossed in the future.

“I’m building the inventory of a seed bank for future resources,” he said. “If anybody is considering participating, I got as much value out of it for me, and the way I think as a farmer about the plants and selecting plants and using that as a bit of a service that I can offer to a downstream customer.”

Any organic grower who is interested in the program can contact Carkner at [email protected]

About the author

Reporter

Alexis Kienlen lives in Edmonton and has been writing for Alberta Farmer since 2008. Originally from Saskatoon, she has also published two collections of poetry and a biography about a Sikh civil rights activist. Her freelance work has appeared in numerous publications across Canada.

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