Looking Towards the Future

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Nuffield Scholar Andrew Rosychuk is working on developing Alberta’s haskap berry industry. Photo: Andrew Rosychuk

It’s a brave new world out there, and two Albertans are poised to do very exciting things which could have a big impact on the world of science and food.

This duo is taking the world of food to new heights by thinking big and taking the path less travelled.

The Alberta Seed Guide keeps an eye on people within our industry who are worth watching — people making a difference in their field to the point where they help to move the needle and take our province in a new direction toward a brighter and more profitable future.

Andrew Rosychuk and Dawn Trautman are two of the latest Nuffield scholars. The Nuffield Canada Scholarship is a rural leadership program available to anyone mid-career who is involved in agriculture in any capacity of primary production, industry or governance. Each year scholarships are awarded to individuals who are expected to assume positions of greater influence in their field in the future.

Both of these influencers have one thing in common — they’re thinking of their industry in new ways to create new markets and create Agriculture 2.0.

“We work to cultivate young talent who really stand out in their field as people who want to create a better future for everyone,” says Leona Watson, executive director of Nuffield Canada.

We caught up with these two difference-makers who are all having an impact on the seed world and proving that thinking in new ways is the only way to create positive change through innovation.

WHERE ON THE WEB

For more information on the Nuffield program and a full list of scholarship recipients visit nuffield.ca

Berry Bright Future

Andrew Rosychuk

Alberta’s Andrew Rosychuk has been picked for one of this year’s Nuffield scholarships. Photo: Andrew Rosychuk

Hungry deer, voracious bugs and a funny-shaped berry led Andrew Rosychuk to start his own business and look at value-added in a new way.

For Alberta’s first commercial haskap grower, Andrew Rosychuk comes from an unlikely background.

He’s a city boy who always wanted to be a farmer. His dad grew up on a farm but left it to become a lifelong civil servant for the City of Edmonton.

“He got off the farm because he didn’t want that lifestyle. This is a business fraught with risk. It felt strange getting into something he never really intended for me,” says Rosychuk, the 34-year-old owner of the Alcomdale-based Rosy Farms, the province’s first commercial haskap operation.

In 2005, while taking the production horticulture diploma program at Olds College, Rosychuk started growing haskap — 200 plants.

He continued experimenting by planting sour cherries and currants as well. The deer loved the sour cherries, bugs loved the currants, and he fell in love with the haskap, a blue oblong berry whose flavour is often described as a cross between blueberries and raspberries.

He wanted to make a full business out of it, but he quickly realized starting a haskap orchard was going to take more than an education and a dream.

He landed a job up in Fort McMurray and achieved his Canadian Red Seal welding and boilermaker trades tickets, which helped to finance the development of Rosy Farms, a 76-acre haskap orchard.

“All of my life experiences have culminated together in this love and passion for horticulture. Constructed from nothing, this is a haskap farm that I believe will change the fruit industry in Canada,” says the city slicker-turned-farmer.

Rosychuk is the founder of the Haskap Alberta Association and a co-founder of North 49 Fruit Corporation, a producer-owned marketing corporation bringing Canadian-grown fruit and processed fruit products to the global marketplace. It’s a new model which Rosychuk believes will help Alberta fruit growers avoid the mistakes of the past.

“We’ve created a new company to bring stability to a brand-new marketplace. It’s a volatile industry,” he says, referring to early efforts to market the Saskatoon berry which ultimately didn’t work.

“People were told to grow all this fruit but there was no market. They planted but had nothing to do with all of it. So, they sold locally and started undercutting each other, to the destruction of the industry. We want to avoid that with haskap.”

For Rosychuk, the industry is changing in a big way. Farmers aren’t just cash crop producers anymore. They are true businesspeople with the power to create their own product and establish markets, he notes.

His Nuffield study will focus on the value in developing on-farm, medium scale processing units, giving the primary producer an advantage in capitalizing on a value-added ingredient or product.

“If I had to create a manual for how to create an ingredient-based product, the first step would be to cost-analyze whether it’s worth it to create a product in the first place. People talk about how value-added is the next step. Question is, does your value-add really add value? Often you can outsource to someone else because they have a more efficient production process than you do.”

That’s where applying to be a Nuffield Scholar came in.

“Nuffield is about connection. You learn about high-end management and world agriculture. Right off the bat, one of the first things I was told by experts was, ‘It’s great you have a farming operation, but there’s so much more going on out there that you should get involved in and incorporate into what you do.’ The result is a worldwide network of people who can support each other to be successful.”

Part of that network includes Yoichiro Hoshino, a haskap breeder at Japan’s Hokkaido University.

“I think what Andrew is doing is hugely valuable,” he says. “Canada uses a lot of Japan’s genetics for its haskap varieties. In the future, in order to develop new varieties, we are considering incorporating Canadian native haskap genetics into our breeding. In order to do so, I think it is necessary to investigate the distribution and genetic diversity of haskap throughout Canada.”

Three of the over 30 varieties Rosychuk is trying were developed by breeder Bob Bors at the University of Saskatchewan’s Crop Development Centre — Boreal Blizzard, Boreal Beauty and Boreal Beast.

Rosychuk says Canadian haskap has come a long way in recent years, having been built on genetics originating from Japan and Russia. But there is more work to be done.

