Using science to create better organic crops for farmers to grow

Standing at the edge of a field of wheat, oats, and peas, Roger Henry, a research technician in soil and water at Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, discussed the methods used to research organic plant hardiness, yield, and weed control at the Agriculture Canada research farm in Harrington, PEI.

Organized by ACORN (Atlantic Canadian Organic Regional Network), the field trip for farmers, producers, and other interested parties took a look at the efforts being made to research organic methods and highlighted a partnership with researchers at the University of Manitoba and their Participatory Plant Breeding (PPB) program.

Katherine Stanley from the University of Manitoba was on hand to explain the breeding program that is being used on PEI Photo credit: Cheryl Young/Salty

The PPB program is the first of its kind in Canada and places over 100 organic farmers right in the centre of the breeding process, allowing them to lead the research from the beginning to the end, determining what they may need from a crop variety and doing the selections themselves on their farms. The program is used for creating hardy organic breeds of wheat, oats, and potatoes. As a result of the relatively small number of organic acres, plant breeding programs have generally overlooked organic crop production systems, and crop varieties currently used in organic agriculture are bred for conventional, high-input production.

Started in 2011, Katherine Stanley, an agronomist supporting the PPB program said, “You end up with plants that are purely selected by farmers.” The traditional model for breeding plants begins with a research station and it’s only after all the trials and breeding have been done that farmers get the seed to plant, whereas the PPB has the farmer involved from start to finish.

The advantages to such selection are great, according to Stanley, “There is evidence that conducting plant breeding under organic conditions instead will create plants better suited to perform in organic systems. This can provide organic farmers opportunities to grow crops specifically designed for their growing conditions or production practices.”

Mark Bernard, co-owner of Barnyard Organics in Freetown, PEI, is one of five Atlantic Canadian farmers in the program. A participant farmer since 2014, he hopes to end up with a variety of wheat or oats that “is good for conditions in this region, [and] on my farm that I could register to have a name associated with PEI, the PPB program, and with our farm.” He remarked that it was “a lot of work but it’s quite rewarding to see the results.” As with any breeding program, “it is not a sure thing that you will come out with a winner variety in the end.”

The PPB program is working with organic grain crops and potatoes Photo credit: Cheryl Young/Salty

Early evaluations of farmer-bred wheat show early vigour, disease resistance, and competitive yields when compared to conventional bred cultivars. According to Stanley, these are very positive results. “The unique collaboration between experienced plant breeders and innovative organic farmers has led to the creation of new lines that become of value to the organic grower.”

Along with highlighting the PPB program, the day included tours of organic field trials of potatoes, wheat, oats, peas, and heritage soybeans. Studies are looking at crop rotation cycles, evaluation with potatoes that are being developed in Fredericton, NB, as well as weed control. The research farm is also working with the PEI Certified Organics Producers Cooperative studying crops such as oats, soybeans, and black beans.

About Cheryl Young

A “Jill of all trades” describes Cheryl to a T. From operating her own handyperson company, to selling luxury cars, to working as a film and TV crew member, her resume is diverse. But her dream as a kid was to be a journalist and she started down that path many years ago at CBC Charlottetown. Returning to her journalism roots, she’s excited to be editing Salty’s content and occasionally writing herself.

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