[UPDATE: Dec. 12, 2019] The University of Manitoba’s Participatory Plant Breeding (PPB) program, now in its ninth year — brings together farmers and plant breeders as partners in the plant breeding process. The program is particularly useful in crop production systems that traditional breeding programs aren’t always geared for, like organic or under unique growing environments.
The aim of the PPB program is to give farmers more control over seed resources by developing their own wheat, oat and potato cultivars to meet their specific needs through selection in local, on-farm environments.
Farmers have been involved in this program right from the beginning, starting with selection of parental lines by former Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada plant breeder, Dr. Stephen Fox and former PPB program coordinator, Anne Kirk of the University of Manitoba. Crosses are made with input from farmers into which parents to use. Seed resulting from the initial cross is increased at the University of Manitoba, then distributed to farmers, who select within the same population for three years. Farmers choose the populations that they would like to grow based on the characteristics of the parental lines used to make the cross.
Early generation selection takes place in the participating farmer’s field and selection decisions are made by the farmer. The populations are planted within their typical crop rotation and managed according to the same practices as the crop would be. After three years of on-farm selection, populations are tested to assess the agronomic and quality characteristics of the populations. In these trials, farmer-selected populations are compared to each other and registered varieties.
The U of M’s program is funded by The Bauta Family Initiative on Canadian Seed Security, *SeedChange and the Growing Forward 2 program of Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada. (The Bauta Family Initiative is funded by and named for Gretchen Bauta, a member of the Weston family.)
The PPB program began with eight Manitoba farmers and oat breeders who wanted to see how they could involve farmers in the breeding process. “Farmers are the original plant breeders, and in the beginning the aim was to involve farmers in the breeding in a more intimate way and get some genetic diversity within the cereals landscape by having farmers select on their own farms,” says Michelle Carkner, a research associate at the U of M who is also PPB project coordinator for Manitoba.
“They need varieties that are adaptable to very wet conditions, really dry conditions, low input conditions, weedy conditions,” says Carkner. “In conventional breeding programs the lines or populations are tested under conventional conditions, weed-free, high nutrient input, and across many locations under the same conditions, but those are not the conditions that organic farmers are working within, so that’s where the program started.”
Ian Grossart of Howpark Farms near Brandon, Manitoba got involved with the PPB program eight years ago for exactly that reason. He was finding the conventionally bred varieties of wheat and oats he was growing weren’t doing as well as he’d have liked under organic conditions.
“A lot of the time plant breeders have good soil conditions, often it’s class 1 farmland and there is a lot of land that is not class 1, so it’s good to breed something that has more hardiness,” says Grossart.
There are now around 75 organic farmers involved in the PPB program in locations across Canada. Each farmer gets three plant populations to start and selects for three years from those populations for the characteristics that they are seeking for their farm.
“After three years they can keep selecting, get new populations or invest in the populations that they have selected over three years, increase the seed and grow it,” says Carkner, adding they can grow the population and sell the grain, but not the seed.
The nuts and bolts
Carkner works with a range of farm sizes and types, from smaller CSA’s (Community Supported Agriculture) to 5,000-acre grain farms.
Each farmer receives around 260 grams of seed, which is about 4,000 to 5,000 seeds, and because it’s early generation material, almost every seed is unique from each other.
They also get a manual and a crop scout calendar to help them know when and how to scout for the characteristics they are looking for.
“For example, if they want to select for an early maturing variety, they should get out there when they see their own wheat crop starting to turn,” says Carkner. “Then they can look at their plant populations to see which ones are green. Or with diseases, it doesn’t help to go and look for disease when everything is done and maturing.”
Farmers will seed their in-field plots in different ways depending on what equipment they have. Some will make furrows with their seeder and then seed into them with a garden seeder or by hand if a smaller operation.
“I’ve seen some farmers place pop bottles over the openings in rows of their seeder and fill them with the seed so they can seed all three populations at once,” says Carkner. “We always encourage them to plant the seeds within or near the actual crop field so that they can compare it against the variety that they’re growing right now and so those plants are exposed to the same environment.”
Grossart got three new varieties of each crop that he seeded in a small plot within his regular wheat and oat fields alongside some check varieties with his garden seeder, and says it wasn’t at all hard to do the trials.
“We didn’t do anything differently except go out and select around 200 to 300 heads by hand in the plots,” he says. “It just grew with the same challenges of the crop around it. It didn’t cost our farm anything, except maybe a little time.”
Grossart says he was specifically looking to select plants that were taller, that didn’t lodge, had little or no disease and filled out well.
Some farmers will intentionally plant their wheat in their most stressful part of the field, where they may have low phosphorus or a big weed problem so that they can place selection pressure on the populations and select those that give the best results, adds Carkner.
Using farmers’ knowledge
The real beauty of the program, says Carkner, is the knowledge and experience of the farmers.
“Farmers know what a really good plant looks like, and that’s how it’s special from conventional grain programs where a breeder will go out, look at their plots and make the selection decisions,” she says. “We have farmers making those decisions based on their own eyes, experience and what they’ve seen over the years.”
Unlike breeders, they also don’t have the pressure of other stakeholders in the background who may be pushing for commercial characteristics that can guide selection decisions.
Farmers collect the seed heads of plants they are interested in, bag and label them and send them into the university for cleaning unless they have the capability to do that on farm, then receive the seed back to grow again the following year.
Once farmers have a population they are happy with, most don’t have the capability or time to increase seed, so that process is often done at the university’s research farms at Carman or Glenlea.
The Carman research farm has been increasing seed for Grossart for the past two years and he hopes to have enough next year to be able to seed at least one acre.
The aim in plant breeding is to move towards homogeneity, where the genetic make-up of the population is fairly uniform, and some farmers will continue selecting for a few more years to try and achieve that, but generally, says Carkner, after three years the crop is around 95 per cent homogeneous, and advises that it’s probably best to try and leave that small amount of genetic diversity in the populations so that, when farmers experience an extreme year, because of moisture, dryness or weeds, the plants have the ability to shape and change according to the conditions that they are facing that year.
Most farmers involved in the PPB program are developing populations for use on their own farms, but it is possible that some of the populations can advance to commercialization. “Our funding partner, SeedChange, is working towards finding a way to put some of the wheat lines in co-op trials for the potential to be registered,”
Plant breeders are most often working to produce lines that have the characteristics they know are important to growers like yield and disease resistance, but they don’t always consider what the end users or consumers want. With the PPB program breeders can get feedback from farmers who are closer to those end users, particularly in organic production.
Grossart rates the PPB program as a valuable tool, and although it’s not a fit for every farm he feels it’s important to try and get as many farmers as possible participating in different areas of the Prairies. “I think that’s going to be valuable because then varieties are getting bred for all conditions,” he says.
*UPDATE: The article was updated to reflect the name change of the Unitarian Service Committee (USC) Canada to SeedChange.