“From a yield standpoint, a blueberry bush the same size will produce four times the amount of fruit,” he notes.

For Rosychuk, it’s about opening up a new world for haskap as he carves a path for himself and people like him — people he says are not typically associated with the ag community.

“There are two kinds of people in the industry — people who have no real background in it but want to it to be their lifestyle, and people who have had the resources since birth and come from a farming family,” he says. “I wasn’t born into it, so I had to build things myself. I’m going to continue to build and create something new and better.”

About Andrew Rosychuk

Birthplace: Edmonton

Favourite movie: Garden State

Favourite food: Haskap

Words to live by/motto: Change or die. What makes you different? Don’t give me a problem, tell me the solution.

Get Smart

Dawn Trautman

Alberta’s Dawn Trautman has been picked for one of this year’s Nuffield scholarships. Photo: Dawn Trautman

Dawn Trautman is poised to help usher in the next Green Revolution through artificial intelligence.

Dawn Trautman knows there’s a lot of promises behind Smart Agriculture — the emerging field of applying real-time artificial intelligence in the field, in greenhouses and harnessing the use of big data analytics in real time.

The key is speeding adoption. The way to do that, of course, is to create smart solutions to help growers adopt it.

“The idea is to bridge the gap between the potential and the reality. Right now, there’s a gap, and a large one. It’s like the Green Revolution. Before that there was a set level of activity, and afterward was a big bump. All of the sudden people’s best became a lot better,” says the 34-year-old Edmonton resident and manager of Smart Agriculture and Food with Alberta Innovates.

Plant breeding plays a huge role in that, she notes.

“We’re still learning about the potential of plants and the interaction of genetics, environment and management. If you have good genetics but poor management and poor environment, you don’t get much out of the plant. Without good genetics, even with good environmental conditions, you don’t get a good yield.”

The key, she says, is to think about plant breeding, seed and agriculture not in terms of commodities, but in terms of food — and to think about the people buying that food.

“Consumers are increasingly disconnected from their food sources but have an increased interest in health, sustainability and transparency. This is where technology can play a role in bridging the smart agriculture gap.”

That’s because Smart Agriculture can also provide information which consumers want — info on traceability and farming methods used.

As part of the Nuffield scholarship program, she plans to study the barriers for smart agriculture adoption for producers while also expanding on opportunities for technology companies to develop and integrate made-in-Canada solutions for sustainable production.

She sees a silver lining in the pandemic, which cut short a recent trip she took to Australia as part of her scholarship-related work.

“There’s more uncertainty in our food supply, especially with COVID. Supply chains are disrupted, people are staying home. It’s bringing instability, and ag is an industry vital to the wellbeing of society. It might not be, ‘Oh I wish I had only organic food to eat.’ Maybe it’s, ‘I wish I had any food at all,’” she says.

“That uncertainty only breeds more mistrust, which is something Smart Agriculture can help with.”

Stacy Felkar is event co-manager for Olds College’s AgSmart, a two-day event focused on data and technology across the agriculture sector which held its first event in 2019. Felkar worked with Trautman to glean key insights which would allow AgSmart to showcase technology that’s vital to the future of Canadian plant breeding.

“Dawn was key to helping us pull off what we want to be a truly valuable exhibition. She’s very forward thinking looking at the role this technology will play,” Felkar says. “We’re based on the premise that we need to produce food more efficiently and sustainably using Smart Agriculture technology — it’s part and parcel of what we do, and Dawn is a real leader in this and has her finger on the pulse of what’s happening.”

According to Trautman, the second decade of the 21st century will be a defining one in the history of Canadian smart agriculture, provided the gap can be closed through more innovation she’s hoping to enable through pan-Canadian projects led by groups such as Alberta Innovates, which initiate, fund, and manage research and innovation partnerships.

“Places on earth where the population is expected to grow cannot access anymore land to grow food. Smart agriculture is really the only way to unlock the full potential that’s there,” she says.

About Dawn Trautman

  • Birthplace: Edmonton, Alta.
  • Favourite movie: I like movies, but I can’t say that I have an absolute favourite!
  • Favourite food: Dark chocolate 🙂
  • Words to live by/motto: “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” —Maya Angelou

New Farmer Led Research Program Enters Startup Phase

- Person wearing lab coat in a greenhouse

The recently launched Results Driven Agriculture Research (RDAR) is now in the startup phase, a release from the Alberta Wheat and Barley commissions on May 25, says.

The Alberta government arm’s length operation recently held an initial series of outreach sessions with crop and livestock boards, commissions and associations, applied research associations, universities, colleges, funding agencies and private companies engaged in agriculture research. The sessions focused on introducing the groups to RDAR and establishing a platform for ongoing dialogue, the release says.

Gerald Hauer, former executive director of the Livestock and Crops Research branch with Alberta Agriculture and Forestry has been named interim CEO of the new company, the release notes.

The interim board of directors and interim management team are working on  establishing an advisory committee structure which will allow for further cross-sector engagement in building and directing of RDAR, the release says. The advisory model will include Alberta’s farmer boards, commissions and associations and applied research associations. RDAR’s business plan, governance and operating model are also under development.

RDAR is being supported through $37 million in provincial funding annually. Farmers, other governments and the private sector will provide co-funding. It is expected the new company will become incorporated and start funding projects by fall 2020.

