Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Farm-Based Plant Breeding

I just returned home after attending a two day class on farm-based plant breeding. The Organic Seed Alliance (OSA) puts on this wonderful class periodically, and I finally had the time to travel to Port Townsend, Washington to participate. OSA is dedicated to advancing "the ethical development and stewardship of the genetic resources of agricultural seed". By teaching farmers how to not just save seed but to also develop varieties appropriate for their farm, the OSA is a leader in helping create a more practical and sustainable farm and food system.

I have been saving seed for years now, and have been slowly fine-tuning my plant breeding skills as I teach others to save seed. However, this class took me up several notches. I can't wait to apply my skills this year as we start making our selections on the farm and consider longer term breeding projects. I also look forward to sharing my knowledge with others and will be expanding my teaching venues to accommodate more students.

If you are ever interested in learning seed saving or farm-based plant breeding, I recommend first refreshing your memory on meiosis and Mendel's two laws. Even though you can save seed without them, you will more easily understand the results of your choices in selecting specific plants to save from with that in mind.

I also recommend finding one or a few crops you want to focus on and become very familiar with them. In fact, try growing plants of the same variety from different sources and see which ones you like best. For instance, if you have a particular fondness for red beets, find an open pollinated variety you like (Detroit Red?) and buy seed of that variety from several different companies. Plant the beets in blocks and label the blocks well so you can tell which seed came from which company.  Don't plant all the seed so you have more for later. Are there differences? Which taste best? Which resist insects and disease? Which have large upright tops for easy harvest and good cooking greens?

The point is, if you want to become a seed saver,  start with the best material you can find. If nothing pleases you, you may need to do some backyard plant breeding. In that case, I hope to see you at one of my workshops!

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