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Farm Breeding Club

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Introduction to the FBC
Power Point Introduction to FBC (will download on your computer)
What is plant breeding?
Background and History
Seed Saving & Selection - Why Do It?
Current Projects
Tips for Seed Saving & Selection
FBC Videos for Home Breeders and Seed SaversPublications
Seed Saving Books & Resources

Organic Seed & Seed Saving Links
Current Events

Farm Breeding Club

Wheat Field

Our food security depends upon farmers' ability to obtain and grow a diversity of seeds for safe and nutritious foods. Their ability to do this is threatened by increasing corporate control of seeds and genetic material, including the patenting of genetics. Sustainable farmers are losing the power to choose what seed to grow, where the seed comes from, and how it is produced. Without ongoing variety improvement we are loosing yield potential every year.

The Farm Breeding Club (FBC) brings farmers together to share knowledge and seed stock for seed saving, crop breeding and fellowship. This project gives farmers the information they need in order to participate as partners in public plant breeding and to take on their own breeding projects at home. This project seeks to support public plant breeding and to revive a long tradition of seed saving and on farm breeding to ensure the availability of adapted and productive varieties. The FBC also seeks to maintain breeding and seed saving rights for farmers, the original plant breeders.

Farmer members determine FBC projects and goals. Farmers are connecting with one another and with researchers to actively improve, save and share seeds. We are also linking with groups and individuals worldwide to build farmer-centric plant breeding and seed networks.

The NPSAS Farm Breeding Club is working to address priorities for new variety development set by the NPSAS membership. One of those priorities is helping members with their own on farm or in garden breeding projects. We have developed several videos highlighting hard pollination of corn and squash, how and why to develop corn with crossing incompatibility, and the Value-Added Organic Grain project for which FBC and NDSU collaborates.

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What is Plant Breeding?

dreamstimefree 2600022 webThe purpose of plant breeding is to develop useful varieties to meet human needs. It is a rich and often satisfying pursuit that involves science, art, and business if not also a bit of faith and adventure. At its most basic, plant breeding is all about finding plants that provide us what we need which are able to pass those good traits on to their offspring.

Every time we look at any plant we see its PHENOTYPE or overall performance. We see its color, height, ability to deal with pests, yield, and all the other expressed traits. These traits are controlled by two different and very important factors.

The first is the GENOTYPE. This is the totality of all the plant’s genes found in each of the plant’s cells. Genes determine a plant’s ability to carry on its metabolism and genes can be inherited by the plant’s offspring. Because of this, plant breeding concerns itself primarily with finding the best genotypes.

The second factor affecting the phenotype is the ENVIRONMENT. The expression of genes and their interactions are greatly affected by the environment in which a plant grows. Drought will slow a plant’s growth and may reduce its yield. Extra fertility may make it darker green and higher yielding. Traits like seed color are not much affected by the environment, whereas traits like yield, based on the effects of thousands of genes, are greatly influenced by environmental variation.

However, environmental effects are not inheritable. To sum up then, plant breeders try to find the best genotypes (inherited traits) that will provide desired phenotypes (performance) in the environments (farms, gardens and ranches) for which they are breeding.

Plant breeding is a straight forward process which provides many opportunities for farmers and gardeners to take part. Here are the basic steps:

  1. Determine the breeding goals (what traits do you desire to improve?)
  2. Assemble useful plant genetics (what parents will you work with?)
  3. Recombine (make crosses among the parents, often with controlled pollination)
  4. Select (choose the offspring that best meet your goals)
  5. Evaluate (test your selections in multiple environments to see if they provide better performance than current varieties do)

We need to continually improve our crops in order to stay profitable and to help organic and sustainable agriculture grow and flourish. Professional breeders, farmers, gardeners, scientists, kids, really anyone who is interested can help out with the effort to make sure that good varieties are available for themselves and for sustainable agriculture as a whole.  In what ways would you like to be involved?

