Monday, 21 August 2017

An On-Farm Plant Breeding Day at Whole Circle Farm

Last week we headed out to another plant breeding workshop put on by EFAO and the Bauta Family Initiative on Canadian Seed Security. About 15 people gathered at Whole Circle Farm near Acton to hear about their joint breeding project for a thick-walled, blocky, early-ripening, open-pollinated red pepper.

We started with Rebecca Ivanoff telling us how the project came to be. In short, Ontario farmers interested in breeding and adapting vegetables to their farm conditions discussed the need for on-farm plant breeding, and connected with Dr. Michael Mazourek and Rachel Hultengren from Cornell University in New York state. They in turn had been in contact with farmers in the northern U.S.A., who had expressed a need for such a pepper. The Ontario growers agreed, noting that this was a pepper that many of their farmers market customers were looking for.

Dr. Mazourek and his students at Cornell started by trialing existing red peppers. They identified 2 hybrid peppers, Ace F1 and Aristotle F1 as being the best shaped and the earliest, respectively. They crossed these plants and shared them with farmers for selection, Rebecca being one of the farmers.

Next we went out into the field to see the row of peppers growing. Rebecca outlined a bit about how the peppers were doing. This is not a good year for peppers, no kidding, but nevertheless the first peppers are beginning to turn red.

Next we walked down the row, marking plants that looked particularly promising. There's one! I noted that many of the plants with the earliest ripening peppers are also very small plants with only one or two peppers on them. Are they naturally small plants, or are they stressed by bad weather? At what point do you say it's worth taking the peppers that ripen second but are on a better plant over the earliest ripening? There are a lot of points to take into consideration. The row was on a slight slope, and it was clear that the higher up the slope the plants were, the earlier their peppers were inclined to ripen - something else to watch for.

There are 4 farmers involved in the project in Ontario, in addition to Rebecca, there is Greta Kryger of Greta's Organic Seeds, Annie Richard from the Kingston Area Seed Systems Initiative, and Kathy Rothermel of Mouse Seeds. They were all there to see how Rebecca's plants were doing.

They are all growing similar seed, as the seeds from the first round of growing out were sent to one of them, who mixed them all up and redistributed them. This ensures that they are all really working on the same project. As far as I can tell the results of this year will be F4, but I admit I forgot to ask.

Many of the attendees were interns on local farms, and Rebecca explained the basics of plant breeding for them. She demonstrated how crosses are done; emasculating a very young flower on the mother plant and bringing the pollen to it on a blossom from another plant. Fiddly work! This was just for demonstration purposes though; the farmers generally just let the bees do any crossing. Not all the peppers will be crosses though; peppers often self-pollinate.

One of the results of the original grow-out of crossed seeds were some yellow peppers. Rebecca was interested enough in them to save them separately and grow them out in their own spot. As you can see, many of them are reverting to red, but even though they look like they would be good peppers for the red pepper project, they won't go into it because it is known that they are carrying a recessive yellow gene.

There were also a number of fluted peppers which resulted from the original grow out; some of the other farmers are pursuing them as a side project as well.

We had a look at some of the other seed projects on the farm. The tangle of pods above are on plants of April Green cabbage; a very good storage cabbage (stays green until April!) This is not a breeding project but Rebecca is experimenting with varying ways to cut or trim the cabbages when they are re-planted in the spring to optimize seed production and quality.

Aabir Dey from the Bauta Initiative gives a run-down on another project - seed-grown potatoes which are being grown out and evaluated. You heard about this project before. We walked down the row of potatoes as well, and were impressed by the variation we could see in the top growth. The potatoes will be quite variable as well, no doubt.

After all that I have to say one of the most useful pieces of information that I picked up was a comment about how, when they grew out carrots for seed at Whole Circle farm one time, they replanted them under hoop houses, so they flowered before the Queen Anne's Lace. Hey, we can do that!

Thanks to Rebecca and Whole Circle Farm for in interesting and instructive day. It's always great to be able to meet and hang out with other seed fanatics.

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