PGDC on the Cutting-Edge

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Gene editing and climate change were major topics on the agenda at this year’s meeting of the Prairie Grain Development Committee.

When federal research scientist Tom Fetch opened a copy of National Geographic a few months ago, he knew then what the topic of this year’s Prairie Grain Development Committee (PGDC) annual meeting would be.

“The article was about DNA, and it talked about CRISPR and gene editing. We’re all aware of biotech and GMO, but this is being heralded as something cutting-edge and really different,” Fetch said.

Taking place Feb. 27 to March 2 in Winnipeg, the PGDC devoted its annual plenary session to the issue of gene editing and climate change, which both have an impact on what members of the committee do.

The PGDC acts as a forum for the exchange of information relevant to the development of improved cultivars of grain crops for the western Canadian prairies, and advises regulatory agencies about legislation and regulations governing grain breeding, cultivar production, and sector development.

This year, 43 cultivars in four different crop categories were recommended for registration, delivering even more options for stakeholders throughout the agriculture sector and beyond.

The plenary session, featuring four speakers, helped frame discussion around what the future might hold and how various crops could be affected. Fetch says gene editing is something that has the potential to take breeding to a whole new level, and have a big impact on the PGDC.

“Is it going to revolutionize what our breeders do? I’d say yes,” he says.

Tweaking the Genome

Focusing on new gene editing tools, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada researcher Stacy Singer highlighted how revolutionary they really are in terms of altering plant genes, while not creating actual GMOs in the process.

“We’re talking about targeted mutations done in a highly specific manner,” she said in reference to technologies like clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats (CRISPR), which allows researchers to edit plant genes without introducing any foreign genetic material, something Singer noted is a big reason behind public opposition to GM technology.

“[CRISPR] yields genetic alterations indistinguishable from those obtained through conventional breeding approaches. Theoretically one would think this means they should be regulated the same as conventionally bred crops, but that’s not necessarily the case.”

Speaking to the regulatory angle, Canadian Food Inspection Agency plant biosafety management analyst Heather Shearer said Canada’s regulatory system favours new gene editing technologies like CRISPR.

“We’re on the cusp of exciting times in agricultural biotech. The question for me as a regulator is, ‘Is our system up to the challenge?’ I feel we do have the flexibility to roll with the times,” she said.

“We take a case-by-case approach. Each product is different — we don’t have a prescriptive system where we say, ‘If you use gene editing, you’re going to be regulated.’ It gives a lot of flexibility, but it does create uncertainty for people creating new varieties.”

However, she noted that some of the most important advances in plant breeding have really just been about combining existing traits in useful ways and improving yields by bringing the best traits together.

“Gene editing can be used to do this. You can in theory rearrange a genome to link useful traits together. That might not be regulated by [the federal government]. If all you’ve done is rearrange a genome, there’s nothing new there, and we shouldn’t be involved.”

But just because something isn’t regulated, doesn’t mean there won’t be public opposition. Francis Kirigwi, secretary for the PGDC’s Prairie Recommending Committee for Wheat, Rye and Triticale (PRCWRT), said technology involving the genome has received enough public opposition that it remains to be seen how open consumers will be to new breeding techniques.

Francis Kirigwi, secretary for the PGDC’s Prairie Recommending Committee for Wheat, Rye and Triticale (PRCWRT).

“At what point will the public come to accept a modification in a staple crop like wheat? It’s a big question, whether the public consensus will be for us to go in that direction. CRISPR may help to persuade a lot of people,” he said.

There is still a lot of work to be done, Kirigwi noted, and added it’s not as simple as using CRISPR to go in and make tweaks to the wheat genome to create exciting new varieties. The recent mapping of the wheat genome (done with the help of PRCWRT chair Curtis Pozniak) will no doubt help, he said, but researchers have a ways to go.

“You still have to identify the genes you want to edit. There is still a lot we don’t understand,” he said.

 

 

Clouding the Water

Not all PGDC members were hailing gene editing techniques as the next big thing for their respective crops. Glen Hawkins, chair of the Prairie Recommending Committee for Pulses and Special Crops (PRCPSC), said the pulse varieties on the market have been developed through conventional breeding, and right now there’s no appetite on the part of industry or consumers for pulses modified through gene editing.

