Northeast Organic Wheat; an extension program for on-farm crop improvement in organic systems and local market partnerships
Rationale: Organic farmers in the Northeast have minimally benefited from the yield increases of modern wheat cultivars bred for conventional systems with agrochemical protectants, in weather and soil conditions vastly different from ours. Nutrition and flavor are not key traits in modern cultivars but are a primary concern for value-added organic markets. Although farmers are the original breeders, plant breeding is a lost art for today’s farmers. There are no public wheat breeders in New England.
Performance Target – Of 120 growers who participate in the program, 60 will trial new grain varieties on over 1,000 organic acres, resulting in increased yield, quality, sustainability and profit from improved genepools adapted to organic systems. Of the 60, at least 24 will trial and select grains, and use promising wheats as the basis of enhanced direct market partnerships with local bakers.
‘Northeast Organic Wheat’ will conduct a participatory organic wheat trialing and selection program to address Northeast growers’ unmet needs for varieties adapted to our local conditions and markets. A working group of organic farmers, wheat breeders, extension, millers and bakers will identify goals, trial promising world-wide varieties, and select the superior wheat populations for traits contributing to yield, disease resistance and quality in organic systems. Criteria will include: height for weed competition, yield as measured by grain weight per plant, health as an indicator of resistance to local diseases and resilience to weather extremes. Flour will be evaluated for nutritional value, loaf volume and flavor.
This project will train farmers in the knowledge and practical skills of on-farm trialing and selection to re-invigorate superior landraces, to adapt diverse wheat populations to NE organic systems, to identify superior modern wheat varieties best adapted to organic systems, and to lay the foundation to develop new uniform varieties with consistent quality for artisan bakers. We will disseminate our methodologies, improved wheat genepools and results to researchers, cooperative extension, organic farmers, and foster regional market linkages with millers and bakers.
This project represents a community-based approach to strengthen our NE regional grain supply.
a) Core 18 member breeder-extension-farmer-baker team identify key selection goals, establish at least one experimental trial plot per state to increase genetic diversity using existing ‘composite-cross genepools’ that combine elite landraces genotypes crossed with superior modern cultivars,
b) Of 120 participating farmers, at least 60 are trained in on-farm wheat trialing and selection, and strengthen community seed networks by exchange of germplasm and practical breeding and wheat systems knowledge and skills.
c) 24 organic farmers establish strip-trials of promising varieties to screen on their own organic farms,
d.) 24 farmers, 12 artisan bakers and a laboratory cooperate in selecting for wheat quality by conducting flour quality and taste-tests.
Each state participating in Northeast Organic Wheat has generated a local initiative coordinated with the larger regional network.
The barriers we seek to overcome include: lack of data comparing wheat varieties in local conditions, lack of variable genepools for on-farm selection for locally adapted varieties, lack of heritage wheat varieties available on a commercial scale (except Red Fife) and minimal infrastructure for wheat processing and milling on typical organic farms. Market demand is high.
1) Increase genetic diversity of wheat with landraces and ‘composite-cross genepools’
2) Team-building, conferences and training for on-farm wheat trialing and selection, strengthen community seed networks
3) Conduct On-farm Trials and Selection
4) Test Baking Quality
Our first year accomplishments that build towards performance targets include:
Activities – Target 1:
Increasing Genetic Diversity
To assess the needs for Maine grain production for local markets, interviews were conducted with Maine organic growers and artisan bakers interested in increasing grain production. Results of our interviews indicated the market demand far surpasses the local supply, and that barriers include lack of US sources for locally-adapted cold-hardy wheat varieties with good disease and lodging resistance , minimal local processing and milling capacity and pest-free cold storage facilities for grains or flour. Bakers are interested in heritage wheat varieties due to their reputation for superior flavor and historic value, but have difficulty sourcing enough Maine-grown grains and look forward to increased availability.
122 spring wheat varieties and early progenitors were planted at our research and demonstration site at the MOFGA Common Ground farm in Unity, Maine spanning wild wheat, T dicoccon from Ethiopia to Italy and India, einkorn (T. monococcun) from France and Turkey, ancient biblical durums from the southern Fertile Crescent, bread wheat (T. aestivum) biodiversity from the Trans-caucasus region where bread wheat evolved and related sub-species T. carthlicum. T. spelta. 1800s Vermont-bred varieties from Cyrus Pringle were planted. Popular modern wheat varieties such as AC Barrie were planted as a control. In addition, 5 cooperating farmers planted small-scale spring trials, and 1 large-scale trial. 35 farmers planted small-scale winter wheat trials and grow-outs in the fall of 2008.
