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Into the corners

There’s no polite way to say it — our modern crop varieties are very productive, well-bred wimps

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Hockey legend Gordie Howe was born on the Canadian prairies in Floral, Sask., on the outskirts of Saskatoon. Tough and scrappy, he dominated along the boards and in the corners where his legendary elbows secured his space and made him a formidable competitor.

At one point Canadian farmers fielded entire teams made up of those sorts of players — tough competitors. They were ready to get out there and mix it up with diseases, weeds and insects, as they benefited from countless years of natural selection and selective breeding.

But a funny thing happened after the Second World War. Suddenly a peacetime purpose needed to be found for chemical and explosives plants, and under the tutelage of Norman Borlaug, the Green Revolution appeared.

With its library of new science-based tools, it encouraged unintended consequences, where plant breeders selected lines with maximum yield potential and paid less attention to their competitiveness, since these powerful new tools would clear the playing field for them. Essentially we’d begun to field teams of Wayne Gretskys, while buying the services of a bunch of Marty McSorley types to keep the goons off of them.

Most farmers never notice, precisely because those tools are so good. But one group of farmers knows all too well what happens when those tools are taken away. They’re organic farmers and frequently their variety choices are a serious throwback to the days of yore, according to Martin Entz, a plant science professor and researcher with the University of Manitoba.

That’s because there is no shortage of wheat strains for the conventional farmer who may choose from many excellent varieties. Any registered wheat grown in Canada comes from a reputable breeding program where they’re grown under very tightly controlled conditions with selected inputs in clean plots. On the other hand, the organic farmer’s selection is much more limited, because left unattended some of these great varieties will be quickly roughed up and have the puck stolen from them.

“In Manitoba we did see that there were certain varieties of wheat that organic farmers were growing that were a little different from conventional farmers, things like Cadillac and AC Domain,” Entz says. “There’s a group of organic farmers on the Prairies, as well as in B.C. and Ontario, that like heritage varieties like Red Fife.”

Red Fife is a strain of wheat that understands organic conditions. It first appeared on the farm of David Fife in Peterborough, Ont., in 1882, back when organic farming was conventional farming. It had a distinctive red colour and it soon became a favourite with millers and bakers. It also had elbows like Gordie Howe, and became a favourite of farmers for its agronomic toughness.

  • From the Manitoba Co-operator: Heritage wheat more rust resistant than modern ones

One organic farmer says she’s using these ancient varieties because the newer ones just aren’t suited to the more competitive environment of an organic farm and the reality of having to scramble for scarcer resources. A dose of anhydrous is an easy spoon-feed compared to organic nitrogen, and weed competition can make an organic field a rough neighbourhood for a domestic annual. Organic strains really need elbows.

“Nature is not kind sometimes and if you think you’re going to fight it you’re going to lose so you learn what’s possible and you learn to work within the realm of the possibility,” explains organic producer Kate Storey, of Grandview, Man. “I look for moderate height. The dwarf varieties are going to get covered by weeds but those great tall varieties are not going to be productive and we’re looking for productivity, so lots of heads, lots of tillering.”

Another trait she likes is disease resistance and this is something you can find in a lot of the conventional varieties. But she also needs a plant that’s thrifty and good at scavenging for residual nitrogen, something that will give her wheat a quick start and a leg up on weed competition. Because the organic community is relatively small, what they need in terms of agronomics hasn’t been a priority for the larger breeding operations run by either the government or the private sector.

“Like every crop that’s grown in a serious way it needs good varieties and there are good conventional varieties out there but we were not sure whether they were the best ones for organic,” Entz says. “The organic farmers have not been serviced well with varieties specific to their needs.”

Up to about 100 years ago, farmers actually bred their own crops, and part of last year’s yield was reserved for the next spring. Other seed stock came from neighbours or, in some cases, from far-flung distributors. In this way the farmer’s eye was the first test and seeds from last year’s most productive plants found their way back into the soil. New varieties were tested as they came and if they were suitable they’d find their way into the rotation and into the gene pool.