“In terms of our markets in Europe and China and Japan, as soon as you put gene editing in the picture, it clouds the water in a hurry and creates another level of complexity you have to deal with,” he said.

“We’re making good gains as it is. Unless we come up against something where we have no alternative but to use gene editing technology, I can’t see it happening. Plus, those technologies are pricey. There’s not enough money in pulses right now to even think about that. Unless you’re in corn and soybeans — the big-money crops — you can’t even begin to ask yourself those questions.”

Eric Fridfinnson, Prairie Recommending Committee for Oilseeds (PRCO) chair.

It’s not just corn and wheat that’s being used as a vehicle for gene editing techniques, though. Gene editing has started to work itself into plants like flax, noted Prairie Recommending Committee for Oilseeds (PRCO) chair Eric Fridfinnson. The Canadian flax industry worked with California-based Cibus to develop the first non-transgenic (non-GMO) glyphosate tolerant flax seed, which used gene editing in its development process.

“It holds great promise, I think,” Fridfinnson said. “The regulatory issues are our next challenge. Gene editing is considered mutagenesis in Canada and the U.S. In Europe it’s mutagenesis too, but it’s considered new technology of course, and you’re dealing with the public and their willingness to accept it.”

 

Rich Joy, chair of the Prairie Recommending Committee for Oat and Barley (PRCOB), said that gene editing holds promise for the barley sector.

“It’s going to reinvent the thought process from the general public in regard to, ‘OK, so this isn’t a GMO.’ We’re just modifying what is already there to improve it. Once you get that across, I think it will affect public perception in a positive way,” he said.

“We will definitely see it in our barley group. I’m cautiously optimistic we’ll get some benefit out of this.”

Changing Climate

Another benefit of gene editing is its ability to create varieties better suited to the effects of climate change, Singer said.

But University of Manitoba agrometeorologist Paul Bullock, who also spoke at the plenary session, said the ag industry will have to be careful when it comes to adapting to climate change.

He said climate data is spacially inconsistent, and showed a variety of study results from Canada that paint an unpredictable picture when it comes to drawing conclusions about what growing conditions of the future will be like.

“Climate trends are driving the decisions we’re making in [farming]. You might plan using the trend, but things can vary greatly. You can’t predict it. You don’t know what your frost-free period is going to be next year. Some people might try to sell you that information for a lot of money, but I’d be keeping that money in my pocket,” he said.

“You can’t look at climate change and say, ‘Based on this, here’s what we should be doing in agriculture.”

Still, he noted there will be a desire in the future for longer-season crops.

Hawkins said the PRCPSC is keeping climate change in mind for the future.

“If we face flood or drought, it creates challenges, and we may have to adapt to that by selecting our lines differently. Climate change isn’t going to just hammer us overnight — it’s a gradual thing, and we’ll do our best to adapt to the conditions we see ourselves in.”

Record Crowd

It was a record year for the PGDC meeting in terms of attendance, according to Fetch, with 300 registrants.

“That’s exciting, and I think part of the reason was the plenary session,” he said.

The breakdown of cultivars recommended for registration was:

PRCWRT: 13 wheat lines, 2 rye lines, 1 spelt line, 2 durum lines

PRCOB: 4 oat lines, 6 barley lines

PRCO: 1 flax line, 2 mustard lines

PRCPSC: 7 dry bean lines, 2 faba bean lines, 3 yellow pea lines, 2 green pea lines, 2 lentil lines

For minutes and other data from the 2017 meeting visit pgdc.ca.

New canola calculator matches seeding rate to risk factors

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New seeding rate and plant stand calculators from the Canola Council of Canada (CCC) will help canola growers set an accurate seeding rate that balances the good start canola needs with their profitability goals and appetite for risk.

“The tools at canolacalculator.ca aim to drive a deeper understanding of plant density and seeding rate targets, and will assist growers in making decisions that improve their yield in a profitable, tangible way,” says Ian Epp, agronomy specialist with the CCC.

