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Sowing the seeds of giving farmers more say

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For most farmers, getting ready for seeding means a few trips to their local seed dealer to pick up this year's supply -- bags of seed that come from an increasingly smaller number of very big companies. For home gardeners, the process is much the same.

But it's only in the last generation or so seed has become the huge business we know it as today. In the past, farmers and home-food producers routinely saved enough seed from the previous year's crop to sow the next year.

The current generation of farmers has become accustomed to buying fresh seed every year by a number of factors ranging from their desire to get the latest brand of herbicide tolerance or protection from disease, to contracts that essentially make seed into something farmers lease for a season rather than own for a lifetime.

But as the Prairies ramp up for seeding this spring, a small corps of farmers is reaching back into history to rediscover their roots as the world's first plant breeders.

They are working with a participatory plant-breeding program operated by researchers at the University of Manitoba and plant breeders with Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, a program aimed at giving farmers back a say in the seed resources used on their farms.

The main driver for this program was an emerging need by organic farmers to gain access to varieties that are better-suited to farming without pesticides and commercial fertilizers.

Commercial varieties are typically selected for conventional farming systems, which means the research plots from which these cultivars are selected are treated with all the crop-production aids farmers use nowadays.

The idea was to select out the plants in those plots that could thrive in low-input management systems, perhaps due to a more developed root structure, their ability to interact with micro-organisms in the soil or natural weed-suppression tendencies. The only way to find them would be to grow them out under those conditions.

The strategy worked. The program has received registration approval for Canada's first organic bread-wheat variety, which until it gets an official name, is known as BW487. When grown under organic management, this variety out-yields others by about 10 per cent. Plus, it has quality and processing characteristics that make it acceptable in Canada's premium wheat-milling class.

Although it is not yet available commercially, seed-development company SeCan has been licensed to take it forward.

It's an exciting breakthrough and there could be more to come.

Last year, program co-ordinator Anne Kirk supplied seed stock to establish 42 oat, 74 wheat and nine potato populations on 38 farms across the country. The farmers tend the cultivars in their own plots, using their own judgment to select the plants that perform well under their own management and environmental conditions for three years. After that, the seed stock is returned to the plant breeder for further testing.

"Although the unique conditions found on each farm lend themselves to different breeding goals for each farmer, the general goal is to develop disease- and pest-resistant germplasm that are competitive against weeds and effective at scavenging nutrients," Kirk says in a recent paper.

Programs such as the participatory plant-breeding program are all part of a seedy counterculture that is emerging as control over the world's genetic resources becomes increasingly consolidated.

Earlier this month, the Open Source Seed Initiative, based out of the University of Wisconsin, released its first varieties of 14 crops and vegetables that have been developed under the same premise as open-source computer software. They can be freely grown, shared and propagated, but they can never be patented or otherwise legally restricted.

For several years in Brandon and Winnipeg, gardeners have been holding Seedy Saturday events, where they trade seed they've selected from their home plots. At a recent seminar on ecological farming, Kirk demonstrated for anyone interested in how the process of cross-pollination is carried out in a cereal crop such as oats.

"It's not as complicated as breeders make it out to be," she told participants.


Laura Rance is editor of the Manitoba Co-operator. She can be reached at 204-792-4382 or by email:

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 26, 2014 B7

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