Bringing Small-Grain Variety Development and Selection onto Organic Farms

Project Overview

Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 2002: $72,953.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2004
Matching Non-Federal Funds: $33,069.00
Region: North Central
State: North Dakota
Project Coordinator:
Dr. Patrick Carr
Montana State University

Annual Reports


  • Agronomic: oats, wheat


  • Education and Training: demonstration, extension, farmer to farmer, on-farm/ranch research, participatory research
  • Production Systems: general crop production


    Wheat and oat cultivars were compared for growth traits on four certified organic farms in Minnesota and North Dakota over a two-year period. Growth varied across years and locations, but high-ranking cultivars for grain yield and quality were top performers at two or more locations in both years. Grain yield and quality generally were inferior for old cultivars compared with modern cultivars. Scoring tools were developed by organic farmers and cooperating researchers that can be used to identify cultivars adapted to organic environments. A working group has formed that is dedicated to crop cultivar development and selection in organic systems in the north central region.


    North Dakota leads the nation in planted acreage and production of spring wheat (Triticum aestivum L. and T. turgidum L.), oat (Avena sativa L.), and other spring seeded small-grains (NASS, 2004). North Dakota also is the leading domestic producer of organic grain crops (Economic Research Service, 2003). Minnesota is third behind North Dakota and Montana in organic grain production. These three states produced almost 35% of the organic grain crop grown domestically in 2001. Almost 25% of the organic grain crop was produced by Minnesota and North Dakota alone in that same year.

    Small-grain cultivar adaptation studies typically are located in environments where synthetic fertilizers and biocides are used. As a result, organic farmers generally grow modern cultivars that were not developed and selected in environments where organic production methods are used. Many of these farmers would prefer to have access to modern cultivars that are developed and selected specifically in organic environments (D. Podoll, personal communication, 2002). However, such cultivars are not available. A few organic farmers grow cultivars developed prior to the widespread use of synthetic fertilizers and biocides because they believe older cultivars are better adapted to organic environments than modern cultivars.

    The adaptation of small-grain cultivars under organic management has been considered in Europe. Richards (1988) compared grain yield and other traits of six oat cultivars in a field transitioning to organic management in Scotland during 1987. He concluded that ranking of the cultivars for yield was similar to the ranking in fields managed conventionally (i.e., using synthetic agrichemicals), with one exception. Yield of the shortest and possibly least-competitive cultivar was lower relative to the yield of other cultivars when grown under organic management.

    Fourteen barley (Hordeum vulgare L.) cultivars were compared under conventional and organic management in Sweden during 1983 (Rydberg, 1986). Weed biomass production was greater when early maturing cultivars were grown rather than late maturing cultivars, but the relative ranking of early and late maturing cultivars for grain yield, protein content, test weight, and kernel weight was unaffected by management system. Results of this study suggest that conducting small-grain cultivar studies in organic environments may be unnecessary since the relative ranking of cultivars for selected grain traits can be extended from conventional to organic systems in some environments.

    Nine spring wheat cultivars were compared under conventional and organic management in Poland during 1989 and 1991 (Poutala et al., 1993). No differences in yield occurred among the cultivars when managed organically, while yields were different between some of the cultivars when managed conventionally. However, cultivar selection was not affected by management system since the highest yielding cultivars under conventional management also performed well under organic management.

    Small-grain cultivar performance has been compared under organic management elsewhere in Europe (e.g., Samuel and Young, 1989; Storey et al., 1993; Goodling et al., 1999). Cultivars that are adapted to organic environments were identified in these studies. Unfortunately, none of the cultivars are grown in North America. These cultivars probably are not adapted to growing conditions in the north central region. Moreover, some of the studies were conducted at only one location in a single year (e.g., Rydberg, 1986; Richards, 1988) and are of limited scientific value. Other studies compared cultivar performance in fields in transition to organic management and were not in certified organic fields (e.g., Richards, 1988).

    No North American study comparing small-grain cultivar performance in environments managed organically has been published, based on a thorough review of the literature. Likewise, no published North American research exists which supports or refutes the belief held by some organic farmers that cultivars developed and selected prior to the widespread use of synthetic agrichemicals are better adapted to organic environments than modern cultivars developed and selected where synthetic fertilizers and biocides are used.

    Cultivar adaptation studies that include adequate replication across time and space are needed to test the hypothesis held by many crop scientists that there is no need to conduct cultivar studies under organic conditions since cultivars are developed for wide geographic regions and generally perform well regardless of the management system.

    Project objectives:

    Develop scoring tools and skills needed for cooperating farmer and university researcher/educator teams to assess small-grain cultivar performance in purchased low input/organic environments.

    Identify small-grain cultivars from existing germplasm that are best adapted to purchased low-input/organic environments.

    Form a multi-state farmer-to-researcher working group on breeding and selecting small-grain cultivars for purchased low-input/organic environments.

    Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.