Why build them? Growers often default to seeding rates of 5 lb/ac or lower, regardless of seed size or field conditions. These tools will help growers as well as agronomists and seed retailers make more refined decisions.

“Growers often recognize a disconnect between what they should be doing and what they end up doing in the time crunch of spring seeding,” Epp says. “These simple and intuitive tools provide a quick and clear indication of how seed survival, seed size and target stands influence the required seeding rate.”

What do they do? With the target density calculator, users position sliding scales to determine the level of risk for various factors that influence plant stand targets. If weed competition is expected to be very low, for example, the calculator will set a lower target stand. But if spring frost risk is high, the calculator sets a higher target stand to compensate.

The seeding rate calculator has three modes. In seeding rate mode, users input thousand seed weight (TSW), target plant density and estimated seed survival, and the calculator computes the required seeding rate. In plant survival mode, users enter the number of plants per square foot that emerged along with known TSW and seeding rate, and the calculator gives the seed survival rate. In plant density mode, the calculator takes TSW, seeding rate and estimated seed survival to give the number of plants that should emerge.

“The CCC has been recommending plant density of seven to 10 plants per square foot,” Epp says, “but emerging research which can account for equipment change, seed costs, seed size and improved vigour of hybrids indicates that growers may find situations where lower plant densities can still meet their goals.”

Because yield potential is known to drop off with stands of around four plants per square foot, the CCC recommends at least six plants per square foot to provide a buffer against season-long plant loss.

Canada’s canola industry has a goal to reach average yields of 52 bu/ac by 2025. The CCC estimates that improvements in seeding and plant establishment alone can contribute three bu/ac.

New Precision Seeding Field Demonstrations announced at Olds College

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Olds College, Agri-Trade Equipment Expo, Olds Regional Exhibition and dmg::events (Canada) Inc. are partnering to develop and organize a new Precision Seeding Field Demonstration showcase at Olds College.

The season-long demonstration will feature contributions from seed, chemical and fertilizer suppliers, with the focus on demonstrating equipment from seeding through to harvest. According to a news release, the Precision Seeding Equipment Demonstration plots are an excellent addition to the highly anticipated FutureFarm Canada Expo.

Field demonstrations will begin in spring with an initial seeding showcase. This will be followed up by demonstration field days (chemical application and harvesting) throughout the growing season, with the pinnacle event being held in conjunction with FutureFarm Canada Expo, July 6-8, 2017 at Olds College. The Expo is a trade show focused on scientific advancements and innovations required for tomorrow’s agriculture businesses and future farm generations.

LCRC receives recommendation for interim registration on first variety

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The first variety from Limagrain Cereals Research Canada’s (LCRC) cereal breeding program has been recommended for interim registration.

GP202 is a Canadian Western Special Purpose (CWSP) wheat that boasts high yields and the lowest accumulated DON levels among the CWSP varieties put forward for support at the Prairie Grain Development Committee (PGDC) meeting on March 2 in Winnipeg.

According to a news release, low DON levels make the variety ideal for producers looking for a feed wheat variety. Other end users have also expressed interest in evaluating the variety for their purposes. It will be commercialized by LCRC partner Canterra Seeds through its network of seed grower shareholders, beginning in spring 2017.

Related story: Limagrain Cereals Research Canada

Blue Book Now Available

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One of the most widely requested publications from Alberta Agriculture and Forestry (AF), the Crop Protection book, also known as the “Blue Book” in industry circles, is now available for 2017.

“Revised annually, the Blue Book includes the most up-to-date information around crop protection,” says Mark Cutts, crop specialist, AF. “An important part of the annual update includes newly registered pesticide products. This year’s edition includes new herbicides, insecticides, seed treatments and foliar fungicides. In addition to including new products, previously registered products are updated. Significant changes in some products, crops covered and usage instructions give producers more options than ever.”

For 2017, new herbicide registrations include pre-seed products. “These herbicides are registered for use ahead of seeding wheat, and there is a new pre-seed product registered for use ahead of canola,” says Cutts. “Other new herbicide products are registered for in-crop use for a variety of crop types.”