Wheat, Barley Groups Call on Feds to Continue Research

- Person wearing lab coat in a greenhouse

As the global pandemic affects research work, the Canadian Wheat Research Coalition (CWRC) and the Canadian Barley Research Coalition (CBRC) are asking Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC) to continue important wheat and barley research activities at AAFC’s western Canadian research stations this year, the groups say in a release.

“We are facing an unprecedented situation with respect to the threat of the COVID-19 pandemic and the safety of researchers and other staff is our top priority,” says Jason Lenz, CWRC chair, in the release. “The universities and private plant breeders have found safe options to conduct their research. We’re confident AAFC can also create a plan to continue critical research.”

The groups say urgent action is required to save the 2020 AAFC field, lab, and greenhouse activities for wheat and barley research projects. These projects are farmer-funded and are critical to the competitiveness of Canada’s agriculture industry, cancelling project activities will have repercussions, the release notes.

“Many of the current projects funded by the CWRC, CBRC, and individual crop commissions are multi-year, multi-site, and multi-cooperator endeavors. The impact of disruptions to this work needs to be considered on a project-to-project and program-to-program basis to minimize the loss of both future productivity and the potential contributions of previous projects.”

A Breed Apart

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Plant breeder Robert Graf. Photo: Hamis Naeem

For more than three decades, Rob Graf’s dedication to wheat breeding in Canada has led to his contribution asprincipal developer of 12 wheat cultivars and co-developer of 12 other wheat and triticale cultivars. He’s now focusing his considerable abilities on winter wheat.

Last fall, Robert Graf, a wheat breeder at Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada’s (AAFC) Lethbridge Research and Development Centre, seeded his 34thyear of plot trials and nurseries.

Graf has headed up AAFC’s winter wheat breeding program since 1999, but he began his career 12 years earlier. Shortly before completing his PhD in plant breeding and agronomy at the University of Saskatchewan, he was hired by the Saskatchewan Wheat Pool, where his focus was primarily on developing Canada Western Red Spring (CWRS) wheat varieties. During that time, he developed three varieties, including McKenzie, the first doubled haploid wheat variety registered and released in North America. It remains Canada’s most successful, privately developed CWRS wheat variety to date.

“It’s no longer grown on any appreciable acres, but it was among the top five CWRS varieties for almost 10 years and has been used extensively as a parent,” says Graf. “Having producers and other breeders see value in what we do is what we strive for — it’s part of what makes us tick.”

Today, Graf works exclusively on winter wheat, primarily of the Canada Western Red Winter (CWRW) class. Although many of the desired characteristics are the same as any other wheat class, such as high yield, excellent agronomics, good disease resistance and the appropriate quality profile, winter wheat varieties also need good cold tolerance to allow them to survive the winter, which presents added challenges for breeders.

“Because winter wheat has a vernalization requirement or, in other words, it needs that cold period during its seedling phase so it can become reproductive, we’re not able to use contra-season [warm winter location] nurseries like spring crop breeders do to speed up the breeding process. That means the breeding cycle is longer for a winter cereal or a fall sown crop,” says Graf.

Focus on Quality Characteristics

One of Graf’s main projects, funded by the cluster program of the Canadian Agricultural Partnership — whose funding partners include the Alberta Wheat Commission, Saskatchewan Wheat Development Commission, Manitoba Wheat and Barley Growers’ Association, Saskatchewan Winter Cereal Development Commission, Winter Cereals Manitoba, and the Western Grains Research Foundation — is to develop field-ready CWRW cultivars for Western Canada. Funding from the Ducks Unlimited Canada Western Winter Wheat Initiative enhances these efforts.

Another project Graf is working on is the development of “premium quality” winter wheat to add more value for producers and processors. “One of the challenges with winter wheat has been marketing,” says Graf. “Historically, we’ve had a couple of quality deficiencies that, if we could correct, would go a long way toward increasing the farm gate price for hard red winter wheat. And by increasing the price, along with the yield advantage that winter wheat already has, I feel it would drive acreage.”

The first characteristic that Graf is trying to improve is protein concentration. “We are working on increasing the protein potential from a genetic standpoint, and we have germplasm that makes us very optimistic that this can be achieved,” says Graf. “We’ve developed several lines that show much better protein concentration along with other desirable traits and are using them as parents for further improvements.”

Graf was recently awarded the 2020 Canadian Plant Breeding and Genetics Award, co-sponsored by the Canadian Seed Trade Association and Germination magazine. Photo: George Clayton.

The second quality characteristic — flour water absorption — has been far more difficult to improve. When flour is milled, the flour absorbs a certain amount of water upon mixing to create dough, but winter wheat generally has lower water absorption than spring wheat, so it produces less dough and therefore fewer loaves of bread; a disadvantage to a baker.

“We’ve been working on this characteristic for over 15 years and finally have some promising lines,” says Graf. “We’re at a point now where we’re crossing high protein lines with those that have improved water absorption to develop varieties that correct both deficiencies. The end result, at some point, may be quality that’s comparable to our premium quality Canada Western Red Spring class.”

If Graf does that it will be something that no one else has tackled, and he already has a line in registration trials that could be a prototype.

Over the past 20 years, Graf and other western Canadian winter wheat breeders have also made a lot of progress incorporating disease resistance into new varieties — characteristics that were rare in winter wheat when he started.