The highest yielder and most disease resistance was Siberian Spring wheat. The farmer-bred ‘Dylan’ from North Dakota and Cyrus Pringle’s Champlain (bred in 1870s Vermont) second place. Visit: growseed.org for full trial result data for: tillers per plant, heads per tiller, average seed with per 5 typical heads, weight per 1,000 seeds.
NOW researched Vermont’s heritage wheats, and discov ered the important plant breeding work of Cyrus Pringle, a late 1800s VT plant breeder. We search the GRIN genebank and sent to Heather Darby and Jack Lazor all of the Pringle wheats. In addition we sent Heather the same varieties of landrace wheats that we sent to NY-NOFA. Our goal is to conduct parallel trials in multiple locations.
In order to better understand the needs of organic grain growers and artisan bakers in New York State, questionnaires were distributed at baker and grower meetings. Results from questionnaires and additional telephone interviews indicate that very little acreage in the state is planted to common wheat; spelt has largely replaced wheat in organic grain rotations. However, due to the increasing demand for organic wheat and for locally produced food, interest in growing wheat is high among organic growers. Traits of most importance to growers include yield, good straw production, baking qualities, and disease and lodging resistance. Growers were interested in a broad array of wheat types, but particularly heritage wheat varieties (specifically Red Fife), spelt, and hard red spring and winter varieties. A subset of growers was primarily interested in emmer. Major constraints include difficulties in sourcing seed and lack of marketing infrastructure, local milling capacity, and storage and seed-cleaning and processing equipment. Bakers were also interested in a broad array of wheat, but particularly in hard red, hard white, and heritage varieties. Most were unfamiliar with spelt and emmer, but expressed interest in experimenting with them. Major constraints are the lack of locally grown wheat, the cost of flour, lack of local milling capacity (4 of the 13 bakers contacted had mills), and low storage capacity for flour (requiring weekly delivery). Potential demand for locally grown wheat is high: the majority of bakers indicated they could use over 1,500 lbs of flour a week.
In terms of germplasm evaluation, 25 hard red spring wheat varieties (a mix of heritage varieties and lines from the Midwestern US, Canada, and Europe) were obtained for the project from the National Small Grains Collection. These were grown out in small plots in south central NY on the farm of the NOFA-NY coordinator of the project (Chenango County). Characterization and evaluation of this material is ongoing, and will be reported on at the wheat workshop to be held at the NOFA-NY annual winter conference in January 2009. This fall, small plots of 25 heritage winter wheat varieties and four emmer varieties (from the New York State heritage wheat collection and the National Small Grains Collection) were planted on the coordinator’s farm. In addition, a grower-cooperator in the Finger Lakes region (Yates County) grew out six emmer varieties obtained from the Carrington Research Center of North Dakota State University. The bulked material will be planted out in field-scale strip plots in spring 2009 for characterization and evaluation.
Should the germplasm evaluation identify a heritage variety or varieties of interest, particularly in terms of taste and baking quality, the potential exists, through cooperation with the organic wheat breeding program at Washington State University, for creation of crosses between heritage and modern varieties and subsequent selection by growers for high-quality, high-performing cultivars.
We trialed 10 heritage varieties at Crabapple Farm, Tevis Robertson, Chester, MA, in spring, 2008. 96 heritage winter wheat varieties were planted at the UMass Organic Research Farm with Ruth Hazzard, and at the Cold Brook Farm in Wendel. We were able to access varieties from the collection of Nikolai Vavlov, the renowned Russian plant explorer who combed remote villages in Europe, the Mideast and North Africa for important wheat biodiversity. We will work over the duration of the project to grow-out and evaluate this rare genetic material, many varieties of which are on the verge of extinction.