A number of new fungicides have been registered for use in 2017. New foliar fungicides are available for use on canola, cereal crops and potatoes. Newly registered seed treatments are available for use on pulse crops, oilseed crops and potatoes. One new insecticide will be available in 2017. It is registered on a variety of crops including pulse and oilseed crops.

“When using pesticides, it’s important to be aware of pesticide resistance,” says Cutts. “It’s recommended that pesticide products be selected based on chemical group and active ingredient. Purchasing pesticides products based on registered product names could lead to repeated use of a chemical group and increase the risk of developing pesticide resistance. All pesticide products presented in the Blue Book have their chemical group and active ingredient listed. By using this information, the risk of developing pesticide resistance can be reduced.”

Hard copies of Crop Protection 2017 are available for $12 from AF’s website. It is also available as a free downloadable pdf.

Agricultural robot may be ‘game changer’ for crop growers, breeders

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A robot under development at the University of Illinois automates the labor-intensive process of crop phenotyping, enabling scientists to scan crops and match genetic data with the highest-yielding plants.

A semiautonomous robot may soon be roaming agricultural fields gathering and transmitting real-time data about the growth and development of crops, information that crop breeders – and eventually farmers – can use to identify the genetic traits in plants likely to produce the greatest yields.

A team of scientists from the Carl R. Woese Institute for Genomic Biology at the University of Illinois is developing the robot in partnership with researchers from Cornell University and Signetron Inc.

Inspired by the autonomous rovers used to search collapsed buildings and other dangerous environments, the agricultural robot is propelled on continuous tracks, or miniature tank treads, which enable it to navigate through dry or muddy fields. Researchers guide it using GPS and a laptop computer.

Traveling between the crop rows, the robot uses hyperspectral, high-definition and thermal cameras, weather monitors and pulsed laser scanners to capture phenotypic information – such as the stem diameter, height and leaf area of each plant – and assess environmental conditions, such as the temperature and moisture content of the soil.

Girish Chowdhary

The robot stores the data in its onboard computer and transmits it in real time to the grower’s computer. Scientists use the data to create a 3-D reconstruction of each plant, develop predictive models for the plant’s growth and development, and estimate the biomass yield for each plant and the entire plot.

“Immediate access to the data is very important for crop breeders in the U.S.,” said U. of I. agricultural and biological engineering professor Girish Chowdhary. “It’s very important for them to see and visualize the data. If the data are available to the breeder quickly, then they can make actionable decisions” that enhance production.

Although researchers are currently using the robot to assess fields of energy sorghum, a crop used in biofuel production, they say the robot would perform equally well with other tall-growing row crops such as corn and wheat, and possibly with soybeans before the plant canopy closes.

The robot is a “game changer” for both crop scientists and farmers, automating the labor-intensive phenotyping processes of farming and crop development, said Stephen P. Long, the director of the project. Long is the Gutgsell Endowed University Professor of Crop Sciences and Plant Biology at Illinois.

Stephen Long

“For producers, it’s going to accelerate the rate at which we can improve the genetic material. We can now select material much more rapidly and select many more plants as well, so we can eventually deliver to the farmer a far more productive bioenergy crop,” Long said.

“One of the big advances of the last few years is that we can now determine the complete DNA blueprint of each plant. But how do we use that? What we need is to be able to describe a plant as it grows. You could do that perhaps with an army of people, but now the robot can do all of that for you. We can combine the phenotypic information about how the plant’s performing with the genetic blueprint and identify the combination of genes we need to get the best plant possible,” Long said.

Chowdhary, whose research focus is field robotics, is modifying the robot’s current design to reduce its width so it can maneuver more easily between crop rows. He also plans to install a sensor system for detecting and avoiding obstacles.

To reduce the production costs associated with the robot’s current metal and track construction, Chowdhary’s team is exploring the feasibility of producing some of the components via 3-D printing.

