Farmer-based plant breeding fills organic variety need

“The farmer has to be taking an interest in this to, first of all, do a good job of selection.” – Martin Entz. Photo: File/Shannon VanRaes

By Alexis Stockford
OrganicBiz staff

Martin Entz of the University of Manitoba sees little difference between a farmer breeding bulls, an industry alive and well in Manitoba, and breeding crop varieties.

One of the leads in the University of Manitoba’s participatory plant-breeding program, Entz has been putting variety development in the hands of farmers since 2011. Years later, some participants have now completed the process of whittling down genetics and are now starting to increase seed on their newly developed variety.

“The way it works is we ask the farmers what parents they would like — and we work with two main crops, wheat and oats, although we do a little bit with potato as well,” Entz said.

The University of Manitoba, along with Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, provide the genetic crosses, leaving farmers to select those that best perform on their farm. Farmers spend the next three years selecting genetics, taking about 400 of the best seed heads that first year from the 5,000-7,000 seeds the program provides.

The successful 400 heads are processed and threshed through the University of Manitoba, then returned to the farmer to plant the next year, where the selection process repeats.

From the farm

About 70 producers have signed on coast to coast with the program.

Loïc Dewavrin is among the furthest along. The organic farmer from Quebec is now increasing his wheat seed, having already developed the genetics over the last number of years.

“Since you are talking about grams rather than tonnes, it’s a long process to increase (seed),” he said.

He currently has 100 kilograms of the new variety, a number he hopes to increase to well past a tonne by the end of next year.

We’ve had farmers who have just done an amazing job of selection and those are the ones who have paid more attention to the process. – Martin Entz

The owner and operator of a fully vertically integrated organic farm, Dewavrin expects to mill at least some of that wheat into flour, a final test of whether the variety meets his standards.

“If that test doesn’t go (well), then we have to start over again… it’s a continuous process,” he said.

Entz also stressed the level of farmer involvement inherent in the program.

“The farmer has to be taking an interest in this to, first of all, do a good job of selection,” he said. “Be out in those plots, monitoring what’s going on and we do try and visit every farm at least once every two years… we’ve had farmers who have just done an amazing job of selection and those are the ones who have paid more attention to the process.”

Organically grown and bred

Entz has flagged his program for organic producers, although he added that any type of farming could make use of the same system.

Organic seed varieties lag behind conventional agriculture, Entz said, and commercial varieties may have been developed in different growing environments and under different management systems than in the farmer’s field.

“Farmers will produce a variety or a line, a population, that is suitable to their place and when we test these things against commercial varieties under organic conditions, the farmer-selected varieties do much better and we’ve been testing them now for the last three years,” he said.

The program may also come with marketing capital, should a successful variety emerge, Entz added. In a sector where “locally produced,” can become a buzz-word, Entz suggested that locally bred grain may draw extra interest from consumers.

For Dewavrin, at least, signing on to the program was also about autonomy. The Montreal-area producer has made self-sufficiency a point of pride, sourcing his own seeds, building a mill to process his own product and moving past the University of Manitoba project to attempt breeding his own corn hybrids, although he admits he has run into contamination issues.

“When we started the farm, there wasn’t sufficient revenue for everybody,” he said. “We were four families living off the farm and we needed to find ways to cut cost, reduce the cost and be able to get decent revenue for all of us and that’s the starting point for this quest for autonomy.

“You have to be really dedicated to what you do,” he added, acknowledging the time commitment he has had to put in to make the farm self-sufficient. “It becomes your entire life to do that. If you want to have other occupations, it’s not possible to do that.”

Plant breeding is among the projects that he says have eaten up his time, pointing to the effort he spends maintaining plots and selecting genetics.

Marketing end game?

While program participants are looking forward to getting their home-bred seed in the field, Entz reminded that the varieties are unregistered and will not be appearing on the commercial market any time soon.

Organic producers like Dewavrin, however, will dodge those issues with their vertically integrated structure, he said.

“There are farmers in Manitoba who have done this exact same thing and they have flour mills and they’re milling it themselves or they have a contract with a flour miller, but it can never enter the commercial grain system and farmers know that,” Entz said.

Entz did not, however, rule out future registration.

“They may use their co-op to actually do some finer selection of one of these lines and actually go through the registration process and pay all those fees and actually have a registered variety,” he said.

This article was originally published in the Mar. 8, 2018 issue of the Manitoba Co-operator.