The ancient role of farmers in selecting and saving seeds suited to local growing conditions has been largely displaced by modern advancements in plant breeding. But for some farmers, it represents a unique opportunity to turn their environmental challenges into possibilities.
The Brandon Hills.
Ploughed into existence when glaciers retreated. Meltwater rivers dumping mountains of earth and sculpting a wildly varying subsoil reality. One that bears little resemblance to the rolling plains to the west.
The Grossart family has spent generations learning how to raise crops and livestock working within the unique environment of Western Manitoba.
For farmers, working it demands different approaches for different parts and patches. Some works for crops, some for livestock, some just needs to be left natural, to preserve the vulnerable landforms from erosion and degradation.
For the Grossart family, the challenges are even more intense, with their decision to farm an organic system preventing them from using many chemical-based management products, which could compensate for the mixed conditions.
“On one quarter we’ve got about . . . 20 soil types,” said Ian Grossart, who farms with his son, Zach.
“We’ve got everything from Class Two clay loam that is pretty good for grain, up to Class Six land that is on the side of the hills.”
An important component of their strategy is working with the University of Manitoba’s Participatory Breeding Program. It’s a way for them to help develop crop varieties that will match both their field conditions and their organic farming system.
“There are very few options for that kind of seed out there,” said Zach.
“It’s hard to find things that are bred just for our specific kind of region or our specific way of farming.”
The program’s plant breeders give farmers farmers access to varieties under development. The farmers take that seed and multiply it under their local conditions until they can start producing enough to perhaps one day become mainstay varieties on their farm.
“Hopefully in a few years we might get enough that you could use for flour or something like,” said Zach.
“But as we’re building up the varieties it will pretty much stay on-farm.”
The Grossarts have been working with the program for eight years. At first, they were sent packets of seed that they grew on tiny plots and hand-harvested.
“I think we started out with maybe 300 seeds of each variety, so it was a while to multiply those up,” said Ian.
They sent the seeds back to the program and got cleaned-up, bigger packets the next year. Now they have grown-out enough times that they have tote bags of three varieties of wheat in their shed, which were grown on about one-and-a-half acres of land last summer.
It’s been a labour of love so far. From hand-harvesting the early seed to the complications of having to use a conventional combine to harvest bigger but still small plots of land recently, cleaning out the combine between each variety plot, has been challenge.
However, they’re happy with the prospects they have for developing varieties that will match their type of farming and land.
Most available varieties today are developed on good land that can take advantages of all the management tools of conventional farming. Developing these varieties in the real-world conditions of the Grossart farm should produce something that works well in that unique environment, and will hopefully work well for other farmers in similar conditions.
“It’s hard to find things that are bred just for our specific kind of region or our specific kind of farming,” said Zach.
At some point, with enough seed and luck, that could change through the work they are doing.
In the end, there’s the potential that “we could get enough of a pool of our own seed that we could work directly with a flour mill or something,” said Ian.
And that would be a lot better than today, trying to use off-the-shelf varieties designed for other people’s farms.
Contributor: Ed White