“We are targeting a cost to the breeder of $5,000 to $10,000, which means we will have to get the manufacturing cost significantly below that,” Chowdhary said. “An agricultural robot that costs just $5,000 is a totally new concept. Agricultural equipment today typically costs hundreds of thousands of dollars. Bringing the cost of our robot below $5,000 will be in itself a significant achievement for our team.”

Unlike the robots used in factories, agricultural robots must be weather resistant, Chowdary said. The underlying technologies – the algorithms, the mechanical design and the human-robot interaction devices that provide robustness – are useful in many other industries, including defense, surveillance and scientific exploration.

The team expects to have a prototype built within two years and begin manufacturing thereafter, with the goal of having the robot on the market by 2021.

Source: University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign

Advancing Crop Research

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The farmer-directed WGRF board tours field plots in Lacombe in 2016. (Photo: WGRF)

WGRF’s funding is all about benefitting western Canadian crop growers.

Farmer-focused. Research-focused. Multi-crop. Interprovincial. Cross-cutting. Independent. Collaborative. Unique. That’s the Western Grains Research Foundation (WGRF). Building on more than 35 years of experience, this crop research funding agency is poised for the challenges ahead.

“We are a farmer-funded and farmer-directed organization. Our focus is on funding research; we’re not involved in policy or advocacy or market development. We’re an independent organization, and we’re incorporated as a non-profit charity, which makes us unique in Western Canada,” says Garth Patterson, WGRF executive director. “And our focus is interprovincial, looking at research that will benefit crop producers in Western Canada.”

Since its inception in 1981, WGRF has invested over $130 million into crop research. It is probably best known for its investment of wheat and barley check-offs into variety development.

“Through that investment, over 200 new wheat and barley varieties have been released since 1995,” notes Patterson. “We fund public crop breeding institutions and their varieties really dominate western Canadian acreage.” For instance, over 88 per cent of CWRS acres and 94 per cent of CWAD acres are seeded to WGRF-funded wheat varieties.

In addition, WGRF supports research projects on many field crops from its Endowment Fund. Patterson says, “We fund research into canola, wheat, pea, lentil, chickpea, dry bean, barley, corn, soy, canaryseed, flax, oats, even forages – you name it.”

Collaboration is key to WGRF’s approach to project funding. Patterson explains, “The benefits of research don’t stop at provincial borders, so we work with the organizations in Western Canada that are interested in crop research, including producer organizations, provincially based organizations and Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC). Instead of running our own call for proposals, we consider the proposals that come in on their calls and look at ways to co-fund with them.”

According to Patterson, WGRF looks for three key elements in a research proposal. One is the potential to benefit crop producers in Western Canada. “That doesn’t mean we don’t invest in upstream research, but we want to have an understanding of how it might contribute in the end to profitability on the farm.” The other two elements are good science, and a strong likelihood that the researchers will accomplish the project’s objectives.

The WGRF’s research committee consists of experts representing various aspects of agriculture including: research, market development and agri-business; and WGRF board members. The research committee makes recommendations to the WGRF board of directors, which makes the final decisions on project funding. The board is composed of farmer representatives from each of the 18 member organizations, which include provincial, western Canadian and national farm organizations.

A Look at WGRF’s Latest Projects

WGRF funded over 20 new research projects in 2016 and is currently funding 250 projects. These projects cover an amazing array of topics such as: enhancing clubroot resistance in canola; improving faba bean, pea and alfalfa varieties; screening and managing Fusarium head blight in cereals; investigating novel ways to tackle herbicide resistance; managing pea leaf weevil in faba bean and field pea; and optimizing fertilizer management in flax. Most projects are co-funded with other agencies, enhancing the impact of WGRF dollars.

AAFC research scientist Neil Harker is leading the new project on herbicide resistance. “Weed resistance to herbicides is increasing rapidly and jeopardizes important herbicide tools,” he says. “Cropping systems that effectively manage weeds with less herbicide applications are urgently required to decrease the selection for more herbicide resistance, and to provide management tools in the face of new resistance issues.”

