The University of Manitoba Natural Systems Agriculture research laboratory/field site located in Carman Manitoba hosted a field day in late July. The tour, led by head researcher Dr. Martin Entz, packed a lot into a three hour “moonlight tour”, which could easily have taken a day (or more!).
The highlight for me was the wheat demonstration plot, planted by organic plant breeder Anne Kirk. Anne is leading the Participatory Plant Breeding program that our program is sponsoring, where wheat, oat and potato growers across the country are growing selections from crosses that Anne made on small plots on their farms. This demonstration plot shows some of the parent material that she used for her crosses. Some of these are heritage wheat varieties, and some of them are more modern varieties. The picture above shows a selection that she made of a modern wheat variety (5602HR) with Red Fife, the first named variety grown in Canada, circa the 1880s. This image clearly shows how the Red Fife cross has larger heads, and grows taller than the Red Fife.
There was a lot of interest in this wheat demonstration plot. Producers were excited to find their own cultivars and see how they compared with others. They were also curious to see how some of the older cultivars performed next to their own. Hopefully Anne will continue this trial for next year!
Also at the site was a demonstration plot of oat cultivars that included the newly registered organically-bred oat. Jennifer Mitchel-Fetch, the breeder responsible for this new cultivar (OT8003), and for getting it through the rigorous registration process. The seed is currently being bulked-up, and will be available in a few years. This work is groundbreaking for the organic industry, which has until now, not had any organically-bred varieties. Jennifer has several other organically-bred varieties in the pipeline as well. Exciting stuff for Canadian organic growers! The industry is also interested in these organically-bred varieties for marketing purposes. This might also be an opportunity for the development of the organic seed industry, as the seed production will hopefully be done organically.
Other stops on the tour included this amazing mulch!
This mulch was made from hairy vetch after being roller-crimped in the fall. It was then direct seeded. The idea is the mulch provides weed control, and it seemed to be working well.
There were also demonstrations on terminating annual cover crops with sheep.
This photo takes a bit of explaining… The plot on the right had 3 ewes fenced in for one night only to graze the crop at an early stage. The plot next to it did not. It is clear that the sheep added fertility to the crop and reduced weeds. I’ll leave the logistics of moving sheep around to the farmers!
The last stop of the tour before the sun went down was to Dr Douglas Cattani’s work with perennial wheat and sunflower. You can read a bit about it here.
This work is still in its early stages. It may take another 20 years before perennial grain catches up with the yields of annual grains. But the work has begun, and there has been some progress. At this point, Dr. Cattani sees potential for perennial grains to be used as a forage crop, as the leaves and stems (instead of the grain, which is what would be needed for the crops to replace wheat) have concentrated levels of nutrients, much more so than annual grains.
I loved the sunflowers. A grad student of Catteni spent the summer collecting native sunflowers from the region. These sunflowers grow no more than a foot tall in their natural environment. To his amazement, when grown in cultivated soil with increased nutrients and some weed control, these sunflowers take off, growing over 10 feet tall! To be useful as an oilseed crop, he is making selections for larger heads with high seed production.
My visit to the Carmen field was an eyeopener. It is clear that this group of researchers is at the cutting edge of organic and agro-ecological farming in Canada. They are a proving ground for how these practices can be successful and for moving forward with new technologies for organic farmers.