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Background and History

Sorghum2 webThe NPSAS Farm Breeding Club began with Raoul Robinson’s book, RETURN TO RESISTANCE. Raoul’s book struck a cord with some organic farmers, particularly those who grow wheat. Organic farmers depend upon varieties that are full height, which means they also have a good root system and are more competitive with weeds, and have good protein and falling number levels.

Unfortunately, all of the new varieties being released by private companies were high yielding, low protein, dwarf wheats poorly adapted to organic farming systems, and public breeding programs were poorly funded with no discernable varieties in the pipeline which organic farmers could use on their farms. Essentially we had the old variety Coteau to grow and not much else. At the time we were seeing an increase in the disease levels on wheat in the Dakotas.

The industry answer was to spray fungicides which organic farmers could not do. Since organic farmers had no input into the public breeding agenda, we saw little choice but to start a breeding program for ourselves.

Simply, Return to Resistance describes how farmers can breed and select varieties of crops which thrive under organic or low input management systems, have durable, long lasting disease resistance, and from which the seed can be saved without “running out” or losing their vigor or disease resistance over time.

Raoul was also concerned that farmers have lost control over the seeds they plant and proposed such farm breeder clubs so groups of farmers might retain ownership of the genetic heritage of their crops. Raoul describes his work with such clubs, most notably with Kenyan farmers in the development of potatoes with durable resistance to viral and bacterial diseases. Raoul’s work remains controversial, but more recent discoveries in genetics has proven Raoul’s theories correct.

watermelon crimson-sweet_145_145_s_c1NPSAS invited Raoul to our winter conference where he inspired a number of members to form a farmer breeder club. By consensus it was decided to target wheat, oats, sunflowers, buckwheat and potatoes as crops which were most in need of breeding for organic systems.

Initially, we thought it prudent to procure funding in partnership with those breeders in the public system who were willing to work with a group of yeoman organic farmers with a vision which in some fundamental ways differed from our 100+ year old public system.

We began such work with the oat breeders from ND,SD, and MN. Eventually, because of political and policy changes within the university system, the public breeders were forbidden to work with the FBC. We were told, ”Participatory plant breeding is something they do in the third world.”

The FBC none-the-less continued work with variety trials of wheat, barley, emmer, einkorn, and triticale, and did the final selection on a wheat line given to the club by a private breeder which resulted in the release of FBC Dylan. A modern landrace of emmer is now being increased.

Central to the FBC vision is adherence to the concept that all seeds/germplasm should retain public ownership and cannot be patented by individual entities. Thus Dylan made a bold statement to the modern world as it was released in the public domain. There is much work that can be done to safeguard farmer’s rights as the seed industry continues to consolidate.

It is important to note that the NPSAS Farm Breeding Club may have been the first such group to exist in North America. Since, other groups have organized, some working with public breeders, to do similar work. Leaders from these other groups have communicated to us that the FBC’s existence gave them permission to start their work. So even as our work may so far be small, it has inspired others to begin such important work around the continent.

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On-Farm Seed Saving & Selection - Why do it?

SunflowerA recent study by the Worldwatch Institute warns of widespread losses of plant species and varieties due to the efforts of modern agriculture. In China, farmers were growing an estimated 10,000 wheat varieties in 1949, but only 1,000 by the 1970's. In Mexico, farmers today are raising only 20 percent of the corn varieties they cultivated in the 1930's. While there are 200,000 varieties of wheat in the world, only a few genetic lines of wheat feed most of the world.

The report concluded that biotechnology is not a solution to this loss of genetic diversity. Trends in crop breeding, including genetic modification technologies, decreased cultivation of traditional varieties, and the patenting of seed, our genetic heritage, threaten to further diminish genetic diversity in the foods we eat and to limit farmers' access to seed.

The opportunity exists for an alternative seed industry/movement to develop. The demand for organic food continues to rise, and new organic certification standards will require this food to be grown from organic seed. Current supplies of organic seed fall far short of meeting either current or future demand. [2011 State of Organic Seed Report: available for download at].

In addition, no commercial, conventional seed company currently offers any guarantee that its seed is GMO free and few are breeding improved varieties that can be used by organic farmers. New varieties with greater yield potential that are suited to conventional systems are being released every year. Without similar efforts for sustainable farmers, our yields will become relatively lower and less economical over time.