In this way Red Fife ruled for many years, but didn’t meet the new standards for uniformity demanded by a more industrial approach to agriculture. In the early 1900s Red Fife was crossed with Hard Red Calcutta and the resulting strain, called Marquis, became the new standard and remained on top into the 1930s. Selecting and developing new strains became the domain of the professional breeder and with the advent of genetics, the job of breeding new strains left the farm field and moved to the labs and test plots of the doctoral class.

It’s a time-consuming and expensive undertaking that makes sense in the large-scale, one-size-fits-all arena of modern input agriculture. Still, the organic markets are increasing and some farmers are responding by making the jump to organic certification. But the organic grower suffers a dearth of germplasm for a couple of reasons. First, it’s still a relatively small market for large-scale breeders. That’s compounded by the fact that low-input farming demands a plant that can deal with a variety of conditions and those conditions are not stable.

In short, effective organic varieties are best forged in the crucible of the organic plot, with widely variable soil conditions, high biotic action and communities of weeds. It requires that they be custom bred for a wide variety of field conditions and the best way to do that may be locally with specific strains tailored to specific geographies. Entz mentioned this over coffee with Agriculture Canada wheat breeder Stephen Fox back in 2004 and the seeds were planted.

“I spent some time in Europe and saw how those organic research programs were actually developing varieties that were entirely selected under organic management,” Entz recalled. “I said, hey, this is a good idea, let’s do this and so that’s what we did.”

He, Fox and Agriculture Canada oat breeder Jennifer Mitchell Fetch set out a program with some money from the Organic Science Cluster and the BAUTA Initiative and to house a diverse range of test plots, they got help from an old and truly valuable source. They sent out invitations to organic farmers to help with the program.

“There are several ways farmers can get involved and one of them is by providing research sites for agronomic and plant breeding experiments,” Fox says. “Having access to experimental land in differing environments is particularly important for us.”

Not only were farmers asked if they would provide land for test plots, they were also invited to tend them and select the best plants for the next generation. In this way farmers would help produce strains that were ideal for the growing conditions on their own land. Fox and Mitchell Fetch did the crosses for the first three growing seasons and then the F3 (i.e. third generation) seeds were sent to the farms and grown there for three seasons.

“They wanted us to plant the seed that they sent us into plots that were one metre wide and 30 metres long,” Storey says. “Then we’d go back in July to look at the plot, monitor the disease and mark down what was happening. When the plants were ripe we’d collect 500 heads, put them in a bag and send them in to the university.”

Gary Martens did what was called negative selection, “which means that I walked through my little field most Sunday afternoons, just as a leisurely thing to do, and I picked out anything I didn’t like,” says the University of Manitoba staff agrologist and farmer participant. “What I didn’t like was really short stuff, because I knew that wouldn’t compete against weeds, and stuff that wasn’t vigorous I figured wasn’t very good at getting nutrients. Yellow stuff means it was lacking nitrogen. I didn’t want stuff that couldn’t find its nitrogen and I didn’t want plants with only a single tiller. Later in the season I was looking for leaf diseases and if I noticed there was disease on the leaves I just pulled it out and discarded it. Right near harvest, if I noticed fusarium on the head, I just pulled that plant and threw it out and I kept on pulling plants through the whole season and harvested what was left.”

Martens concluded each year by thoroughly cleaning the seed and selecting the very biggest and best of them. Then the professional breeders would look after crosses for years seven and eight. All in all, the germplasm was selected by doctoral level experts but a lot of field level experience was brought to bear by the farmers.

“Trying to predict what a plant should have in order to be a good organic variety is impossible,” Entz says. “The best thing to do is to make crosses and then select under organic conditions so that the plant figures it out itself.”

What comes out is a viable crop strain, custom bred for a specific geography with specific conditions. Ultimately this could be just what organic growers need for the best possible production in an ecologically diverse environment.

“There’s a lot of factors involved with what would work well under their particular system or their rotation,” Mitchell Fetch says. “Stephen has one that’s going to come up for support for registration this year and it actually performs really well under conventionally managed systems so it’s done well in both places.”

Perhaps this shows the real value of a program like this. If what comes out of it is a tough, ornery strain of wheat, born of the Prairies like Saskatoon’s favourite son, conventional farmers can also produce well with less fertilizer and fewer herbicides. Wheat with elbows like that could be cost-effective in anyone’s rotation.

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