In fact, Graf has a line that was approved for registration in 2019 (W569) that exceeds the requirements for all five priority one wheat diseases; Fusarium head blight, leaf rust, stem rust, stripe rust and common bunt.

“Disease resistance has been a major focus of my program, but I would still say that the resistance package in our Canadian winter wheat varieties is rather shallow. In other words, most of the resistance genes are on their own because we don’t have effective pyramids of a number of genes that would serve as backups. If there’s a race shift for a particular disease it could wipe out the resistance in several varieties, but we’re working very hard on that and making wonderful progress,” says Graf.

Graf has also produced a hard white wheat variety for specialty markets — AAC Icefield — and is working on soft winter wheat for the food processing and ethanol markets.

Changing Landscape

There have been a lot of changes since Graf began his career back in 1987, not the least of which was the introduction of doubled haploid technology in the early 1990s.

“When McKenzie was registered in 1997, it was considered to be ‘biotech wheat,’ but doubled haploid technology is simply regarded as a regular plant breeding process these days, as it should be. There was a lot of excitement at the time and Canadian breeding programs were early to embrace this technology because it speeds up the process dramatically,” says Graf. “Doubled haploidy has made a big difference, particularly in winter wheat.”

So has the development of molecular markers and sequencing of the wheat genome, says Graf.  “We know wheat has over 107,000 genes, and the reference genome identified about four million genetic markers,” he says. “The big challenge now is to associate the traits that we’re interested in with those markers. And along with that, we need an understanding of what the effects and interaction of the various genes are. So, there’s a huge amount of work to be done, but the future is really bright.”

Challenges Ahead

In the future, Graf sees gene editing as a tool that could move the industry forward in many exciting ways, but that doesn’t mean the plant breeder’s job is going to be without its challenges.

“Our ability to very precisely change gene sequences, possibly turning genes on or off, or reengineering defeated disease resistance genes are examples of some of the things being thought about,” he says.

“There are countless possibilities, but plant breeders will still need to incorporate the lines with these changes back into their breeding programs. It also has to be remembered that there are likely to be pleiotropic effects, something that plant breeders deal with all the time. When one thing is changed various other traits are often affected, things you may not expect. A very simple example is as yield is increased, there’s a negative correlation with protein concentration. The plant breeder’s job is to try to shift those correlations as much as possible and expand the boundaries of those relationships.”

Graf also sees challenges in terms of explaining breeding technologies to people who aren’t well informed about science and food production, and determining a new funding model for cereal breeding in Canada.

“Currently, there are value creation discussions going on and I think it’s fair to say producers will be expected to contribute more towards plant breeding,” says Graf. “That’s not necessarily a bad thing since it could enhance the tremendous success of our public breeding efforts; efforts that have been in partnership with various producer groups. At the same time, having worked in private industry, I have first-hand knowledge of the advantages they might bring, and developing a model that encourages private investment while maintaining a strong public presence is important. The question becomes, what is the right public-private balance? How this evolves, and what Canadian cereal breeding looks like in the future, is something we need to get right.”

Climate change is another area where Graf sees challenges for breeders, especially as, with milder winters, the potential exists for new pests to move northwards and diseases to evolve more quickly, but he also sees technology providing a lot of solutions as well.

“Since 2000, we’ve seen shifts in stripe rust races that have higher temperature optima, so they’re much more virulent,” says Graf. “There’s also the well-known threat of Ug99 stem rust races. Those are just a couple of examples that, as plant breeders, we need to be ready for and always be forward looking. With the technologies we’re using now and future technologies such as genomic selection and gene editing, we’ll become more efficient in our breeding efforts, and hopefully bring advancements quicker than ever before.”

To date, Graf is the principal developer of 12 wheat cultivars (nine winter wheats and three spring wheats) as well as co-developer of 12 other wheat and triticale cultivars.

He was recently announced as the recipient of the 2020 Canadian Plant Breeding and Genetics Award, co-sponsored by the Canadian Seed Trade Association and Germinationmagazine.  He received the ASTech Leadership Foundation Award for Innovation in Agricultural Science in 2016, the AAFC Gold Harvest Award for Innovation, Collaboration and Service Excellence, and was co-author of the Canadian Society of Agronomy Best Paper in 2015. Graf has also been awarded Honorary Life Memberships by both the Alberta Seed Growers’ and the Canadian Seed Growers’ Associations.

Starting from Scratch

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In the cannabis sphere, genetics is only the beginning as breeders work to understand the plant and create the next generation of seed.

Greg Baute has a problem. It’s one that many breeders of other major crop kinds wish they had.

“There’s too much genetic diversity in cannabis right now. If you have seeds, because there are no inbred lines, they’re going to be very heterogeneous — all over the place — and in production, you’ll see a range of plant sizes with varying cannabinoid levels. Nothing at all like we see in row crops,” says the director of the under-construction Cannabis Innovation Centre (CIC) based in the Comox Valley of British Columbia.

“For example, the agronomics of corn production all look mostly the same. That’s not the case in cannabis at all. That’s a good problem to have in breeding, but it’s still a problem. We’re just beginning to figure out what diversity we want and take our material in that direction.”

