Katie Miller, Dr. Phil Simon, and Micaela Colley selecting roots in El Centro, California Feb 2019

CANOVI is the  Canadian Organic Vegetable Improvement program, a five-year on-farm research collaboration between the University of British Columbia’s Centre for Sustainable Food Systems, The Bauta Family Initiative, and farmers across Canada. Its goal is to strengthen Canada’s agro-ecological vegetable seed sector through the trialing and development of varieties that thrive in different regional contexts. Through on-farm variety trials, farmers and UBC researchers grow out different varieties, share data about them, and evaluate their performance.

In the case of carrots, CANOVI trials informed a participatory plant breeding project, which came about when farmers discovered that their favourite trialed varieties were all hybrids. There was a strong desire among farmers to breed an open-pollinated, orange storage carrot that performed comparably to  the hybrids but could be more easily reproduced and maintained by farmers themselves. They also wanted to ensure local access to a really good OP variety because hybrid varieties owned by one company can be dropped without warning, leaving growers in the lurch. CANOVI Orange, along with a red carrot, CANOVI Fireglow, will be trialed by farmers across Canada in 2023 to further refine selections.

David Catzel, Seed Security Manager at FarmFolk City Folk (BC) and Regional Coordinator for The Bauta Family Initiative, has been involved in the CANOVI carrot work from the beginning. He was asked to plant a selection of carrot seeds that had been carefully transported by his colleague, Chris Thoreau, from a USDA plant breeder in the southern US. David explained what happened: “I very carefully layered them into sand, stored them in my cooler until the spring, took them out, planted them at the Seed Farm, and they all got eaten within two days by slugs! That’s how I came into the project and I’ve been trying to redeem myself ever since! And it's funny because right before that Chris did a big social media post about the process that he had to go through to get phytosanitary certificates, all the routes across the border, and that happened. So luckily he had backup seeds of all of those populations and we are able to grow them out again, and continue the project. But for me, that's been the biggest lesson from this project: having lots of people involved means that when things go wrong, they don't go that wrong.”

Since the beginning, five different farmers have been involved in trialing and breeding carrots through CANOVI. One of them is John Pattison of Bright Farm on Salt Spring Island, BC. He shares: “as a smaller scale, locally embedded organic farm, our definition of what makes a great carrot is different from what works for the multinational industrial farm. The participatory carrot breeding project through CANOVI is helping develop a carrot that reflects the needs and values of growers like us. This, in turn, helps us serve and reflect the values and expectations of our local community as we tackle food sustainability together, and this is important to us.”

Like all seed work, this is slow work: carrot varieties take years to develop and there are different agronomic and economic challenges every year. But David believes the work is well worth the effort: “This project is about the seed grower and farmer community reimagining a public breeding program and gaining more experience in doing this work collaboratively to keep seeds in the public domain.”


Thanks to Meredith Davis, Good Roots Consulting, who conducted the farmer interview for this story.