A WGRF-funded project is testing chaff collection devices to remove harvested weed seeds, one of several methods to reduce the need for herbicides. (Photo: Neil Harker, AAFC)

This project involves developing integrated weed management (IWM) strategies that reduce selection pressure for herbicide resistance. Harker explains: “In this project, we combine chaff collection (to remove harvested weed seeds) with some of the best cultural weed management techniques – high seeding rates, winter cereal crops, early-cut silage, perennial forage – in canola-wheat and more innovative crop rotations. This five-year experiment (2016-2020) is being conducted at six western Canadian locations under direct-seeding conditions.” Weed control tools such as chaff collection have more subtle effects than herbicides and require multiple years to determine their impact.

This research will introduce crop growers to new IWM strategies that reduce herbicide use and herbicide resistance selection pressure. “Combining chaff collection with previously proven IWM tools provides an opportunity to decrease the reliance on herbicides. With many weed seeds passing through the combine in the chaff fraction, collection of the chaff prevents many of the seeds from supplementing the seed-bank, thereby reducing weed populations,” says Harker.

“Chaff collection has the potential to reduce populations of many grassy and broadleaf weed species, and in combination with other weed-suppressing agronomic practices, can preserve the efficacy of herbicides.”

In addition to WGRF funding, this project is supported by the Alberta Canola Producers Commission, Saskatchewan Wheat Development Commission (Sask Wheat) and Alberta Barley.

Another new WGRF project concerns the pea leaf weevil. Many pea growers in southern Alberta are all too familiar with the yield losses due to the pea leaf weevil larvae feeding on pea root nodules and the adults feeding on pea foliage. Now this pest is spreading into new regions and a new host.

“The pea leaf weevil has recently expanded its geographic range to the Parkland agricultural regions in central Alberta and Saskatchewan where it threatens to damage

Funds from WGRF are helping researchers to assess ways to manage the pea leaf weevil in faba bean, another host for this pest. (Photo: Henri Goulet, AAFC-retired)

faba bean, in addition to peas,” says Héctor Cárcamo, a research scientist with AAFC who is the project’s principal investigator. “This project aims to learn more about the interaction between the pea leaf weevil and faba beans to determine if the weevil reduces yield in this crop and to assess potential management strategies. Another major objective is to improve our knowledge of the overwintering biology of this pest to enhance our ability to forecast local populations.”

This research will help faba bean growers determine if the weevil is a concern and how to manage it. “Faba bean is the best crop for nitrogen fixation and it may be able to compensate for pea leaf weevil feeding on the foliage (expected) and the larval feeding on root nodules,” notes Cárcamo. “The study will also provide objective data on the potential yield benefits of using seed treatment and foliar insecticides for the pea leaf weevil. The information on overwintering could help refine forecasting tools so we all have a better idea of the size of weevil pest populations to expect given certain winter conditions.”

WGRF and the Alberta Pulse Growers are funding this project. The University of Alberta, Alberta Agriculture and Forestry, and especially AAFC are providing substantial in-kind support.

Fusarium head blight (FHB), one of the most important wheat diseases on the Prairies, is the focus of a new spring wheat project. FHB lowers yields and results in downgrading because the fungus can produce toxins that limit the grain’s use. Fungicides can suppress the disease, but they only give up to about 50 per cent control. So cultivar resistance is a very important tool.

Unfortunately no single gene confers strong resistance to FHB. Breeders have to bring in several resistance genes, and even then most wheat varieties are only moderately resistant at best. So Randy Kutcher, an associate professor at the University of Saskatchewan, is working with AAFC’s Plant Gene Resources of Canada and the National Research Council to find new sources of FHB resistance in spring wheat. These three agencies are part of the Canadian Wheat Alliance, a partnership to develop new wheat varieties that produce stable and increased yields, and have stronger resistance to stresses including FHB.

The researchers are screening for FHB resistance in Plant Gene Resources’ 14,000 accessions of wheat collected from all over the world. “In a Fusarium head blight nursery, we screened about 4,000 lines in 2016 and we’ll do it again in 2017,” says Kutcher. “Then we’ll pick the most promising lines and rescreen them.” After that, they will do some further work with the best lines to confirm the resistance and to see how easy it would be to cross that resistance into adapted germplasm. They will pass along any useful new sources of FHB resistance to wheat breeders.

