Providing Farmers the Technology Required to Efficiently Breed Corn Varieties Specifically Adapted to Alternative Cropping Systems
The primary goal of this pilot research and education program is to provide training and experience to a group of farmers that would give them the knowledge necessary to initiate farmer-led corn breeding programs. This goal was to be accomplished via a series of classroom and field-based workshops and via participation in on-farm selection program.
The project was advertised in the fall of 2003 through a mailing to over 300 farmers in Nebraska and western Iowa that were members of the Nebraska Sustainable Ag Society or Iowa Organic Crop Association, Western Branch. A description of the project also was placed on the internet. Approximately 35 applications were received, and from these 20 farmer participants from Nebraska, Kansas, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio were selected.
A one-day classroom workshop was held in March, 2004 and a largely field-based workshop was held in September, 2004. Both workshops were at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln. Eighteen of 20 participants attended the first workshop, and 14 attended the second. Two participants have decided to drop out. Scheduling conflicts prevented four other participants from attending the most recent workshop.
The training at the workshops is being supported by written handouts, a dedicated “Blackboard” website that serves as communication vehicle between the staff and participants and between the participants themselves, and by 10 on-line lessons. One of the on-line lessons is completed, and several others will be completed by the end of the year.
At the second workshop, initial plans were made for the on-farm selection program to be conducted in 2005. Thirteen of the 14 participants that attended that workshop indicated their intent to be active participants in the selection program.
The following were the objectives in the first year of this three-year project:
i) Recruit approximately 20 farmers who could benefit from increased knowledge of modern principles of corn breeding;
ii) Teach key concepts in genetics, plant breeding, and statistics that are necessary for the farmers to be active (versus passive) participants in participatory plant breeding projects.
iii) Conduct two one-day instructional workshops.
iv) Begin development of on-line lessons that will support the instructional goals of this project and that also can be used for other audiences.
v) Produce per se and topcross seed from approximately 300 families from a corn population that will be used in the selection program conducted during the second year of the project.
i) Twenty farmers from 35 applicants were selected to participate in this pilot project in January, 2004.
ii) In March, 2004, a one-day classroom workshop was held. Eighteen of 20 participants were able to attend. Instruction was provided on 14 topics, including the following: Types of corn cultivars, History of corn grain yields in the U.S., Mass selection versus family selection, and Field design and data analysis. To gauge the success of the workshop, both a pre- and post-test of key concepts was administered. Also, a follow-up survey was conducted to assess participant attitudes toward the workshop.
iii) In the summer of 2004, per se and topcross seed from over 300 families from a corn population that will be used in the selection program conducted during the second year of this project was produced. Also, development was initiated of several specialty corn populations that may be of interest to the participants and to other like-minded farmers.
iv) In September, 2004, a largely field-based, one-day workshop was held for the participants. A self-guided tour of a field plot was used to underscore key concepts, such as heterosis, that were presented in the March classroom workshop. As part of the tour, the farmers were provided a manual that explained each entry in the plot and that also included 17 questions to test their knowledge of the key concepts. After the tour, the questions and answers were discussed. The farmer participants also were made aware of numerous public corn varieties that are available to them and were provided instruction in field techniques that will be required in conducting selection experiments in 2005.
v) One on-line lesson entitled “Corn Breeding: Lessons from the Past” has been completed and is housed at the website, http://croptechnology.unl.edu. The text of four other lessons has largely been written.
Impacts and Contributions/Outcomes
A key to farmers becoming active versus only passive members of participatory plant breeding projects is understanding key concepts upon which modern corn breeding is based. Results from testing that was conducted during both workshops indicates the farmers are learning these concepts. Also, the high percentage of the participants wanting to conduct on-farm trials in 2005 indicates a positive attitude toward farmer-developed corn varieties.