The interest in heritage wheat has burgeoned. When we initially approach artisan bakers, not one had heard of heritage wheat. Nothing but Red Fife was commercially available. In a few short months, the Wheatberry Bakery established a wheat and grain CSA in cooperation with the New England Small Farm Institute. ‘ NOW contributed varieties for their initial trials. The Hungary Ghost Bakery in Northampton distributed 100 packets of heritage and modern wheat varieties to their customers to grow backyard ‘wheat patches’, to restore a local connection to wheat production. Eli Rogosa co-taught a workshop at their bakery on the history of wheat.
Activities – Target 2
Workshops and Conferences
A bread and wheat ‘Kneading’ conference was conducted mid-summer, organized by a cooperating team of bakers and farmers in Skohegan, Maine which hosted Dr. Steve Jones, Steve Zwinger, Elizabeth Dyck-NYNOFA, Eli Rogosa, Jack Lazor and local farmers for workshops and a round-table discussion on how to increase local production.
A workshop was conducted by Dr. Steve Jones at MOFGA, with a field tour of the MOFGA Wheat Variety Trials, with attendance of about 85 people.
The MOFGA Common Ground Fair hosted Eli Rogosa’s wheat workshop for 85 participants all of whom received samples of Maine Heritage Banner Winter Wheat to grow-out. A stunning display of Wheat Biodiversity was exhibited at the Fair. See: growseed.org/education.html for photos.
A March, 2009 wheat conference is being planned for Maine.
To promote information exchange between growers, bakers, and consumers and to increase capacity for wheat production and processing, a field day was held in July in the Hudson Valley on the farm of a grower-cooperator (Dutchess County). The 85 participants viewed wheat production, seed-cleaning and milling techniques and tasted breads made from varieties currently grown at the farm. Bread made from a soft wheat variety was included in the tasting. Interest in using heritage soft white and red wheats, the traditional wheats used in bread-making in colonial New York, is rekindling. This could have a significant impact on wheat production in New York, since growing conditions are more conducive to soft rather than hard wheat production. Information sheets on organic wheat and spelt production and setting up a replicated wheat variety trial on-farm were written and have been disseminated to interested growers.
Activities – Target3
Of the 122 varieties trialed at the MOFAG site, about 30% of the highest yielding, most robust and disease resistant plants were harvested. Future multiplications will use this on-farm selected material.
A replicated trial of 21 heritage soft white and red winter wheat varieties developed in NY State was planted at the Cornell Willsboro Farm in northern NY (Essex County). Replicated strip trials of modern hard red winter wheat varieties were established on two farms: one in western New York (Erie County), the other in Northeastern Pennsylvania (Montour County). The five varieties trialed (3 per farm) were selected after consultation with the cooperating farmers, Canadian organic growers, and NOW colleagues. A field-scale demonstration of three of the varieties was also planted on a farm in western NY (Orleans County). In addition, small plot demonstrations of winter wheat varieties, both heritage and modern cultivars, were established on three farms and a community garden in central and eastern NY (Otsego, Madison, Schenectady, and Delaware Counties).
Activities -Target 4
Maine and Vermont
Baking trials of ancient emmer and einkorn wheat was conducted with the Trukenbrod Bakery. Results of the initial baking quality tests demonstrate that emmer and einkorn have excellent potential to make a delicious sour dough artisan bread. John Melquist the trial baker reports: ‘In future trials we will keep careful notes about time, temp, and proportions and will try different methods, using a “control” of each recipe with AC Barrie for valuable info on how the different flours absorb water, and to compare extensibility and elasticity of each. The Tukenbrod goal is to eventually produce both a good flatbread that puffs up nicely, and a loaf that rises on a par with modern whole wheat bread (made like Trukenbrod anyway, not like the drier, store-bought version of whole wheat bread.).’ See: growseed.org/trukenbrod.html for photo-documentation.
Flour quality and taste testing on promising wheats identified through trialing are planned for 2009.
Interest in “locally grown bread” is high throughout New York State among growers, bakers, and consumers. Information provided by growers and bakers indicates the project in New York needs to focus on 1) identifying, sourcing, and bulking seed of wheat types and varieties adapted to local growing conditions and markets; 2) helping the grower/baker community to develop needed production, processing, and delivery infrastructure; and 3) helping develop marketing strategies, potentially including grower-baker partnerships and direct grower-consumer relationships through grower cooperatives and grain CSAs.