This project is supported by the Agriculture Development Fund of the Saskatchewan Ministry of Agriculture, Sask Wheat and WGRF.

Growth and Transition for WGRF

In 2016, WGRF invested over $19 million in breeding and other crop research, about a three-fold increase since 2011. WGRF has seen significant changes in its revenue sources over its history. It currently has five sources: the Endowment Fund, the wheat check-off, the barley check-off, royalties from commercialized wheat and barley varieties, and third-party funds to administer project funds (for example, WGRF is managing the funds awarded to projects in the Wheat Cluster under the Growing Forward 2 program).

The Endowment Fund got its start in 1981. “At the time, the Prairie Farm Assistance Act [an early version of crop insurance] was wound down. It had $9 million that came from farmers, so the federal government put that into kick-starting the Endowment Fund to fund research in a wide variety of crops,” explains Patterson.

Then in 2000, the Endowment Fund got another important source of funds. “The federal government named WGRF as the recipient under the Canada Transportation Act with respect to the Rail Revenue Entitlement. Anytime the railways exceed that Entitlement, the amount they exceed it by is awarded to WGRF,” Patterson says. He adds, “It is bittersweet because it means farmers have been overcharged for grain transportation. On the other hand it would be administratively very complex and costly to try and return that to farmers, so the federal government decided to put the money into WGRF to benefit all farmers.”

Of the $19 million invested in research by WGRF in 2016, about $7.5 million was from the Endowment Fund.

WGRF began administering the wheat and barley check-offs for variety development in 1994. A 2012 return-on-investment study commissioned by WGRF found that, on average, for every check-off dollar invested in variety development, producers receive $20 in value for wheat and $7.50 for barley.

The current Western Wheat and Barley Check-off is a five-year measure put in place by the federal government on Aug. 1, 2012 with the ending of the Canadian Wheat Board’s monopoly. This transitional measure is intended to allow provincial wheat and barley commissions and associations to take responsibility for research and market development. Currently, funds from this check-off go to WGRF, the Canadian International Grains Institute and the Canadian Malting Barley Technical Centre.

Patterson notes, “The western Canadian wheat and barley commissions and associations are making plans to assume the check-off starting on Aug. 1, 2017. Farmers really won’t notice a difference.”

WGRF felt it was crucial to prevent any funding gaps in wheat and barley variety development programs, so it has taken steps to ensure a smooth transition. “Even though the check-off that we receive expires on July 31, 2017, we had enough in our wheat and barley reserve funds to commit to new agreements that go to 2020 with the public institutions,” Patterson states.

“So there is stability for public breeders. And the wheat and barley commissions have time to put their plan together for how they would like to continue that.”

Renewing Agronomic Research Capacity

One of WGRF’s current initiatives involves reinvigorating agronomic research capacity in Western Canada. This initiative had its beginnings about three years ago, when a number of producer groups expressed concerns about declining capacity to WGRF.

To get a better handle on the issue, WGRF commissioned a study of the current and projected agronomic research capacity to 2020. The resulting report, Fertile Ground: Agronomic Research Capacity in Western Canada, was released in 2014. It confirmed the declining capacity, including loss of scientific expertise due to retirements, a lack of adequate equipment, land and buildings, and insufficient staff and funding.

So WGRF set up a technical committee to develop a vision of future agronomic research capacity, and it held a workshop in April 2015 to consult with stakeholders. This generated Shaping the Future, a report on ways to address the capacity needs.

Next, WGRF developed a two-phase strategy for reinvigorating agronomic research capacity. The strategy was finalized in spring 2016, and phase 1 is now being implemented.

Phase 1 involves rebuilding human resources research capacity at the main public institutions involved in agronomic research in Western Canada – AAFC, University of Alberta, University of Saskatchewan and University of Manitoba. AAFC has already started filling several positions, and WGRF is working with each of the three universities. Phase 2 will target capacity issues around infrastructure and equipment and at other research organizations. As the various capacity issues are addressed in phases 1 and 2, WGRF will be looking at how it can increase its agronomy-related project funding.

Where to From Here?