Baute, 33, left a job with Monsanto working in vegetable seed to helm the CIC construction project being undertaken by Aurora Cannabis subsidiary Anandia. He comes from an agricultural family, his parents having had founded the Ontario-based hybrid corn seed company Maizex Seeds.

Greg Baute, Cannabis Innovation Centre director.

For Baute, the legalization of recreational cannabis in October 2018 opened the door to a fascinating new world of breeding discoveries, a world in which breeders are only beginning to unlock the mysteries of a plant they have never before been able to properly research.

“Even in crops that are completely neglected, there’s usually a gene bank curated by a professional. You’ll know where a sample was collected and when. In cannabis, we have nothing like that. It’s a random grab bag of germplasm. The Golden Age of cannabis breeding is literally just beginning.”

Anandia was founded in 2013 by Jonathan Page and John Coleman who saw the need to support the expanding cannabis industry with better science on testing, genetics, and other technical needs.

The Cannabis Innovation Centre will begin operation in the fall of 2019 and will serve as the new headquarters for Aurora’s plant breeding work. The first phase of the Comox project will consist of a 21,000-square-foot greenhouse and a 10,500 square-foot research building that will have offices, lab space, meeting rooms, and also house all the mechanical and electrical systems that support the greenhouse.

An artist’s rendering of the Cannabis Innovation Centre.

Most agricultural crops have had decades (if not centuries) of breeding to develop beneficial traits. Cannabis hasn’t received the same attention by plant biologists and plant breeders because of the historical difficulties in obtaining the appropriate licences. Aurora will be using traditional plant breeding techniques to develop new cultivars that have desirable chemistry, disease resistance, and/or traits that improve industrial cultivation practices.

As far as cannabis seed goes, that last point is key.

As Canada will allow the sale of edible cannabis products starting in December 2019, Baute says varieties that lend themselves to the production of edibles and other products which use cannabis extracts (as opposed to varieties grown for the flowers themselves) represent a major untapped market researchers like him are just beginning to select for.

“If you’re making an edible, for example, it’s still the flower you’re after, but you don’t care what it looks or smells like. That relieves some of the selection pressure as a breeder. You only need to talk to a few producers to know where most of the costs in breeding go, and right now that’s for cloning. It’s labour intensive,” Baute says.

“There are lots of annual crops that can be propagated clonally, but no one does that because seed works so much better. Annual plants have evolved to grow from seed. Everyone is thinking the same thing — the question is how fast we get there. How fast can we make seed that has good enough quality and the desired uniformity that we can use those seeds for large-scale production?”

Trading Scissors for Combines

Right now, cannabis harvesting in North America looks very different from other crop kinds, Baute notes. In U.S. states where cannabis is legal, he says you can already see cannabis production from seed at some scale and producers — especially those harvesting cannabis varieties for their CBD as opposed to THC — are struggling to stay cost competitive.

“They’re harvesting plants with a chainsaw and throwing them through a wood chipper and dragging them to a corn silo to dry. In Canada, for high-end flower, you’re trimming with a pair of scissors and inspecting each one by hand and hand packaging it. For a combine-scale operation, you need seed.”

John McKay, Biagracultural Sciences and Pest Management, Colorado State University

One of the pioneers of high-CBD cannabis varieties in the United States is John McKay of New West Genetics (NWG), which has created the first certified American hemp seed. McKay is the director of genetics for New West and a professor in the Bioagricultural Sciences and Pest Management department at Colorado State University.

The company was founded five years ago when the United States first legalized hemp research and is focused on creating high-yielding, combine harvestable hemp varieties that are adapted to U.S. and newly-legal production environments. NWG announced in March of this year that its proprietary hemp varieties, NWG-ELITE and NWG-RELY, placed in the top of dual-purpose (fibre and grain) trials conducted last summer at the University of Kentucky.

McKay and the NWG team made pilgrimages to Europe and Canada to see what other countries were doing to breed new varieties of hemp, but he says New West’s products are uniquely American.

“It was useful to understand the agronomy angle and see how to breed to maximize yield under those production systems, but there simply hasn’t been enough dollars put into hemp breeding in Canada or Europe for us to gain a great deal of breeding knowledge from them,” McKay says.

“In the U.S., big seed companies spend billions a year on cutting-edge breeding approaches but only invest heavily in crops that are planted on at least 30 million acres. In Europe, it’s largely federal legacy breeding programs that aren’t well funded that have developed and maintained open pollinated grain and fibre varieties over time. We’re actually learning more from other domesticated species where serious technology has been applied and then we’re applying that to hemp.”

For McKay and New West Genetics, one of the best places to look to learn how to breed hemp actually has nothing to do with plant breeding at all.

“You basically have to look to cattle to find how to run an intensive breeding program for a species like cannabis that has both male and female plants,- or are diecious” he adds. “There are some fruit trees that are diecious, but they generally don’t have high-tech breeding programs attached to them. We’re having to look more to the animal model because plant breeders aren’t typically familiar with diecious plants.”

In addition to fibre and grain, NWG is also breeding for large-scale production of non-THC cannabinoids.

With CBD becoming a hot commodity for its use in tinctures, ointments and more, NWG is carving a niche for itself in a market previously untapped.

“Given our regulatory system, right now people are using clonal propagation and manual labour to harvest hemp for CBD production. Where we come in is having these varieties optimized for mechanical processing, but still have good CBD yields on a per dry weight basis and superior yields on an acre basis,” says McKay.