Further evidence of the opportunity lies in the fact that many organic producers have found that, with proper seed selection and conditioning, their crop seeds perform better on their farms than did the original seed they purchased. While traditional plant breeding has focused on the needs of high-input chemical agriculture, breeding for organic farming shows potential for improving sustainable farming systems.

Farmers have a long history of saving seeds on their farms, although agribusiness corporations are working hard to move them towards purchasing all of their seed every year. NPSAS believes this expertise that farmers already possess is key to improving and selecting publicly-owned seed varieties for sustainable farming systems. This strategy directly challenges the current belief that seed development and production can only be done by corporate or university "experts".

"The plants we enjoy today represent the choices made by individual gardeners and farmers over thousands of years. This genetic heritage is valuable and should be conserved, but it is also important to conserve the idea that it represents - that each of us can influence the future by shaping the plants that will sustain us and our children." - NPSAS member Tom Tomas

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Current Projects

Current Project Update-April 2013   June 2013 

Ancient Grains Presentations at the 2013 Winter Conference Part 1

Ancient Grains Presentation Part 2 

Ancient Grains Presentation Part 3 

Specialty Crops Grant: Vegetable Variety Trials

2012 Update for the Value-Added Organic Grains Project

Current projects include potatoes, field peas, hairy vetch, radish, sorghum, sweet corn, oats, triticale, buckwheat, emmer, einkorn, spelt, and heritage wheat. The number of land grant researchers actively involved in FBC variety development and improvement is growing. FBC is currently partnering with NDSU, SDSU, Cornell University, Washington State University, University of Wisconsin, Penn State, farmers across the northern states and others. 

Project funders include: North Dakota Agricultural Products Utilization Commission (APUC), CERES Organics Trust, FARRMS Grants to Grow Seed Initiative, USDA Organic Research and Education Initiative, North Central Region Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program (NCR-SARE) Farmer Rancher Grant , Organic Crop Improvement Association Research and Education Micro Grant, and NCR -SARE Research and Education Grant. 

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Update on No-Till Gardening, Frank Kutka

Breed Your Own Vegetables, Frank Kutka

Tips for Seed Saving & Selection by Blaine Schmaltz, Blaine's Best Seeds

Organic seed cleaning, saving, regenerating, and conditioning is as important for integrity as your organic certification. How you grow, condition, and prepare your seed lot is very significant to your success possibilities.

It is my recommendation that commercial seed cleaning operations be avoided. It is very possible, even under the cleanest and most careful of operations, to get contamination. Keep in mind that the integrity and the quality of your seed is very important for its regeneration and certification.

*On-farm seed cleaning or organic certified conditioners are recommended when possible.

*Start by pre-screening your seed going into the bin for storage. This will make your seed-cleaning process much more efficient.

*Mills for conditioning that work the best and that are easy to find are: air screen and sieve/mills that sift and screen at least twice. Next run your seed through a disk, an indent mill, or a combination of the two. There are different sizes and units for different crops. This is the part that is difficult for the on-farm cleaner, unless you have mostly the same type of crop.

*Next, run the seed over a gravity table. On the gravity, the undesirable seed and small seed can be returned through the whole process or discharged. The largest and medium seed sizes can also be separated. De-stoning equipment can be used if needed.

*This process, thus far, will vary greatly on how much is cleaned out, but can be very close to 30 or 40% or more depending on the seed lot. Remember the more precise, the better, and your cleanout will have enough average product in it that it will still be marketable. This cleanout may run double of an ordinary seed cleaning operation.

*The package industry goes one step further; using color and size sorts for their needs. This requires very high-tech equipment and is very rarely used by the on-farm cleaner, but would be ideal for any impurities that went past the system.

*You are now ready to store your seed lot until it is to be used. Your seed lot should always be stored in a cool, dark, and dry environment. This is not always possible, but it is very important.