WGRF has built a strong tradition of supporting an impressive range of research, all targeted towards benefits to western Canadian crop producers. Researchers recognize WGRF’s valuable role. For instance, Kutcher says, “WGRF is a very important organization whose support is key to much of the field crop research in Western Canada.” And Cárcamo states, “The funding from WGRF is instrumental for crop researchers such as entomologists in Western Canada to allow us to continue to improve the economic and environmental sustainability of farming.”

What’s next for WGRF? “WGRF is in transition with the ending of the wheat and barley check-offs. But we’ve created a very stable situation as far as the support for wheat and barley variety development out to 2020. So, as we transition we are looking at what we can do in the Endowment Fund,” says Patterson.

“When we look at our strengths and our uniqueness, being western Canadian, multi-crop, farmer-focused and an independent charity, we think we can play a leadership role in cross-cutting issues.”

Many of today’s cross-cutting issues are vitally important to the success of crop production in Western Canada. Patterson highlights some examples: “Agronomy research capacity is one. We’ve also got issues related to climate change, whether it is crop adaptation to wetter, to drier, to warmer conditions. We’ve got the issue of what agriculture can do to mitigate climate change, for example by capturing carbon. We’ve got issues that cut across all crops like nutrient management, herbicide-resistant weeds and changing weed populations, and pest monitoring and management. And there are things like genomics capacity and tools that can benefit multiple crops.”

Harker notes, “It is crucial that agencies such as WGRF fund agronomic research that focuses on multiple crops. Growers do not grow a single crop on their farm. These projects provide growers with tools to manage challenges such as herbicide resistance in their entire crop rotation and not just in a single crop. In this regard, WGRF provides a unique service to growers when compared to individual crop funding agencies.”

Patterson emphasizes, “No other farm funding organization is focusing on a multi-crop, whole farm, integrated approach to western Canadian crop production. We think that is a very good role for WGRF to play moving forward.”

Share Your Vision, Shape Your Industry

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Be part of the discussion as the CSGA and Canadian seed industry engages its membership online.

In July 2016, the Canadian Seed Growers’ Association (CSGA) launched a one-year project to develop a new Strategic Plan. Central to the success of this project is our ability to ensure that members’ aspirations are reflected in this plan.

To date, engagement with membership in the strategic plan development has been conducted through face-to-face discussions at member meetings across the country. With the launch of SeedTalk, CSGA’s new interactive member engagement platform, we are now taking this conversation online to all our members.

This is their opportunity to let us know how CSGA can better serve them. Our members’ ongoing participation in the SeedTalk online community will help shape CSGA policies and member services going forward. The entire world is increasingly becoming an online community, and we felt an online forum was the best way to get this very important feedback.

Best of all, it’s easy. Members complete our short workbook focused on the key results areas of our draft Strategic Plan and follow up by participating in our online challenge. They have a chance to put forward ideas for us and others to review and comment, rate, and build upon others’ ideas in formulating proposals.

The Strategic Plan puts significant emphasis on partnerships. In fact, potential changes to the seed regulatory system and these key partnerships were the main reason for the CSGA board’s decision to launch a strategic planning process in the first place. It was also the main reason why CSGA is coordinating its strategic planning process with another important project — the Seed Synergy Collaboration Project.

The Seed Synergy Collaboration Project is a joint undertaking of six seed sector organizations (the Canadian Seed Growers’ Association, the Canadian Seed Trade Association, the Canadian Seed Institute, CropLife Canada, the Canadian Plant Technology Agency, and the Commercial Seed Analysts Association of Canada) in the early stages of developing a potential proposal to government on a “Next-Generation Seed System.”

The Seed Synergy project is also running an online consultation of its own and is seeking participation of seed industry stakeholders in the Seed Synergy Survey. We are encouraging our members to complete this survey before moving on to SeedTalk.

We see this process as hugely valuable in helping us get the feedback we need to make our new Strategic Plan a success, and in helping the Seed Synergy Collaboration Project really take off. We look forward to seeing it take off and finding out what the coming months have in store.

To take these surveys, simply visit seedgrowers.ca.