Genetics is Just the Start

Despite the promise held by new varieties of hemp that promise higher CBD levels, Jan Slaski of InnoTech Alberta has a few words of warning.

Hemp breeder Jan Slaski of InnoTech Alberta.

Over the last 17 years, Slaski has been leading research aimed at the introduction and breeding of hemp varieties that suit the needs of the fibre and food industries on the Prairies. To fully realize potential residing within the hemp plant and to ensure whole crop utilization, he assembled a breeding program that includes three domains: breeding and agronomy, fibre processing and product development.

According to Slaski, the excitement surrounding CBD and other cannabinoids produced in the hemp plant will be tempered as producers learn more about just how complicated the process can be when it comes to getting a quality product for processing.

“I get five to eight calls every day from people asking how they can make money on CBD and claiming to have access to high-CBD lines. The fact is, genetics is only one of three factors when it comes to successful CBD production,” he says.

Currently, no varieties of high-CBD hemp are registered to be grown in Canada. Because hemp is simply cannabis that is bred to contain low THC levels (by law, it must contain no more than 0.3 percent THC), hemp producers in Canada looking to sell their product for CBD extraction must use hemp varieties that contain comparatively low levels of CBD, generally in the two percent range.

“For years, very few breeding programs in the world focused on improving CBD levels in industrial hemp varieties. They looked primarily at early maturity, short stature, something that suited the needs of grain growers,” Slaski says.

“I’ve been regularly approached by people claiming to have access to lines with 10 to 15 percent CBD. Health Canada is very firm on what needs to be done to get high-CBD varieties on the list of approved cultivars — three years of field trials in Canada and no more than 0.3 percent THC.”

In other words, it’s going to be a little while before high-CBD hemp varieties are approved in Canada.

Until then, Slaski says producers hoping to capitalize on the CBD from hemp have to think hard about a variety of factors, genetics being just one.

“Growing conditions are very important. Environment influences CBD levels in industrial hemp,” he says.

The other factor is crop management, something Slaski says is often forgotten in the rush to extract CBD from hemp.

“You can lose up to 80 percent if you don’t know what you’re doing, like drying it excessively or not handling it with care.

“High-CBD hemp is grown in the U.S. in an orchard style. Each plant is harvested by hand and then handled and dried in a shed. Everything is manual. Such farming practices are useless at a large commercial scale in Canada due to our large number of acres,” he says.

Greg Baute envisions a future in which new varieties of cannabis are available for just such a purpose.

“The question is how high can you push CBD content without going over that threshold of 0.3 percent THC,” Baute says.

THC vs CBD

When talking about cannabis/ hemp, it’s important to know the difference between these two key cannabinoids.

Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) is one of at least 113 cannabinoids identified in cannabis. THC is the principal psychoactive constituent of the plant and is what causes the “high” feeling that people describe when using certain varieties of cannabis.

Cannabidiol (CBD) is a non- psychoactive cannabinoid. As of 2018, preliminary clinical research on cannabidiol included studies of anxiety, cognition, movement disorders, and pain. Although hemp is low in THC, it typically has higher levels of CBD.

Prairie Wheat Commissions Commit Nearly $18 million to Research in 2018/2019

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The Alberta Wheat Commission (AWC), the Saskatchewan Wheat Development Commission (Sask Wheat), and the Manitoba Wheat and Barley Growers Association (MWBGA) committed a combined $17.9 million to 81 wheat research projects during the 2018/2019 crop year.

The investments will benefit farmers with the development of new wheat varieties with improved genetics along with innovative research into pest management, agronomic practices, and grain storage. The commitments of the three Prairie wheat commissions have helped leverage $76.6 million in total funding for these projects from all funding sources, including the governments of Canada, Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba, as well as universities and private industry.

The funding for the previous crop year includes a commitment to the Canadian National Wheat Cluster (Wheat Cluster), a five-year research agreement worth nearly $25 million which includes funding from Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada through the Canadian Agricultural Partnership’s AgriScience program as well as Sask Wheat, AWC, MWBGA, and seven additional producer and private organizations. The Wheat Cluster is being administered through the Canadian Wheat Research Coalition (CWRC), a partnership of Sask Wheat, AWC, and MWBGA.

“The diversity of projects that Sask Wheat was able to invest in this year on behalf of Saskatchewan wheat farmers will create new opportunities, build on innovative research, and enhance the long-term viability of growing wheat,” said Laura Reiter, Sask Wheat Chair. “Collaborating with AWC, MWBGA, and the organizations participating in the Wheat Cluster enhances our efforts as a commission and strengthens the prospects for Canadian wheat in the global marketplace.”

“Investment in research aimed at improved farm-gate returns is AWC’s top priority,” says Janine Paly, AWC research chair. “With new projects in our portfolio ranging from helping to determine the value of beneficial insects to closing the yield gap through agronomy and strengthening access to premium CWRS varieties, we look forward to seeing results. And now with the CWRC serving as a collaborative investment model, we are able to further maximize value for western Canadian wheat farmers by working alongside our counterparts Sask Wheat and Manitoba Wheat and Barley Growers Association.”

