Restoring Canadian seed diversity, one farm at a time

September 17, 2020

All across the country, farmers are restoring Canadian seed diversity. Even here, on this rooftop farm.

Restoring Canadian seed diversity: This is a rooftop farm. A cement path runs down the middle of crops being grown in short but wide boxes.
Photo courtesy of Avling Kitchen and Brewery

FIRST PUBLISHED by Avling Kitchen and Brewery: Aug. 7, 2020 | See original article here.

Quality seeds are hard to come by. Not just this year, when we all suddenly became home gardeners and seed companies struggled to meet demand, but on a much larger scale—in good times and bad.

Canadian farmers who care about sustainable practices face a number of barriers to running regenerative, organic farms. Our climate is harsh, and industry margins are thin for everyone. Avoiding synthetic fertilizers and paying a living wage only heightens these challenges. And, as many amateur gardeners have recently learned, it’s not always easy to find good seeds. Farmers too have a hard time sourcing seeds that fit our climate and soils, that suit organic farming practices, that produce consistent and delicious fruits and vegetables, and that aren’t the same old varieties every other farmer grows.

We are losing Canadian seed diversity. We support the preservation of heritage Canadian seed diversity.

Aabir Dey, SeedChange, on restoring Canadian seed diversity

“We are losing Canadian seed diversity,” notes Aabir Dey, the program director at The Bauta Family Initiative on Canadian Seed Security, a program of the non-profit SeedChange. “We support the preservation of heritage Canadian seed diversity. That’s the baseline level. The next step is improving the quality and quantity of seed diversity. And the third piece is creating new diversity.”

The Bauta Initiative works towards these goals by providing education for farmers and running seed trials and breeding programs with partner organizations across Canada. At Avling, we’re always keen to partner with anyone working to improve the farming ecosystem, and we’re proud to be part of the Bauta seed trials.

The Bauta Initiative research trials are innovative because they’re run directly with farmers and are designed to determine what crop works best for farmers in each region of the country. In Ontario, the seed trials are run in coordination with the Ecological Farmers Association of Ontario (EFAO).

“Farmers are curious about which crops grow really well on their farm,” says Rebecca Ivanoff, the EFAO’s seed program manager. “So, we work with them to create variety trials. Through Bauta, this year we’re doing trials of radicchio, red carrots, orange carrots, and rutabaga.”

The EFAO counts over 500 farmers as members—from rooftop farms like Avling’s to market vegetable gardeners, field croppers, and large livestock operations—and many of them are eager to participate in these trials. Avling’s own garden team planted a variety of carrots and radicchio earlier this year as part of the EFAO vegetable trials. Along with the other participating farms, we’ll be evaluating the crops across a number of metrics, including yield, pest and disease resistance, cold hardiness, appearance, and, of course, flavour.

By compiling results from across the country, the EFAO and Bauta Initiative hope to provide farmers with valuable information—and seeds—going forward. There’s no one right seed across the country, but farmers will know which work well for their particular soil, climate, and needs, and gain greater access to them.

In addition to the vegetable trials, the Bauta Initiative also facilitates wheat trials. Though the wheat trial program has yet launch on a widespread level in Ontario, it has made it to select farms, where it serves largely to spread the story and vision. Among these are the garden at Pearl Morissette, where the restaurant’s baker will experiment with making bread using the small crop when ready, along with Avling, where it will undoubtedly find its way into the brewery someday soon.

“These are crops that farmers are breeding, and that story of farmers developing new varieties hasn’t happened since the 1930s or ’40s,” says Dey. “One of the really lovely things about Avling is that, because they’re so open, they can be more experimental and serve as a showcase for other people interested in this work.”

No doubt, pushing the boundaries of what’s possible while contributing to our community in tangible ways is what we’ve always aimed to do. Developing vegetable and wheat varieties on our roof that we can eventually give to other farmers to grow at scale? Well, that’s a plus, too.

Avling Kitchen and Brewery runs a rooftop farm in Leslieville, Toronto.