Rising interest in specialty grain

While a niche market exists for these crops, farmers and plant breeders face several hurdles

By Jim Algie

Farmers considering niche grain production for emerging artisanal markets operate within what one close observer calls “an informal seed system” that generally lacks supply and reliable data about productive varieties.

Aabir Dey, the director of the Bauta Family Initiative on Canadian Seed Security, hopes to help address that problem through a continuing program of Bauta-funded farmer-led research and training for producers. Through the program, the Bauta Family Initiative seeks to preserve and improve seed diversity. The Bauta Initiative also seeks a simpler system for boosting production through changes to Canada’s grain classification system.

“The challenge is the seeds that are needed for farmers who want to produce grain through low-input farming are not as readily available in the quantities and of the quality that’s required,” Dey said in an interview from his office at the Ecological Farmers Association of Ontario (EFAO) in Guelph.

A program of the Ottawa-based non-profit organization, Seed Change (formerly USC Canada), the eight-year-old Bauta Initiative operates with funding from the W. Garfield Weston, Echo and McConnell foundations. In Ontario, the Bauta Initiative operates through the EFAO and, more broadly, through the participatory plant breeding program of the University of Manitoba’s Natural Systems Agriculture Lab under Dr. Martin Entz.

“Our goal is to preserve, improve and create new seed diversity that’s available to all Canadian farmers,” Dey said. Despite informal evidence of an emerging market for distinct, artisanal grain among bakers, distillers and brewers, the demand and marketplace remain relatively undeveloped compared to the market for conventional grain, he said.

“There’s a constituency of farmers who are trying to figure out if they can grow heritage grain,” Dey said. Several U.S. states show signs of growing interest among farmers, end users and consumers of artisanal grain.

A widely-publicized Washington State University (WSU) breeding program under Dr. Stephen Jones has generated Skagit 1109, a new milling wheat variety for the Pacific northwest. Plant breeders selected the variety for yield, disease-resistance and end-use quality in whole-wheat baking. The WSU program serves as a model for Dey’s program which includes grower testing of Skagit 1109 seed in British Columbia.

Questions remain, however, about agronomic and practical issues associated with unimproved varieties and the potential for improvements through further breeding.

“To help the process along, we also run a plant breeding program where we take characteristics of these older grains, cross them with modern varieties and then give these populations to farmers to select and adapt on their farms,” Dey said.

“It’s a slow process,” he added. Breeding selections that began in 2013 have yet to produce new varieties for registration under detailed Canadian Grain Commission regulations which are designed to protect the integrity of the country’s grain trade in proven, productive varieties.

wheat varieties
    Against the Grain Farms photo

Even for plant breeders serving the conventional grain market, the process to bring a new grain variety forward for registration spans 10 years and involves numerous trials in a variety of locations, said Dr. Gavin Humphreys, an Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC) wheat breeder. Based at AAFC’s Ottawa research centre, Humphreys develops winter wheats for the eastern Canadian market to improve yield and disease resistance. He’s particularly focused on developing resistance to fusarium head blight, an endemic problem in eastern Canada’s relatively moist climate.

Asked about work with heritage grain and breeding for flavour traits, Humphreys said other priorities exist.

“I’m more concerned about other things such as keeping farmers profitable ... allowing them to produce high-quality and high-grade wheat in large quantities,” he said to Better Farming. “The idea that those volumes should have particular flavour is not something that I deal with directly,” he said, but added he’s open to such research.

“If a seed company or a milling company came to me and said, ‘We want you to produce a variety with these flavour attributes and we’re willing to pay you for it,’ we would talk with them. We would attempt to address the need and the challenges,” Humphreys said.

Over the past 20 years, soft red winter wheat used mainly in flour for pastries and cakes have become the dominant class in Eastern Canada. This type of wheat comprises about 85 per cent of Ontario’s acreage.

The production of ancient grain is “a niche market” that “has its place,” Humphreys said. It can generate “higher value” for growers serving local bakeries and other end users, he added.

However, Humphreys also referred to the “lack of agronomic and yield potential” associated with historic varieties, many of which were supplanted by modern varieties better adapted to changes in disease and climate pressures.

“You can’t expect the genetics to last 100 years,” Humphreys said. “If genetics last 10 years ... you’re doing well in this day and age.” BF

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