“The MWBGA continues to fund research projects that will improve the profitability of Manitoba wheat growers,” says Fred Greig, MWBGA chair. “The various projects meet the strategic research priorities the board laid out, with research focused on variety development, fusarium head blight, nitrogen and protein management, excess moisture management, and use of plant growth regulators. We are also pleased to work closely with our sister wheat organizations in Alberta and Saskatchewan to further wheat research across Western Canada.”

The commissions committed the following amounts to research in the 2018/2019 crop year:

  • AWC committed $6.6 million to 46 projects, including over $2.6 million to 19 projects under the Wheat Cluster. This includes $282,000 committed to Dr. Brian Beres (Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada) to quantify the yield gaps across the Prairies and to determine opportunities to sustainably improve yield through management practices. This project is also funded by Sask Wheat, MWBGA and Alberta Innovates.
  • Sask Wheat committed over $8.8 million to 48 projects, including over $3.1 million to 15 projects under the Wheat Cluster. A key project will be research into fusarium head blight (FHB) resistance by Dr. Randy Kutcher of the University of Saskatchewan’s Crop Development Centre. This project, which Sask Wheat is providing over $317,000 to over three years, focuses on seeking new sources of resistance for FHB and in understanding the resistance mechanisms. This project is also being funded by the MWBGA.
  • MWBGA committed $2.5 million to 42 projects, including over $933,000 to 16 projects under the Wheat Cluster. This includes funding committed to nitrogen management and a multi disciplinary approach to the development of tools and techniques to manage extreme moisture.
  • The three commissions co-funded 36 of the 81 total projects.

Space – The Newest Frontier in Agriculture

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When the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) launched its first Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) satellite, RADARSAT-1, in 1995, they weren’t thinking about agriculture. But scientists at Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC) saw data streams from earth-orbiting satellites as an opportunity to look at agriculture from a stellar new vantage point. Soon, they were using satellite data steams to run crop models and evaluate the ability of fields to drain.

Fast forward to June 2019 when the CSA launched it’s third generation of SAR satellites, the RADARSAT-Constellation, and agriculture is now one of the primary clients and end-users.

Using Satellite Technology for Agriculture

The RADARSAT-Constellation is a series of three SAR satellites. When linked together, they orbit the earth, providing more frequent coverage and more advanced imaging of our agricultural resources.

Dr. Andrew Davidson, manager of Earth Observation Operations at Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC), explains that there is no better way to obtain national-scale information on the state and trends of agriculture and resource use than from space.

“Satellites can cover way more ground at a much faster pace than humans, drones or aircraft, and the data can be used to measure things such as crop type, vegetation cover and productivity and surface soil moisture conditions,” he says.

These data are correlated with data from aircrafts, drones, and ground collection networks to produce highly accurate measurements of crops and conditions, with the ability to detect changes quickly.

Davidson underlines that satellites provide the kind of timely, reliable and scientifically validated information that is necessary to help scientists, farmers, producer groups as well as policy-makers make good evidence-based decisions to manage their operations while protecting our natural resources.

AAFC’s Earth Observation Operations is based at the Ottawa Research and Development Centre. They are small, but mighty and the amount of data they manage is impressive.

“Satellites provide imagery; but it is the scientists on the ground who turn it into something useful,” says Davidson.

With other AAFC research scientists, they also manage international collaborations and together, AAFC is acknowledged as global experts in optical as well as SAR satellite technology.

What’s in it for Canadian agriculture?

Much of what Dr. Davidson’s team produces are data sets, maps and forecasting tools that can be accessed online through various AAFC web portals. There are also tools and applications for analysing these data so that decision makers can make informed agricultural management decisions.

The Annual Space-Based Crop Inventory, a product of AAFC research, annually maps the crop type of every field in Canada and is used to detect trends in crop planting practices. It is also critical for other applications, such as warning growers of possible threats such as crop diseases. The inventory is also being used by provinces, private sector and academia to determine how crop agriculture is affecting the surrounding environment including lake water quality and honeybee populations.

“These data have opened up the possibility of enhanced decision making in the agriculture sector,” Davidson says. “And it doesn’t stop there; our ability to help meet the informational needs of the sector is only expected to improve as new satellite sensor technologies are launched, brought online, and made available.”

All in all, earth observation research is helping the Canadian agricultural sector thrive and the launch of Canada’s new RADARSAT-Constellation satellites will continue to benefit future generations of Canadians by protecting food production systems and the environment.

More information on the RADARSAT-Constellation Mission can be found on the Canadian Space Agency “What is the RADARSAT Constellation Mission” webpage.

Key Discoveries/Benefits

  • The Canadian Space Agency (CSA) launched its latest Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) satellite, RADARSAT-Constellation, in June 2019.
  • Data from earth-orbiting satellites produce highly accurate measurements of crops and conditions, with the ability to detect changes more quickly.
  • Satellites provide timely, reliable, and scientifically validated information that helps make good, evidence-based decisions to manage farming operations and protect natural resources.

Source: Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada

Saskatchewan Research Council Publishes New Research on GHG Impact of Pulses in Western Canada

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A new study by the Saskatchewan Research Council in collaboration with Pulse Canada highlights the role of peas and lentils in reducing overall greenhouse gas emissions of Western Canadian cropping systems.

The researchers compiled data from over 20 published studies in Western Canada to provide a robust understanding of how peas and lentils reduce GHG emissions by reducing synthetic nitrogen requirements of rotations.

