Organics is the fastest growing agri-food sector in Canada today, and yet, organic farmers rely primarily on seeds bred for conventional agriculture systems where uniformity is a top priority and routine applications of synthetic inputs can be relied upon. Organic farmers have distinct needs for varieties adapted to their agro-ecosystems, including effective root systems for optimal nutrient use, resistance to pests and diseases, and tolerance to mechanical weeding. We are addressing some of these needs through participatory and farmer-led research. We currently work with over 100 farmers across Canada on both field crop and vegetable crop research.
With funding from Agriculture Canada, our field crop research is focused on a participatory plant breeding (PPB) program--the only of its kind in Canada--to select for varieties of wheat, oat, corn and potatoes that are adapted to the specific needs of organic farmers in many different regions of Canada.
This work happens under the leadership of Martin Entz, PhD at the University of Manitoba. Since 2004, Martin has worked with plant breeders to develop varieties for organic production, and since 2011 this work has involved farmers as early generation plant breeders. “The goal of my program is to discover new ways of farming ecologically, and to empower farmers with knowledge and other tools required to design sustainable farming systems adapted to where they live. Partnering with farmers is critical. Their experience, observation and innovation make an invaluable contribution to our search for an enduring food system.”
Our farmer-researcher network allows farmers and researchers to collaborate towards a common goal, with a strong emphasis on communication and capacity building, to help bring plant breeding skills back into the farm community. Evaluations of the materials developed through these partnerships have shown that yields of farmer-selected wheats outperformed those of conventional reference varieties, and that farmer selection led to site-specific adaptation.
Our work with vegetable crops is currently focused two projects: seed grow-outs and participatory variety trials in BC. Since 2014, researchers at UBC, BFICSS program staff, and 20 participating farms have been growing and evaluating open-pollinated, organic, and locally-produced vegetable crop varieties. This information is shared with farmers to allow them to make the best possible choices around the varieties they choose to use for both vegetable and seed production. Read more about the BC Variety Trials.
We’ve developed resources to support farmers to participate in these programs, as well as to publications to communicate results of our work to date. Access on-farm research manuals, reports, and newsletters.