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Participatory Plant Breeding for Organic Staple Crops in Illinois

Participatory Plant Breeding for Organic Staple Crops in Illinois

BLOOMINGTON, Ill. – A diverse coalition is working to rebuild a viable regional food system for staple crops in Illinois. The Grand Prairie Grain Guild began as a Facebook group sharing ideas about growing diverse varieties of small grains. Soon the members, comprised of University researchers and Extension Educators, farmers, non-profit organizations, chefs, and bakers, shifted towards boots-on-the-ground plant breeding.

The Grain Guild is applying for funding to create an organic staple crop seed system for the Midwest. If this $2-million-dollar Organic Research and Extension Initiative grant is funded, the project will use winter nurseries, modern plant breeding techniques and modern genetics improved over time through traditional plant breeding to create the system.

The practice of participatory plant breeding for organic grains and beans has emerged as a key part of this project. The goal is to breed resilient varieties that meet the needs of organic farmers for diverse crop rotations, which will lead to more profitable farms. These varieties offer farmers a chance to add value to their crops, and in some cases, these varieties outperform commercial standards. An example is Lexi II wheat, created by Steve Jones, a wheat breeder with The Bread Lab at Washington State University. Jones used a diverse gene pool by crossing wheat varieties and providing seed to farmers who performed in-field selection over a period of three years. The improved variety had the highest yield in a trial against 59 other commercial varieties.

The Grain Guild small grains trial includes plots planted on the research farm at the University of Illinois and a replicated plot on an organic farm in Iroquois County. The corn and bean trials are planted in small blocks or strips on farms across Illinois. Plots are planted with a cone planter and harvested with small plot combines.

The biggest agronomic challenge for the project so far has been excessive rainfall and saturated soils the past two summers, which led to Fusarium infection in small grains, and poor performance of dry beans. A few varieties performed well despite the weather, including Rebellion corn, and Warthog and Banatka hard red winter wheat. Banatka is a cross between landraces from the Republic of Georgia, and research indicates it is among the most Fusarium-resistant varieties of wheat in the world. In 2016, Illinois farmers harvested 7,000 bushels of organic, food grade Warthog wheat with 11.5% protein, good falling numbers (indicative of good elasticity for baking) and other metrics that are important for bakers. Glenn hard red spring wheat has also performed well and typically has protein levels of 13-15%. These two varieties are being blended in the bin to create a consistent all-purpose flour that can be sold into local markets.

Another goal of the project is to determine the extent to which corn can be selected for resilience and nutritional density, and if nutrient-dense corn can succeed in the marketplace. Consumers are indeed asking for nutritious food grown sustainably, and farmers can produce; the challenge then becomes to simultaneously develop these varieties and the markets and infrastructure to support them.

Educating consumers and building markets is the most challenging and important aspect of the project. It requires their thoughts about agriculture and food systems to be re-framed. Members of the GPGG have begun the process of identifying core values for effectively presenting those ideas to people in ways that will resonate with them. Consequently, this project also focuses on cooking classes, taste tests, and testing new recipes that use local grain. Kendall College in Chicago is helping with this work by opening a Bread Lab for testing and evaluating different grains, beans, and oilseeds. Their work will educate students, consumers, chefs and bakers about the potential for using local grain.

Harold Wilken is one example of a Central Illinois farmer who is embracing this movement toward a regional, organic staple crop economy. Harold is building a mill and plans to sell flour into wholesale accounts in Chicago. "Coming from a conventional background I have found a new and profound excitement in being an organic farmer," Wilken said. "I am energized by participating in research and breeding new varieties of corn, beans, and small grains for direct human consumption."

One of the benefits of participatory plant breeding is that it takes a holistic approach, and while this is slow and difficult, it has tremendous value because it addresses root causes and offers a new vision for sustainable food systems based on the values of diversity, nurturing, cooperation, independence, and sharing. Grains as a fresh whole food can provide nutrition to people that counter the trend toward a population that is overfed and undernourished. That is ground zero for the local food movement and a place where farmers who want to add value to their crops can engage consumers. The relationships that are needed to support viable regional food systems will also be able to provide a living wage to farmers and create resilient, thriving farms.

The GPGG currently has 285 members from 9 states, and it represents a valuable resource for learning more about innovative practices that are overcoming the longstanding barriers to developing local food systems.

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