The full study, published in Agricultural Systems, can be accessed here.

Source: Pulse Canada

Crop Scientists Help Crack the Durum Wheat Genome

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Curtis Pozniak is a wheat breeder at the University of Saskatchewan.

A year after University of Saskatchewan researchers played a key role in decoding the genome for the bread wheat variety Chinese Spring, they’ve done it again — this time in durum.

USask researchers played a key role in an international consortium that has sequenced the entire genome of durum wheat—the source of semolina for pasta, a food staple for the world’s population, according to an article published today in Nature Genetics.

“This ground-breaking work will lead to new standards for durum breeding and safety of durum-derived products, paving the way for production of durum wheat varieties better adapted to climate challenges, with higher yields, enhanced nutritional quality, and improved sustainability,” said Luigi Cattivelli of Italy’s Council for Agricultural Research and Economics (CREA).

In an exciting discovery, USask plant breeder Curtis Pozniak, along with University of Alberta scientists Gregory Taylor and Neil Harris, identified the gene in durum wheat responsible for accumulation of cadmium, a toxic heavy metal found in many soils. The USask team discovered how to significantly reduce cadmium levels in durum grain, ensuring the safety and nutritional value of the grain through selective breeding.

The durum wheat genome is four times as large as the human genome. The team has for the first time assembled the complete genome of the high-quality Svevo variety.

“We can now examine the genes, their order and structure to assemble a blueprint that will provide an opportunity to understand how the genes work and communicate with one another,” said Pozniak. “With this blueprint, we can now work quickly to identify genes that are responsible for the traits we select for in our breeding programs such as yield, disease resistance, and nutritional properties.”

The research involved more than 60 scientists from seven countries. The work was co-ordinated by Cattivelli and included corresponding authors Pozniak of USask and Klaus Mayer of the Helmholtz Zentrum München (Germany), as well as researchers Aldo Ceriotti and Luciano Milanesi of Italy’s national research council CNR and Roberto Tuberosa of the University of Bologna (Italy).

Durum wheat is mainly cultivated in Canada, Europe, United States, and South Asia, and remains a key crop for small farms in North and East Africa, as well as the Middle East.

“This is an exciting development for durum farmers as it will mean wheat breeders will be able to produce varieties with improved yields and resistance to disease, pests, and environmental stressors quicker than before,” said Laura Reiter, Chair of the Saskatchewan Wheat Development Commission board of directors, who farms near Radisson, Saskatchewan.

“The investment in this research on behalf of Saskatchewan durum farmers is expected to lead to productivity gains and will allow them to capture opportunities in markets that desire the high-quality grain that Saskatchewan farmers produce,” she said.

Durum wheat, mainly used as the raw material for pasta and couscous production, evolved from wild emmer wheat and was established as a prominent crop roughly 1,500 to 2,000 years ago in the Mediterranean area.

The scientists compared the durum wheat sequence to its wild relative and were able to reveal genes that humans have been selecting over the centuries.  The team uncovered a loss of genomic diversity in durum wheat compared to its wild wheat relative, and they’ve been able to map these areas of loss and precisely recover beneficial genes lost during centuries of breeding.

“We can now see the distinct DNA signatures that have been so critical to the evolution and breeding of durum wheat, enabling us to understand which combination of genes is driving a particular signature and to maintain those target areas of the genome for future breeding improvement,” said Marco Maccaferri, lead author of the manuscript.

As pasta is a staple for the world’s population, industries are asking for more, safer, and higher-quality durum wheat.

“Having this durum wheat high-quality genome sequence enables us to better understand the genetics of gluten proteins and the factors that control the nutritional properties of semolina. This will help to improve pasta quality traits,” said Italian scientist Ceriotti.

Farmer participation needed for Team Alberta grain conditioning study

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Team Alberta is seeking farmer participation for a grain conditioning study that will assess on-farm energy consumption and efficiency of grain drying and conditioning systems.

The data obtained from the grain conditioning project will be a critical source of information for Alberta farmers regarding efficiencies, implementation or expansion of grain conditioning systems. Information gained will also be used for advocacy purposes such as improving programs and policies that seek to reduce the cost burden associated with on-farm grain conditioning in Alberta.

Interested farmers can expect a three-year commitment working closely with experts to install necessary measuring implements, perform data readings and manual logging throughout the drying periods. Participating farmers will have their energy-use monitored and gain valuable knowledge of their system’s efficiency rate, along with individualized recommendations to make operational decisions to reduce costs of their grain conditioning practices.

Team Alberta is seeking farmers who may be drying in the spring for a pilot project that will start in April 2019. For the study launch in July 2019, Team Alberta requires 40 systems and is seeking farmers who operate with one or more systems. All information collected in the study will remain confidential and only aggregated data will be used in final reports.

Team Alberta needs volunteers! Interested farmers are encouraged to complete the form in the link below. Upon completion, farmers will be contacted for an intake interview by our project partners at 3D Energy, an energy engineering, management and project development advisory company.

For further questions regarding the study please contact Shannon Sereda, government relations and policy manager with the Alberta Wheat and Barley Commissions at 403-219-6263 or [email protected].

APPLY NOW TO PARTICIPATE 

Source: Alberta Barley