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FBC Videos for Home Breeders and Seed Savers

Searching for the Best Einkorn

Keeping OP Corn Using Hand Pollination

Bush Foundation Video

Focus for Successful On-Farm Breeding

Breeding "Organic Ready" Corn with Gametophytic Incompatibility

Keeping Squash Using Hand Pollination

Keeping OP Corn Using Hand Pollination

Breeding New Varieties of Rhubarb in Your Backyard



Corn Culture. For ten years Frank Kutka wrote a newsletter for the open pollinated corn group started by Walter Goldstein at Michael Fields Agriculture Institute in East Troy, Wisconsin. The newsletter addressed old and new information about open pollinated corn and corn breeding.

Open Pollinated vs. Hybrid Maize Cultivars. This recent review in Sustainability goes over the development of hybrid corn and the questions surrounding any ongoing utility for open pollinated corn and the potential for development of improved OP varieties.

Corn Club Manual   Wiancko, A.T., and W.A. Smith.  1929.  4-H Corn Club Manual, Extension Bulletin 157, Purdue University.  USDA and Land Grant Universities once supported youth plant breeding and seed production clubs, like the corn clubs featured in this bulletin from Purdue University.  Might we use this same, successful model again to promote participatory and independent breeding of important crops among the young people of today?  Please pass on your ideas and let's start something great!

Resources & Seed Saving Books

DSC00244 webWould You, Should You, Could You? Guidelines for successful participatory, on-farm research in sustainable agriculture. Click Here

Katrina Becker, UW-Madison Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems

Participatory research brings professional researchers together with citizen stakeholders to define problems or questions, collect information, and use it to promote change. This publication addresses on-farm participatory research in sustainable agricultural systems, and draws on experiences using this approach for participatory plant breeding research at the UW-Madison. It provides questions to help farmers and researchers think about, and successfully design and carry out, participatory research projects.

Seed to Seed by Suzanne Ashworth - Ashworth is a Seed Savers Exchange member; the book is a complete seed-saving guide for over 160 vegetables. Describes botanical classifications, pollination methods, isolation distances, harvesting, processing and storage. $20.00 order from Seed Savers Exchange.

Seed Sowing and Saving: Step-by-Step Techniques for Collecting and Growing More than 100 Vegetables, Flowers, and Herbs, by Carole B. Turner. $19.95 from Storey Publishing (802-823-5810).

Heirloom Vegetable Gardening by William Woys Weaver, Seed Savers Exchange member. Planting, growing, and seed saving of heirloom veggies, plus origins, dates of introduction, stories and recipes. $45.00 from Seed Savers Exchange

Amateur Plant Breeding Handbook

Amateur Potato Breeders Manual

Organic Seed Alliance Publications

State of Organic Seed Report

A Seed Saving Guide for Gardeners and Farmers

Field Guides to Seed Production

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Organic Seed & Seed Saving Links & Related Efforts

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Current Events

2014 Spring Meeting

For Meeting Notes Click Here


 FBC members pick the elite lines of einkorn, emmer, and spelt for further evaluations in 2014. 

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Whole Wheat – Oat Crackers

Grease two large cookie sheets with butter.

Set oven to 350o and place the oven racks at the upper levels.

Mix in bowl: 3 cups of rolled oats

3 cups of whole wheat flour (any species)

0-3 Tablespoons of sugar (to taste)

1 teaspoon of salt

Make a well and cut in ½ cup of cooking oil (olive oil lends a great flavor). Then mix in 1 cup of water. Should make a stiff dough. Let rest for 10 minutes.

Cut dough in half and press out across the cookie sheets. Sprinkle with salt to taste. Use a pizza cutter or butter knife to cut squares of the desired size.

Bake for about 20 minutes and then start checking every 3-5 minutes. Remove crackers as they finish with a nice golden, brown color. Be careful not to burn those at the edges! Cool on a rack and enjoy.

This recipe has been used to taste-test different kinds of wheat flour. The oats were dropped and replaced with additional flour, the sugar was much reduced, and the water adjusted to make a stiff dough (each species has different mixing characteristics so you get to explore!). This allowed the taste of each kind of flour to dominate for the tastings. However, the oats make for a very nice texture for regular use.