Bringing a do-it-yourself approach to plant breeding, four Ontario growers are developing early blocky sweet peppers for their region. “Ecological farmers in southern Ontario do not have access to an early-ripening bell pepper that is available in organic seed or bred for organic production systems,” said Rebecca Ivanoff of Whole Circle Farm in the Guelph area. “We are doing on-farm breeding to produce an early-ripening, blocky red pepper with great flavour for organic field production in southern Ontario.”
“Local food needs local seed,” said Kathy Rothermel from the Kingston area. “Our pepper project is the first step in identifying the gaps in currently available seed.”
“It is also the beginning of participatory plant breeding projects in our area. We want to build resilience into our crop genetics, with the end goal of encouraging more farmers to grow on-farm seed for their own production and, potentially, for commercial sale.”
The other two growers involved in the project are Annie Richard, also from Kingston, and Greta Kryger of Greta’s Organics near Ottawa.
Birth of a Breeding Program
Plans for the pepper project started after a plant breeding workshop at the 2015 conference of the Ecological Farmers Association of Ontario (EFAO). Annie talked with the presenter, Cornell University professor in plant breeding and genetics Dr. Michael Mazourek, who has been working on developing varieties that are suitable for organic production in the northeastern United States. He offered to share seeds to begin the project in Ontario.
In the spring of 2016, each of the four growers received 150 seeds of a cross of Aristotle and Ace sweet peppers; they grew out the seeds last year and saved seed from the best fruits. While both parent peppers are red varieties, the F2 (second generation) plants produced both yellow and red peppers.
Besides colour, there was variability in several other characteristics—plant height, leaf coverage, fruit shape and size, thickness of the pepper wall and the number of peppers per plant.
“The number of peppers per plant was all over the map,” said Annie. “From one pepper to 11 on one plant. Generally, F2 plants have the most variability.”
The 150 seeds Annie received produced 143 plants and all grew vigorously, despite a drought in the Kingston area in 2016. She grew them at Patchwork Gardens, near Battersea, where the plants had dripline irrigation intermittently during the summer. Annie evaluated the plants throughout the season, setting out markers to document the ones that fruited the earliest.
In August, 2016, Dr. Mazourek and Rachel Hultengren, a graduate student at Cornell, led an EFAO workshop on plant breeding at Patchwork, with a focus on the pepper project and on a beet project undertaken by Patchwork for the Kingston Area Seed System Initiative (KASSI). Dr. Mazourek and Ms. Hultengren shared breeding and varietal improvement techniques that can be applied on farms.
“Much of the investment in improving our crops, and for maintaining availability of cultivars that growers depend on, has focused on relatively few regions of the continent,” explained Dr. Mazourek. “Local food depends on a focus on seed that thrives locally.”
“Seeds are fundamental to farming, but are all too easy to take for granted,” he said. “Empowering growers to have seed sovereignty should be viewed as a fundamental right in our food system.”
At the end of the 2016 season, Annie saved seed from five red peppers produced by four plants—the ones that best met the criteria for being early-ripening, blocky and red.
The other three growers sent the red pepper seeds they saved in 2016 to Annie, who is co-ordinating the logistics for the project. She mixed everyone’s seeds together and re-distributed the seeds for growing out in 2017.
“We will probably see less variability in the characteristics in the plants and fruits in 2017, but I expect there will still be a lot of variability,” she said.
The growers will continue the process for a few years until the characteristics are stable. The objective is to release and name a new open-pollinated variety, adapted for growing in Ontario.
Another purpose of the project is for the growers to gain experience as farmer-researchers. They applied to EFAO for a farmer-led research grant and to receive support from the EFAO farmer-led research co-ordinator, Sarah Hargreaves. To document the project, they are using record forms developed by The Bauta Family Initiative on Canadian Seed Security (see page 5 in this issue). As well, they will be in touch with Dr. Mazourek and Ms. Hultengren at Cornell for advice.
“I am definitely excited about plant breeding,” said Annie. “I don’t know exactly when I first heard about plant breeding, but my interest in it really ignited after the EFAO workshop.”
Kathy Rothermel, chair of KASSI and owner of Mouse Seeds, is interested in “re-establishing the relationship between our universities and the farmers in our food system. There is growing science-based evidence that farmers, working directly with university plant breeders, can improve or develop new varieties appropriate to local regions. This approach recognizes local knowledge of production practices and markets.”
Through contacts in EFAO, The Bauta Family Initiative on Canadian Seed Security and the Eastern Canadian Organic Seed Growers Network (ECOSGN), the growers have been in touch with other vegetable plant breeders in Ontario and the Maritimes, and are encouraged by the increasing interest in developing locally or regionally adapted seeds.
Cate Henderson, gardener at the Heirloom Seed Sanctuary at the Sisters of Providence Motherhouse, Kingston, said, “Heirlooms are the plant varieties that have been or are worthy of being passed down through generations. This pepper project is about developing the heirlooms of the future.”
|Kingston Area Seed System Initiative (KASSI)
Seeds grow food.
This simple truth brought four people together a few years ago to form the Kingston Area Seed System Initiative (KASSI). Three farmer/gardeners and a Unitarian minister envisioned a regional seed system—locally adapted seed, grown and distributed locally and used by local gardeners and farmers— increasing the self-reliance and resilience of the local food system. From its beginnings as an informal working group, KASSI incorporated in 2016 as a not-for-profit organization.
“Our goals are to promote responsible stewardship of our seed heritage and to ensure sustainable local food production—by growing out and distributing heirloom and locally adapted seed, and by supporting the creation of a vibrant network of regional growers,” says Cate Henderson, vice-chair of KASSI.
Working with grants from Bauta, the Big Carrot in Toronto and the Kingston Community Foundation, KASSI sponsors the Kingston Seedy Saturday, seed demonstration gardens, local farmers and gardeners growing out seed and public education events. Plans call for establishing a seed centre, including a seed commons and other services for seed growers, farmers and gardeners.
Go to www.seedsgrowfood.org for more information about KASSI.
For more information:
• about the pepper project, contact Annie by email at firstname.lastname@example.org
• about EFAO, including its farmer-led research initiatives, visit EFAO’s website here